Visiting planners roll up sleeves |

Visiting planners roll up sleeves

Don Cohen

Vail Daily, Vail Colorado COWhat would a labor crunch look like if the worrisome trends we’re seeing in rising housing costs and a tightening work force continue?The first early warnings would come from smaller retailers who, beyond worrying about seasonal help, would have a tough time finding permanent employees. There might be some smaller businesses that end up closing their doors as the combination of high rents and paying higher wages wipes out their profit margins. Larger retail operations might find themselves dealing with a worker shortage by scaling back store hours. Classroom sizes could grow larger as teacher positions go unfilled. Service and repair call backlogs would stretch from days into weeks as skilled technicians become increasingly harder to find. New construction costs would rise as builders continue to feel upward wage pressure importing labor from out of the county and paying existing workers higher wages. And municipal budgets would start feeling the squeeze too as towns, special districts and the county would have to pay top dollar to recruit and retain workers for critical jobs in public safety, water and transportation.Don’t think this could happen? It’s already starting. It is against this backdrop of increasing concern from our business and civic leaders that Eagle County will be hosting eight national experts this week who are members of the Urban Land Institute (ULI). The ULI was founded in 1936 and is the premier association of land planners, architects, transportation planners and developers with over 30,000 members in the United States and 88 countries.This panel of experts all donate an entire week of their time to focus on community land use issues. In our case the topic is work force housing: keeping affordability for the middle class in Eagle County. Although each member of what’s called the advisory services panel comes for free, the cost of underwriting the weeklong project is expensive.I would like to thank Harry Frampton, who through the Vail Valley Foundation is the principal underwriter. Harry is the past president of the ULI and was a great advocate in securing this prestigious project assignment.The study area includes all the Eagle County towns along the I-70 corridor (Basalt and El Jebel were not included, as they are in the Roaring Fork economic area). As a true community-wide effort, all the towns and the county have provided invaluable planning support and funding assistance.This is not a “let’s have a meeting for a couple of hours and hit the slopes” kind of event. From the time the panel arrives on Sunday evening, until their report to the community on Friday, the panel experts can expect 12-plus-hour workdays. As they look at all the issues of work-force housing, they will be digesting a 100-page briefing book, seeing presentations given by the towns and economic council, and in an intense one-day process, interview over 50 of our community’s top movers and shakers, from developers and land planners to the heads of the hospital, school district, non-profits and larger commercial businesses.They will then take two days to filter what they’ve learned and synthesize their findings into a report they will give live Friday from 8 to 10 a.m. at the Cascade Village Theater.I, along with many others, will be eagerly awaiting to hear the perceptions, insights and recommendations of these experts. While there are many aspects of our work-force situation similar to other communities, there are unusual twists to our geography and seasonal economy that I’m sure will present the panel with some unusual challenges.Underwriting the ULI Advisory Services Panel is one of several highly positive and proactive steps that are starting to take place. Recently, Eagle County kicked off a blue-ribbon housing commission to study these same issues, and a similar transportation collaborative group is soon to be formed. Additional data research from outside consulting firms and from the Economic Council will also continue in 2007 to provide our community leaders with better information to base community planning decisions on.I invite you to join me, along with other Eagle County community members, this Friday at the Cascade Village Theater from 8 to 10 a.m.. The event’s free and, I suspect, will be very thought-provoking.Don Cohen, executive director of the Economic Council of Eagle County, can be reached at

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