What Vail should do
A little over a year ago, the Aspen City Council retained a consulting firm to examine downtown retail conditions. This came on the heels of three years of declining sales tax revenues and the sense that the downtown was losing its economic and social viability.The focus of this study was on the retail environment and retail performance. Three objectives were identified: quantify and characterize the current retail position and trends; document the community’s goals for the downtown; develop strategies for stimulating retail growth.The process included workshops plus interviews with local merchants, property owners, marketing professional, City Council and interested citizens. Formal input was also solicited from various organizations, such as the Aspen Chamber and Resort Association. The final report was presented to the Aspen City Council in January 2004.The study compared Aspen with other resort communities and discovered that Steamboat Springs is the only major resort to experience continued retail growth since 2000. In trying to identify the reasons for Aspen’s decline, comments were solicited. They included: the downtown is losing its soul; lack of downtown vibrancy; loss of unique shopping experience; lack of entertainment; loss of night life, difficulty for start-up businesses; high vacancy; high rent. Sound familiar?They also indicated that retail is a reactive business. It responds to economic and demographic changes and reflects them. The conclusion was that there are three categories of influence: national trends, regional trends, local or resort factors.National trends are mostly related to fluctuations in the national economic conditions and pressure on the national and international travel and tourism marketplace. They also reflect the aging of the customer and the resort itself and the change in business climate and attitudes.Regional trends refer to the diversity of the mountain economies as the shift in customers occurred. For example, no longer are these resorts reliant solely on visiting skiers. Now the local residents and second-home owners are affecting the types of goods and services that must be provided. Additionally, as communities develop around the major resorts, they also create competition for retail sales.Then there are local and resort factors. “Hot” beds have been lost as properties have been turned into condos, time shares, etc. Local workers have moved to the “suburbs.” High rents have made business survival a challenge. Lack of collaboration, cooperation and representation has resulted in the absence of focus and consensus necessary to address these issues.They also concluded that resort retail is more than a necessary convenience. Resort retail requires a blend of sociability, diverse activities, pedestrian linkages and ambiance.I’ll take this statement straight out of the report because I couldn’t think of any way to say it better: “Good retail centers are comfortable, they attract a wide variety of people, they support multiple civic, retail and social functions and they are intriguing, attractive environments. In short, they are places where guests and residents want to congregate, where they want to stay beyond the mere function requirements of their visit.”What a mouthful! But there’s more. They must also have good signage and engage participants with a sense of the place’s history and roots. The storefronts must be inviting and they should also be “part of the show.”And another quote: “When a place has character, when its signage works, when its storefronts and public spaces are allowed to experiment and change, it communicates that this is a place that people care about, and this is a place that is inviting.”One of the most notable conclusions was that there has to be a balance between preservation and change. Heavy public regulation tends to stifle the forces that drive the necessary changes in the marketplace to cause the dynamic tension inherent in all evolving business scenarios.The final three directives ring clear for probably any retail area in the world: attract more destination guests; capture more of the existing market; and create a more effective offering.Well, that’s all well and good for Aspen. Yet unless I’m missing something, we could copy this report, make a few minor modifications and start down the process of solving our own challenges with the retail community in Vail.But how does that happen? The No. 1 goal set forth in Aspen was to get organized. For Aspen, the first step was the hiring of a downtown catalyst. There were 42 applicants lined up applying for that role. And a new job was created with the mandate of “coalescing efforts to recharge the city’s downtown core.” The new hire will report to a three-member committee of city and business representatives.They aren’t the only ones. Durango is just now posturing themselves to do the same thing. They are interviewing 12 consultants to study market trends and economic revitalization. So what about us? The business community has suggested on several occasions that Vail go down the same road. The most recent proposal came in the form of a request for a business improvement district – a goal that has been set out as No. 2 for Aspen. If the idea had taken hold, an administrator would have been part of the package and the very functions described above would have fallen under that job description.Unfortunately, the business improvement district idea didn’t gather a lot of support. Merchants didn’t want more taxes, although we talked about rolling the current business license dollars over as the initial funding mechanism. The business community wanted control, and the town of Vail didn’t want to relinquish any. And on it went.But with or without a business improvement district, the time has come to consider the concept of hiring someone to coordinate the needs of the business community. We have to look at where we are and where we want to go. We then need to implement whatever plan we agree on. It should be done by someone who has that as their job description and sole focus. And it must be done by someone with training in that area. Our future is at stake here. All of the pretty new buildings and streets will be for naught if we don’t have a plan for maximizing their potential. Do your part: call them and write them. To contact the Town Council, call 479-1860, ext. 8, or e-mail email@example.com. To contact Vail Resorts, call 476-5601 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For past columns, vaildaily.com-columnists or search:ferry. Kaye Ferry is a longtime observer of Vail government. She writes a weekly column for the Daily.