What’s going right, wrong with our place | VailDaily.com

What’s going right, wrong with our place

Cliff Thompson
Daily file photoIn a place like Eagle County, it's not hard to get out of the middle of town and into the quiet places.

When Vail Town Councilman Dick Cleveland convened a Vail economic summit for local businesses, he knew it would be a pretty tense meeting. Businesses in Vail, after all, have been struggling through a changing economy, and things have not been improving.

Sales-tax collections, which tend to mirror local economic activity, are down, and their rate of growth has been slowing for nearly a decade.

In Vail Village, fewer destinations skiers are booking hotels than in years past while empty storefronts show the result of increasing downvalley competition. Business as usual doesn’t appear to be working, many merchants have said, and the meeting was called to explore what needs to change.

Ironically last season’s combined skier count for Vail and Beaver Creek, 2.3 million, is the largest ever recorded, indicating, perhaps, the profile of the typical skier and/or snowboarder have changed, as well as their spending habits.

Aim to fix

Cleveland attempted to deflect some of the tension early on by holding up a flack vest, saying he would don it if necessary.

But the topic was serious, indeed, attracting 75 members of the Vail business community for the first of what is expected to be many meetings aimed at attempting to fix what ails Vail’s economy.

A two-part, open-topic collaborative process outlined what Vail is doing right and what it is doing wrong. As might be expected, a lot of frustration was vented.

Cleveland suggested everyone look at themselves first.

“Everybody wants to change everyone else,” he said. “That’s going to be a tough nut to crack.”

The venting appeared to aimed primarily at Vail Resorts, which operates the ski resort, as well as the municipal government and its regulations, the arrival of big-box stores, the town’s growing old, landlords, even the Internet.

“I know there is distrust between the business community and the town of Vail,” Cleveland said. “My solution is to try and talk about it.”

A lot of talk

And for two hours there was a lot of talk.

“The problems (with Vail) run deeper than just empty storefronts,” said lodge owner Bob Fritch, adding he attempted to rent a retail space for $54 a square foot a month and was unable to fill it for more than a year.

Colleen McCarthy of the Baggage Cheque pointed a finger squarely at town government, saying some of Vail’s problems may lie in the fact there is a “lame duck” Town Council, as five of seven seats are subject to reelection.

“We need something done yesterday”,” she said.

“The world is geared around Wal-Mart,” added longtime Vail retailer George Knox of the Moose’s Caboose. “We need to bring people here.”

Pete Feistman suggested part of the change in the business dynamic has come from Vail Resorts’ objective of getting more dollars from the skiers who visit town.

“They’ve been successful and have done a better job of it than the Vail business community,” he said, adding the decline in area business could be in part attributed to that factor.

‘Too many roadblocks’

Part of the solution is redevelopment of the aging properties in town, some of which are 40 years old, but that’s not easily accomplished.

“We need to expedite development,” said Pam Stenmark of the Evergreen Lodge. “We have too many (regulatory) roadblocks.”

Vail Resorts’ Bill Jensen suggested the town government consider relaxing its regulations ” while adding one more.

“We’re working with ordinances and guidelines developed with lessons learned in the ’60s and ’70s. Things change,” he said. “The town should consider relaxing some of its policies.”

Jensen also suggested the town impose an impact fee on landlords who don’t fill storefronts and leave them vacant.

“At some point rents will start to moderate,” he said.

Jensen and other community leaders, meanwhile, were angrily chastised by second-home owner James Unland for not collaborating monetarily or sharing marketing information for the greater benefit.

“A hospital without patients is worthless,” he said. “Your asset value is the desire (on the part of tourists) to come here. All this stuff here is junk if people don’t come here. This is a small darn town. You should be sharing information.”

‘We’re all in this together’

“We’re not going to solve any problems tonight,” Cleveland said. “We’re all in this together. The only way to solve this is together.”

“Maybe our spirit is broken and we need to to something about it,” added Suzanne Silverthorn, the town’s communications officer, after the meeting.

A second meeting will be held next month to present information gathered at the first meeting and distilled.

Cleveland said the aim of the next meeting will be to focus on two or three issues and develop recommendations on how to resolve them.

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