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Who needs conference center?

Kaye Ferry

Well, we finally have the list. There haven’t been 10 candidates for a town council election since the 1980s. And we’ll look at them all. But not yet. Because today I’m continuing on with the conference center. But where to start for the almost last round?I got everything out that I had at home, put it on the floor and it measures over a foot high. I have more than twice that amount at the office, so it gives you an idea of the information out there.But what I’ve tried to do is pull together some high points that haven’t been mentioned for awhile, or maybe never. And I’ll pose a few questions.OK then. Let’s get started. We voted the conference center in the first time when the economy was struggling. Things have changed. The only things getting in the way of business now are cranes in the air and holes in the ground. The consensus seems to be that when the billion dollar “renaissance” is completed, things will not only be good but significantly better. Does it seem necessary to have a new facility of this type coming on line just when we also have a flurry(no pun intended) of new hotels with new large meeting spaces? Remember, less than 3 percent of all conferences in the United States draw more than 800 people and we can already take care of 650. Does it make sense to spend $112,295,000 for that small group that everyone else is also chasing?Our closest competitor is in Keystone, where they have a much larger facility than we’re proposing. Theoretically, they can handle larger groups at more discounted rates. As a matter of fact, they give away the conference center space just to get the bookings and yet they lost $3.75 million last year. Are we sure that we can do so much better? Is the risk worth it?Did you know there’s no “sunset” clause on this tax as there is on the first one? It can go on forever. That wasn’t an oversight. It was purposefully structured that way to cover the debt that will also go on forever.How about the fact that at 13.3 percent, we’ll have the highest lodging tax of any ski resort in Colorado? That comes on top of the highest average room rate in the state.Or that food and beverage and parking account for the greatest revenue sources for most conference centers? We’ll have no revenues from parking in the months that this is being built for, as parking is free then. On top of that, they’re using a figure of 30 percent profitability on food and beverage in the study when the consultants suggested 25 percent as a max. But is that even realistic here?And here’s a good one. Did you know that in 2008 – the first “full” year – 83 percent of the events are for one day?Or that the consultants reported that conference organizers indicated that it would present “logistical challenges” getting groups back and forth to Vail?But there’s more. There’s a pattern across the country of what you can expect if this thing passes. Because this is just the first step. Actually, we’ve already added an extra step up front by needing two votes to get it out of the ground. Then the next thing that will happen is a plea to expand. The first reason given for not meeting expectations is that we built something that’s too small. Communities generally bite at this, and another tax request makes the ballot.When projections still aren’t met, it must be because there’s no hotel. We already know that the studies say we’re starting at a disadvantage without on-site lodging facilities. Of course, by now there will be no turning back. Another vote. Another tax.The final straw will be marketing. A big conference center. New hotel. Still short of projections. More marketing dollars must be the answer. Another vote to save the day! On this point there can be no disagreement. Do you know that the “non-salary marketing expense” line item for the Vail conference center is $337,000?No. That’s not a misprint. The plan is to push additional costs off on the Vail Local Marketing District and the operator. No matter. The experts estimate we’re short $1 million-1.5 million annually. Think I’m too skeptical? Just look to the east. The Denver Convention Center is the poster child for what I’ve just described. Convention center. Expansion. Hotel. The last step is scheduled for November when they ask for a 1 percent tax increase to raise an additional $4 million to bring their total to $12 million per year for marketing. But remember, I ended my last column with a reference to an alternative that might be out there if this vote goes south? I went to the West Vail Master Plan meeting last week and for the first time a new and exciting idea was aired publicly.The owner of the West Vail Lodge, aka the Apex, aka the Holiday Inn, has almost 4 acres behind his building. He’s proposed building the conference center there when he tears down his hotel and redevelops that property. He suggested he’d lease it back to the town. Of course it’s in the initial talking stages and depends entirely on the outcome of this vote. But I for one am all for having a private developer build a conference center without the use of tax dollars. It’s definitely something to keep in the back of your mind while contemplating your vote.So that’s about it. I’ll do a recap of these recaps again before the election. But remember. in 2002, the current tax only won by 851-801.Do your part: call them and write them. To contact the Town Council, call 479-1860, ext. 8, or e-mail towncouncil@vailgov.com. To contact Vail Resorts, call 476-5601 or e-mail vailinfo@vailresorts.com. For past columns, go to vaildaily.com and click on “Columnists” or search for keyword “ferry.” Kaye Ferry is a longtime observer of Vail government. She writes a weekly column for the Daily. Vail, Colorado


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