Our View: Town hall hardly a field of dreams | VailDaily.com

Our View: Town hall hardly a field of dreams

the Vail Daily Editorial Board

Avon officials and others express enthrallment with the notion that town halls bring life to downtowns. After all, residents do come to Town Hall on occasion. Some do business they still don’t feel comfortable completing online or prefer human contact with municipal officials. Sometimes more than a handful will attend council and planning commission meetings.

Not like a grocery store, coffee shop, restaurant, movie theater or rec center, of course. Or a popular retail store, like, say, Sports Authority. Or even a library.

Yes, people go to Town Hall. Not often in crowds, but sometimes, sure. But the theory here is that Town Hall drives business downtown or makes a retail district, as in attracting flocks of people specifically to the municipal center who also will shop.

The evidence is scant for this claim.

The town in our valley where Town Hall takes up a significant portion of downtown is Eagle. Eagle County’s administrative building also is right there. How is that working for downtown Eagle? Well, downtown struggled before the Eagle Town Hall moved from a side street to the main street, Broadway. It struggles now.

The two coffee shops at each end of the downtown bring people in, no question. But the restaurant space across the street from Town Hall has opened and closed in pretty much the same cycle as before.

It would be a dubious claim indeed that downtown business picked up because Town Hall went up on Broadway. There is no grand resurgence to back up such an assertion. It’s kind of absurd, actually. A grocery store or movie theater would have been far more effective than occupying potential retail space with a municipal building if the aim were to bring real life to the old downtown Eagle.

The towns in our valley currently doing the best — Vail and Gypsum — are not flourishing because their town halls are in the thick of things. Just how stupid would the town of Vail be to take up space on Bridge Street, for instance?

True, Gypsum doesn’t really have a downtown. And Edwards has lots of commerce but no town to have a town hall. It would be hard to argue that a municipal center would make a difference, though, other than adding space that doesn’t generate income.

Avon residents were fine with the government’s home at the lake over the decades. Officials and staff weren’t crazy about it, but neither were they in a head-over-heels rush to get out until pretty much just now, when this fever to buy the Skier Building took hold. All the worse when the sellers’ “appraisal” was merely a statement purporting much higher value than truly is there, and the town bought it.

Now the existing location is just terrible, terrible! The costs of renovations — which do appear to be needed — bloomed from $2 million-$2.5 million in a report for the council in September to $6 million now with inaccurate claims that the town was “required” to upgrade to current code.

When that error was pointed out, town officials changed to a moral declaration about obligation to do the work the most expensive way and follow the same rules they set for others. Only others don’t have to renovate to current code, and the town would break rules for others to solve its parking issue and inability to provide the retail it insisted any other buyer of the Skier Building would have to have.

Go figure.

It’s hard to shake the suspicion that $6 million was an exaggeration that sounds worse in the face of being able to buy and fix up new quarters for a hair less. Sorry. What else are they making up to sell this move to a somewhat somnolent public? This seems to be another of those cases of officials arguing essentially, “Who cares about the cost? It will be great. We can afford it. We have a vision!” We’ve just moved from a ballooned bandstand to Town Hall in pursuit of this vision based on little evidence but a lot of giddy cheerleading.

The other little truth is that Avon, like the others, is a small, small town. It’s not like Town Hall is hard to find or takes more than a couple of minutes to reach from anywhere in town, save Wildridge or Mountain Star.

Moving the Town Hall a few hundred feet hardly seems worth the hype — or overspending by at least $1 million for a building that has sat empty for 11 years and whose minimal building standards put the lie to passionate assertions that it’s just fine. The same engineering firm that declared everything in good shape also raised the question years ago of whether the upstairs flooring was sturdy enough to bear law offices with lots of cabinets when Vail Resorts looked into buying the property, for example. How are the needs of a law office so different than the literal tons of records kept at the town’s building department?

The town’s original plan for the building in this back area of the Seasons and the recreation center across the street beats this one. Compelling retail or a good restaurant on the ground floor makes a lot more sense.

It’s not really the town’s job to ensure a tidy profit for the owners of the Skier Building. That would be forward progress for the owners of the building, perhaps, but not Avon.

The voters can help steer Avon’s way forward by saying “no” this time. Avon can do better than this.

Town officials may call this a grand vision. Alas, this vision is based on no more than the mist of hopeful notions. That is to say, it’s a mirage.