Vail Daily:

Conference center? When pigs fly

Kaye Ferry
Special to the Daily

May 10, 2005



Okee dokee, get ready. Next Tuesday (that would be May 17) in the Vail Town Council chambers, you're going to get the first full preview of what this conference center is all about. The really unfortunate thing is so many people are out of town.

Remember, this will be the first time that the council has seen a complete presentation. Up until now, even they have relied on the committee and staff to provide them with the snippets of information they've received.

But the word on the street is pretty clear. Ain't no way this thing can fly under the present circumstances. None of the numbers make sense. Not the construction costs. Not the operational estimates. And even though the "studies" indicate the bookings will roll in, many don't believe them, either.

Nonetheless, you need to hear it for yourself. The committee was charged with doing the research. Find an architect. Design a building. Hire an owner's rep. Explore financing options. Look at the numbers. Make a recommendation.

But back up a second for a little perspective. I have to say, the committee meetings that have been held for almost two years have largely been optimistic. While everyone was supposed to enter into the process with an open mind, I actually think there was a bias. The underlying hope starting out was that this thing could work. Even the skeptics were willing to give it a chance. As things progressed and information started to accumulate, however, the odds started stacking up against that idea.

And here's about where they are today. The conclusion is that the project simply cannot be built as proposed with the funds approved by the voters. An additional $5 million-$8 million would be needed for construction costs alone.

So what are the options? In addition to the scheduled presentation, there will be plenty of ideas thrown around. But the reality is that it really boils down to three choices: deep six the whole thing; change the design, size, etc., to fit the budget; or raise more money. Let's take a minute to explore them.

Pulling the plug would surely end the debate and solve the immediate problem. But would it? There are those that still believe that this facility is necessary to the community. For them, only the last two choices are viable. Are they?

What about downsizing? We can go back to the original sales pitch, which clearly maintained that the primary reason to build this conference center is to fill the need for a space larger than any of the current facilities have available.

If the original spin is to be believed, bookings are turned away on a regular basis because the town of Vail has no facility big enough to accommodate large groups in one location. All at the expense of much needed revenues in the shoulder, off, mud, slow seasons - whatever you want to call them. Yet it's a logic that has always been a mystery to me.

Why don't we get busy filling the spaces we have available during the shoulder, off, mud, slow seasons before we start worrying about spaces we don't have? It's pretty clear to anyone that's been around town since the lifts stopped running that the spaces we have are a long way from being fully utilized. What makes us think we can do a better job just because we have more?

Still, if we believe the hype, the only reason to build the conference center in the first place is to get a big space. Downsize equals no big space, which equals no need. Besides, a smaller space would just compete with spaces we already have. Seems pretty simple.

However, it's not that simple to the advocates who seem to be hell bent on building this no matter what. So they have only one answer. Raise more money. Not a problem. Just go to the voters and ask for another tax increase. And the believers, they truly believe. Hallelujah. What is it that they are so sure of? They are sure that the voters will agree to pass another increase in the lodging tax because it won't affect them. Apparently all taxes are fair as long as they're passed on to the guests.

So the question at the Town Council meeting will probably boil down to just two choices. Kill it or go back to the voters in November for more money.

I guess by now you're sitting on the edge of your seat wondering what I think. If you're not, I'd suggest you turn the page because I'm about to tell you anyway, ready or not, because, after all, it's my column. If you're clever, you've probably figured it out by now.

Still first I have to admit something. When this conference center thing raised its head again - what is this, the third time? - I was there. I mean I was there, up at the podium suggesting it would help the economy, that its time had come. Because I believed the pitch, even with nothing to back it up. "They" said it could work.

But you remember, I'm from the Midwest, where rational thought almost always prevails over pie in the sky. So I've changed my mind. Because the information has changed, big time. And the facts now prove something different.

It's over. We've given the whole exercise more than a fair shot. We've raised the study of whether it's a go or no-go to an art form. We've passed a tax, done a lot of studies, spent thousands of dollars and had more meetings than anyone could ever have imagined. And it doesn't work.

When something is dead, the only compassionate thing to do is bury it.

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, vaildaily.com-columnists or search:ferry.



Kaye Ferry is a longtime observer of Vail government. She writes a weekly column for the Daily.



Vail, Colorado