4/26/05

Allen Best

 

Vail still fingering trigger on convention center

Question lingers about how well $45 million facility would do

VAIL, Colo. – Vail town officials continue to take steps toward building a conference center at a cost of $36 million to $45 million, but have not committed themselves. As has been the case for 20 years, the agonizing, unanswered question is whether there will be enough 450-person groups booking conferences to justify this investment.

 

While better served by transportation than most resorts, Vail remains a bit off the beaten bath for such a big facility. Convention planners figure a conference facility needs to be within 30 minutes of an airport. Vail is now 125 miles from Denver International Airport, separated by an increasingly congested Interstate 70. The local Eagle County Regional Airport is only 35 miles away, but the flight schedule – except possibly winter – remains suspect.

 

Both the town council and a civic advisory committee appear dead-locked on the issue of whether to proceed with the building plans. The town council is expected to get off dead-center in May or June. But if the council does move forward, a citizens group led by former mayor Rob Ford vows to pursue a referendum somewhat similar to what recently happened in Snowmass Village.

 

Everybody fully expects an ongoing subsidy for the conference center. The disagreement is how much subsidy it will require. A lodging tax approved by town voters three years ago, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, is generating $3.5 million a year. If bonds for construction are sold, they cannot exceed $2.7 million per year. That would leave $700,000 a year to cover operating deficits, although estimates of the deficit run up to $1.2 million.

 

Text Box: Townspeople wanted architecture that drew upon the natural landscape, and after refinements, this is what the architects are seeing. However, the conference center itself remains very much in doubt.A study by HVS Convention Sports and Entertainment Facilities Consulting found enough demand to justify the conference center. The conference center would generate $33 million in new spending in the town economy and support 329 jobs, the consultants said. As well, municipal tax coffers would fatten by $1.4 million annually, the consultants say. But, stressed the consultants, the convention center must be an architecturally attractive if it is to get strong business volume.

 

An influential group called the Vail Village Homeowners Association is allied with Ford, the former mayor. Since the original vote in November 2002, notes Jim Lamont, the group’s executive director, significant financial investment in Vail – current estimates run to $1 billion – has been committed. “There are better development opportunities emerging for Vail, which build upon the community’s well established attributes, rater than striking out in a new speculative direction with the Conference Center,” he writes in a memorandum to his members. Fresh from a trip to the Alps, he argues that Vail, with its reinvented man-made landscape, should instead work harder to promote itself to Europeans as a tourist resort. The conference center, says Lamont’s group, would benefit a relatively small sector of the business community (primarily hotels), while more conventional tourism would presumably have a broader community benefit.

 

Lamont also cites a Forbes magazine article that takes aim at the proliferating new and expanded convention centers. “Where do politicians get the crazy idea that the world needs yet another convention center? From the experts, of course,” the article begins, before taking aim at an expanded trade hall in Portland.

 

Responding to criticism that the town is moving either too fast or too slow, Mayor Rod Slifer responded in a March op-ed piece in the Vail Daily that the council is moving just right for the scope of the project, taking measured, careful steps. The town has hired Architectural Resource Consultants Inc. to be the owner representative; Piper Jaffray, an investment banking firm; and Fentress Bradburn Architects Inc.

 

A natural-looking architectural theme offered by Fentress Bradburn was chosen by the town council, but the council also wanted refinements. Above is what the refined model looks like.