Vail says ‘no’ to conference center

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Signs supporting Vail's conference center sit in the ground as people rally outside Vail town hall during election night Tuesday in Vail. Vail voters are to decide whether the town should raise lodging taxes by up to 1.5 percent to help pay for the conference center.
Preston Utley/Vail Daily


Nicole Frey
November 8, 2005

VAIL — For fewer than a dozen people in the room, the cheer that went up was thunderous when opponents of the conference center learned voters killed the facility Tuesday.

They whistled, clapped and popped the cork on a bottle of champagne to toast the defeat of the center by an 806-542 vote — that’s 60 percent of the voters saying ‘no.’

“I never doubted it for a moment,” said town activist Kaye Ferry, who lobbied against the center. “We’re just so happy it went down by such a large margin. I’m glad to see people didn’t get the wool pulled over their eyes this time. It didn’t just sneak through.”

Voters turned down a lodging tax increase that would have raised the money needed to build the conference center.

Despite a 2002 vote to increase lodging taxes by 1.5 percent and sales tax by 0.5 percent, those funds were found to be insufficient to build and operate the center. That vote was a close and controversial 851-801.

“This is not a victory for us, it’s a victory for Vail,” said former Vail mayor Rob Ford.

Ford said opponents of the conference center were people who loved Vail and supporters were more geared toward business interests.

‘A ski town, not a city’
The conference center, which would have been built between Dobson Arena and the Lionshead parking garage, could have generated $34.1 million a year for Vail, said a HVS International project consultant.

The center was also expected to create jobs, but opponents had continually argued the data used to make the predictions was flawed.

“(Those in favor) were telling people this was going to pump money into the economy, but we felt the Vail voter would see through this as long as they were educated,” Ford said. “Once they had the facts, they were able to do what was right.”

Conference center opponents said Vail residents would have been responsible for any debt the center incurred. Stating conference center space around the United States is increasing while demand is decreasing, opponents feared the center would have become a money pit.

“You would have been marginalizing Vail’s future for 30-odd years, so you could never do anything else,” longtime Vail resident Tom Steinberg said. “The people pushing it were from downvalley — they never had anything to lose. Vail is my third child. This is very happy for Vail.”

Longtime Vail resident Fred Distelhorst said on a recent trip he spoke with a hotel executive in New York who told him his conference center bookings had dropped from 70 percent to 40 percent.

“We’re nuts if we build this thing, so that’s how I feel,” Distelhorst said.

Heidi Young said she considered the character of Vail as well as finances when voting “no.”

“This is a ski town, not a city,” Young said. “I don’t think the guests should have to pay more, and I don’t see a need for (the conference center). Vail should stay the way it is and not get so citified.”

While Vail resident Susan Bird voted against the tax increase, she said she liked the idea of a conference center. But she doesn’t want Vail to bear the financial burden alone.

“I think all of Eagle County should be paying for it,” Bird said. “It should be in the county election to vote on funding. The majority of people are moving downvalley, and they’re commuting to Vail. They should be paying for it too. Otherwise, the tax burden becomes mine.

“I’ve lived here for 30 years, and I’ve seen what bad budgeting can do.”

‘Good for the off-season’
Expecting a close vote, those in favor of the conference center were confident about victory.

“I was very surprised,” said Pam Stenmark, who had lobbied in favor of the facility. “I’m still adjusting to the news. I don’t know why people voted this way. We have a lot to learn about what the Vail voter is thinking.”

Stenmark said she didn’t think voters were actually opposed to the conference center, but perhaps its design or location.

Karen Chandler, who voted for the tax increase said, “The town is growing, and it’s important to keep the money coming.”

“From what I’ve read, we’re turning away large groups,” Chandler said. “It would be good for the off-season and would bring in more business.”

Geoffrey Ryan, who works at Vail Ski Tech, said the tax would’ve been worth more customers in his shop during the summer, spring and fall.

Other cited business opportunities and Vail’s continued financial success as reasons for voting for the tax increase. One Vail woman said her “yes” vote came from a desire to see more “positive” in Vail.

“There’s been a lot of negativity lately, like when they voted down Crossroads,” said Elaine Butt, referring to another controversial development project. “This may be good for the town.”

What’s next?
Opponents said nixing the conference center is what will keep Vail economically viable.

“The conference center has been a full-time job for the town of Vail to the detriment of other projects,” Ferry said. “Now it’s time to do what the voters want to do instead of what the lodging interests want to do.”

Because of the vote’s failure, the town will have to either return the money collected from the 2002 tax to citizens or allow voters to approve another use for the dough — all $7 million of it.

“We have one era behind us, and I look forward to another — whatever that may be,” said Jim LaMont, who opposed the conference center. “It will take the community a long time to understand what took place here, but I just see change.”

Vail Daily correspondent Lindsay Jo Hackman contributed to this story.

Staff Writer Nicole Frey can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14621, or

Vail, Colorado