Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Feature - Vail — The premier resort community

The Colorado ski area has always aimed to be the ultimate winter resort

Anyone who has lived in Whistler for any length of time, is usually a bit curious of Vail Resort. Whistler was, after all, developed with many of the same village design principles as our American cousin.

Vail is located a 90 minute drive west of Denver, Colorado via Interstate 70. The four-lane highway winds through the Rocky Mountain foothills, peaking the Continental Divide and the 10,666 foot Vail Pass. The Town of Vail lies in the narrow Gore Valley, surrounded by snowy peaks, challenging terrain, and bisected by the elevated Interstate.

Vail Village is accessed from Exit 176, where you must first circumnavigate the two roundabouts and then park in one of the two massive parking structures.

A few steps from your car the interchange is transformed into a text book example of a vibrant pedestrian-oriented ski resort. The village has a European flair, offering consumptive accessories, trendy cafes, a rushing mountain creek, a quaint covered bridge, and inspirational displays of public art.

Vail is best known as the template for North America’s thriving new generation of ski resorts. It combines excellent intermediate ski terrain with a full service, destination resort village. In this era where developers punch out cookie cutter designs for resorts in a few years, it is important to realize that the concept for Vail Resort was developed over many decades.

Vail was the dream of a few US soldiers who had trained in the 1940s with the 10 th Mountain Division at Camp Hale, near Leadville, Colorado, for high country combat in the Second World War. In the late 1950s 10 th Mountain Division veteran Peter Siebert – at that time the head of Aspen’s ski patrol – took his extensive knowledge of the Colorado backcountry and his understanding of mountain resorts in Europe, and set out to plan the ultimate winter resort. By the end of the decade, on the recommendation of partner and fellow recruit Earl Eaton (an Aspen ski patroller and a part time prospector), Siebert explored and later purchased – for a mere $130,000 – a total of 1,000 acres of land situated on the west side of Vail Pass.

Vail began as an entirely private development that introduced innovative ideas to secure the required capital for lift and accommodation development. (The real challenge was convincing the skeptical Forest Service to provide the required conditional use permit for the ski terrain.) The early development was constructed by the founding company, Vail Corporation (changing to Vail Associates in 1966 and Vail Resorts, Inc. in 1997), that imposed strict design guidelines to imitate a Tyrolean mountain village. The aesthetics of the village design, the unprecedented ski experience and the lack of bureaucratic process, together with the completion of the I-70 through to the resort, ensured dominance of the U.S. ski industry. As Hal Rothman wrote in Devil’s Bargain : "Vail was not really a community but a script, a collection of buildings designed for the comfort of transient visitors."

By the early 1970s the rapid success of this private venture began to show flaws. Like most thriving resorts, the influx of wealthy landowners and developers resulted in local employees being forced out. Furthermore, urban sprawl along the valley, on lands not controlled by Vail Resorts, were threatening the resort’s high-end image.

Approval was also given to a poorly planned expansion of the resort that benefited from new laws that permitted condominium subdivisions. The result was the Lionshead base, described by Rothman as: "a prefabricated and architecturally bland second village and ski area… Lionshead was poorly laid out with little vitality."

The shortcomings of Vail for most of the 1980s and 1990s were tolerated as the resort dominated the North American market. But in 1992, Vail began to falter. The ski media and the affluent clientele were no longer touting the resort as the best on the continent. At the same time Vail was losing its local community to more affordable downvalley communities.

In 1996 the Vail Community Task Force decided to take action from within and launch a community visioning process known as "Vail Tomorrow." The planning process was funded and supported by the Town of Vail, Vail Resorts, Inc. and the Vail Valley Foundation. One goal and action plan considered community facility planning, which would not only enhance the resident living experience but also complement existing resort amenities. The issue gained momentum in the late 1990s when it was a key election issue.

The Town of Vail then focused its needs as "to better utilize town-owned property to the east of the Lionshead parking structure currently used for charter bus parking… components include an indoor ice rink, outdoor skatepark, climbing wall and youth center; plus conference and learning facilities for groups of up to 700, including a 300-seat auditorium/theater. The new facilities would be integrated with the existing Dobson Ice Arena and Vail Public Library. Innovative educational and cultural programming would be an integral part of the project." The intent was to provide amenities that would enhance the quality of life for the community as well as the economic sustainability of the resort. Facilities that were attractive to families were imperative to the planning process.

The process was facilitated by the White River Institute, a local non-profit agency. "This is a very bold concept, but we also feel it is consistent with Vail’s vision to be the premier resort community and we wanted to show the Town Council today that the Vail Center concept is sound, and that it’s affordable, supported by the community and worth the effort," said John Horan-Kates of the White River Institute.

In March 2001, the town was provided with a business plan for the Vail Center following extensive community and stakeholder input, including a three-day brainstorming workshop where nationally renowned design professionals were brought in to creatively design a world class recreational and cultural facility. The planning document outlined the anticipated requirements for space, costs, financing and operating approaches, as well as public input. It was intended to be "a starting point that demonstrates the project’s financial feasibility and community support and is designed to maximize community benefits while minimizing taxpayer impact."

Key findings were:

• Opportunity to utilize private funding sources for 50 per cent of the total costs;

• Limit the liability of the taxpayer by not releasing public funds until all the required private funding had been contributed;

• Financial self-sufficiency once constructed;

• Enrichment for residents, guests and local businesses; and

• Significant community buy-in.

Town Council then considered the options and resolved that the land that the town currently had available for the facility was not sufficient. Furthermore the incredible budget of $97 million US was cost prohibitive.

Vail had been gridlocked on this issue until a few weeks ago when Vail Resorts, Inc. announced plans to donate an existing parking lot for the purposes of a conference center. It could be a win/win situation for the town and the resort, as the conference center would complement Vail Resorts’ existing and future real estate interests while facilitating public and private plans to enhance the struggling Lionshead district. The new site would free up the parking garage/arena site for community and cultural facilities. The Town and the local stakeholders will now head back to the table as there appears to be the political and community will to see this project happen.

Russell Forest, Director of Community Development for the Town of Vail, indicates that the community facilities project is still yet to be finalized but the community intends is to fulfil the Vail Tomorrow vision statement: to be "the Premier Resort Community."


Other News from Resort Towns:

The Natural Spin

— In 1999 a few locals in Steamboat Springs, Colorado used their marketing and bike mechanic skills to reduce traffic congestion on their local streets. The program known as "CUB" (Community Use Bikes) was adapted from a similar program in Portland, Oregon, where the innovators convinced the city to maintain and provide at no charge a fleet of simple single-speed bicycles throughout the downtown core.

Bicycles were donated then retrofitted to ensure durability and rejection by thieves (they are painted shocking yellow). The program, now in its fourth year, includes baskets, locks (just call CUB to get a combination), sponsorship opportunities and exclusive use bikes for supporting local businesses. Check this out on the City of Steamboat Springs Web site

Less Gas for Food

: Vail Mountain has instituted a car pool incentive program to relieve parking impacts at popular day skier lots and local streets. Food vouchers for on-mountain restaurants are distributed to car-poolers.

"Based on historical skier visits in relationship to parking volumes, it is significant to note a reduction of nearly 1,000 cars parked on the South Frontage Road this month," said Bill Jensen, Vail chief operating officer. "We are very pleased with the overall success of the carpool incentive program and look forward to one more month of offering food credit vouchers to car-pooling guests."

The carpool incentive program provided up to 1,000 $20 on-mountain food credit vouchers on Saturdays and Sundays to skiers and snowboarders who elected to carpool through March 31, 2002. Vehicles must have four or more guests per car, or three guests per pick-up truck.

Resident Subdivision a Success in Aspen

: In an attempt to revive the spirit of Aspen’s middle class, a local developer has developed a single family subdivision that prohibits second-home owners, restricts ownership to three year residents, sets a 4 per cent appreciation cap on the sale price and limits the living space of each house to 2,200 square feet. The 59 lots sold for an average $117,000, and sold out within two months.

The project is for the better heeled locals, with finished prices ranging from $262,000 to $800,000 (maximum sale price for income-restricted affordable housing is $296,200). The intent was to provide a neighbourhood for those who fell between market housing and housing authority projects. (High Country News)

Starter Mansions around Park City

: While the canyons around Park City, Utah have survived more than 100 years of development, one new housing project there goes to great lengths to preserve the pristine state of its mountain site. Developers Keith Kelley and Walt Brett already have completed – and practically sold out – the first three phases of their Colony at White Pine Canyon, a planned community of approximately 260 "ski ranches." Finished homes with lots range in price from $5.2 million to $8.6 million.

The development is part of a bigger trend that has developers catering to wealthy buyers who are seeking a refuge from urban life and other, more crowded ski resorts. Unlike other ski homes, however, the Colony residences are scattered on lots of four to 113 acres – effectively leaving the view of the canyon and surrounding peaks largely intact.

While Kelley and Brett adhered to zoning laws for the project, some environmentalists still bristle at the thought of any kind of development in such natural habitats. They also argue that a gate restricting public access to the property gives an elite group of homeowners a monopoly on a great expanse of beautiful land.

The developers, however, say their project is much better than a previous proposal for the property that included up to 3,000 homes. They add that they will keep 23 miles of ski trails that cross the property open to the public. (Wall Street Journal)