VAIL — Talk to mountain-town managers across Colorado and many of them will tell you the same thing: “We don’t want to become the next Vail or Aspen.”
Unless, of course, they used to manage one of the state’s iconic ski towns.
“Like in Winter Park, they’d say, ‘We don't want to be like Vail and Aspen,’ and then everybody in the room would look at me,” said Stan Zemler. He's the longest-tenured town manager in Vail history, who stepped down in 2017 after 13 years and then spent seven months as interim town manager of Winter Park.
While Vail and Aspen are legendary Colorado ski towns and international brands coveted as destinations worldwide, they’re also impossibly expensive to live or even park in, ballooning from 5,000 people to 50,000 during peak winter weekends. And some Coloradans feel the two towns are victims of their own success, lacking an authentic Rocky Mountain vibe.
“[Other towns] fashion themselves to be different. They have a funkier feel and a funkier population -- people who truly think there's still some of that quality of the old-style Colorado experience but that it’s drifting away,” said Zemler, a Boulder-area resident who now works for the city Louisville a couple days a week.
Colorado Politics sat down with a trio of veteran Colorado mountain-town managers who improbably lasted many years or even decades in a game where the Colorado Municipal League says the average tenure is three to five years: Zemler, whose Vail tenure saw some of the biggest changes in the town’s more-than-half-century history; Willy Powell, who lasted 29 years in Eagle before moving over to Minturn for 3-1/2 years; and Jeff Shroll, who made it 24 years in Gypsum before landing his current gig as Eagle County manager.
All three cited a variety of tactics for outlasting, or in some cases surviving, dozens of town councils that rotated in every few years with sometimes wildly divergent agendas. Some of those council members may have even run on a platform of ousting the town manager.
“For me, I started managing when I was 23 years old, which was probably the youngest in the state at the time by 10 to 15 years at least,” said Shroll. “Getting into city management or even local government, you're thrown to the wolves. There’s a reason the [job] life expectancy rate of any of us is 4-1/2 years. It's two election cycles; that's just the way it is nationwide.”
Shroll’s keys to longevity in the mountain-town manager game?
“You’ve got to be sure to not be afraid of talking to the press, don’t be afraid to talk to your residents, and don't be afraid to talk to your elected officials and have hard conversations whenever you need to,” Shroll said. “That was a big part of it.”
For Powell, in narrow mountain valleys surrounded by federally owned public lands with limited private land for development, it’s all about how towns navigate the choppy waters of land use.
“The most controversial things have to do with land use, because some people want to keep towns small and some people want to grow,” Powell said. “The most popular mountain towns are growing like crazy, but fortunately in Eagle we set growth boundaries.”
Still, in Eagle County, with nearly 55,000 people with hundreds of real estate agents and developers, and home to Vail and Beaver Creek, two of the nation's most popular ski resorts, anything like a growth boundary carries its own set of political perils.
Eagle, a former agricultural town that serves as the county seat, has more than tripled from less than 2,000 people in 1990 to 6,900 in 2017. Thirty miles west of Vail on Interstate 70, it’s now a bedroom community for resort workers that’s fought long and hard to not be the next Vail.
The first 13 years of Powell’s Eagle tenure was spent wrangling with proponents and opponents of a Beaver Creek-sized ski area proposal called Adam’s Rib that hotel and hospital magnate Fred Kummer wanted to build basically halfway between Vail and Aspen. The project, which already had won Forest Service approval, obviously would have transformed the town of Eagle.
“I started in 1984,” Powell said. “We had a new board of trustees every two years, but only one board of trustees during the time I was there was for Adam's Rib and every other board of trustees was opposed to Adam's Rib because they didn't want to become a ski-area town. They wanted to keep their small-town character.”
The project was finally killed in 1997 after a 25-year odyssey that pitted the town of Eagle against the Eagle County commissioners and local residents against the Adam’s Mark hotel chain and federal officials from the Forest Service to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Much of the proposed development site wound up in the vastly expanded Sylvan Lake State Park.
“Skiing appears to be a secondary amenity to real estate development around the base of the mountain,” a Forest Service team wrote in a 1997 report that put the final fork in Adam’s Rib.
Of course, with Colorado’s overall population having nearly doubled from 2.9 million in 1980 to 5.7 million in 2018, the picturesque Brush Creek Valley south of Eagle has seen plenty of development even without a new ski area. Powell oversaw the Eagle Ranch subdivision that essentially doubled the size of the town and created another commercial core south of downtown.
But the vast majority (well over 90%) of Eagle’s 2,200 housing units are occupied by year-round residents compared to just 20% of Vail’s 7.300 housing units, according to a workforce housing report produced by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments and the Colorado Association of Ski Towns.
“[Eagle] wanted to be primary home ownership rather than saturated with second homes,” Powell said. “We were successful in that.”
Vail’s rate of 80% second-home ownership has been blamed by some critics for hollowing out the town during the majority of the year and creating excessive demand for services during peak times. Meanwhile, skyrocketing property values have driven workers away from the amenities and services of the resort core while shrinking the pool of nearby workforce housing.
In his 3-1/2 years managing Minturn, a former mining-boom railroad town off the back side of Vail Mountain, Powell helped shape housing policies designed to maintain the town’s 80% year-round occupancy rate in its 500 or so housing units. That included limiting short-term rentals to no more than 10% of the town’s housing stock.
But Minturn, like Eagle, has struggled to bring in enough revenues via sales taxes to maintain and enhance town services. Just 7 miles or so from Vail on U.S. Highway 24, Minturn actually saw its population decline from 1,100 in 1990 to about 1,060 in 2017, and residents recently rejected a water project and housing deal that would have added 700 units.
Eagle, meanwhile, just approved a 500-unit workforce housing project but has ceded much of the county’s “down-valley” economic might to neighboring Gypsum, which is just seven miles west along I-70 but boasts the Eagle County Regional Airport, a big-box warehouse district anchored by Costco and the county’s only real industry in the former of the American Gypsum Co. wallboard plant.
Shroll, the former Gypsum town manager, says the greatest accomplishment of his tenure was working with a team to put the town of just over 7,000 residents (it was under 2,000 in 1990) in such a solid financial position with no debt and a strong sales tax base, but those moves carried some municipal risk at the time.
“We had to annex the Costco [area] long before they started kicking tires,” Shroll said. “The airport's been a big boon. We took a lot of risks, and we took risks at times when it was not popular to take those risks, like when we annexed all of Airport Gateway [Business Center] and we annexed the airport.”
Eagle County’s airport is now one of the busiest in the state during the winter months, bringing in Vail and Aspen skiers on direct flights from New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. And while the twin “down-valley” towns of Gypsum and Eagle have long since locked in their legacies as bedroom communities for the ski towns around Vail and Beaver Creek, they’re also becoming destinations unto themselves with mountain bike trails, restaurants, brewpubs, fishing and boating on the Eagle and Colorado rivers, and golf on more sensibly priced public courses than in neighboring glitzy resorts.
“Quite frankly, I'm over being cold all the time and shoveling a ton of snow,” Shroll said of Gypsum’s lower elevation of 6,300 feet. “If you want to eliminate that, you can move down here … to raise your family and still have the amenities. I still ski. I can be crushing a powder day 30 minutes away, but I'm also mowing my lawn while you're still shoveling snow [in Vail], and that is OK for me. It's a lifestyle choice I wanted to make, and, yes, it's more affordable …”
“Skiburbia,” however, still needs ski resorts to serve as the economic engine, and what the ski towns at the base of those resorts look like moving into the future remains a topic for heated debate. Should there be any high-density, in-fill workforce housing in among the rarified real estate of a town like Vail, which sprang from a sheep pasture in 1962 to cater to skiers but quickly discovered the true cash cow of high-end real estate?
Some in Vail, a town of 5,500 (up from around 4,000 in 1990) -- usually depending on what neighborhood they live in and where a project is proposed -- say “absolutely not.”
Witness the acrimony over just one 61-unit workforce complex approved on private land along the interstate in East Vail. The politics of that project recently boiled over into some unprecedented nastiness.
Former town manager Zemler, who first landed in Vail in 2003 at the beginning of a massive $2 billion redevelopment spree, was largely able to avoid such dustups by staffing up, forming teams and relentlessly communicating with stakeholders.
Vail was feeling a bit faded after 40-plus years, losing luxe street cred to resorts like Deer Valley, and Zemler landed at a time when the town was shaking off the doldrums of the dotcom bust and 9/11 travel lull. Major redevelopment projects were in the pipeline but languishing a bit in the regulatory process, and Zemler was coming from stints as CEO of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce and also as deputy Boulder city manager, “where we processed things to death.”
“To some extent I walked in in a moment when Vail was ready for someone like me to be a little more aggressive, a little more risk-oriented, but at the same time bringing a pretty conservative budget mindset to the table,” Zemler said. “I was able to get some respect and get some confidence established that we ought to seize on some of these opportunities.”
The next five years of the construction crane becoming the unofficial town bird led to new and redeveloped high-end hotel projects from the Arrabelle to Solaris to the Four Seasons to the Ritz-Carlton Residences. And even when the wheels came off in late 2008 as the housing bubble burst, Zemler says everything under construction was finished. Places like Snowmass Village weren’t quite so fortunate.
Having tapped into a massive private-sector investment in new hotel rooms and condos, the town of Vail was then able to focus on continued public-sector investment on streetscape projects, Wi-Fi upgrades, new fire stations, meeting places and parks during the worst of the Great Recession.
Asked if he regrets not doing more on the affordable-housing front, Zemler was reflective.
“We did buy some stuff. Did we buy enough? No. Could we possibly buy enough? No. Did we probably miss a window?” Zemler trailed off, not really answering his own question. “I look back on my time to Boulder and … in the 80s recession we should have bought 25 apartment buildings. So the same kind of thing applies. Could we have done more? Sure.”
At the time, Vail was about 70%-30% second homeowners to permanent residents, and then came Vrbo and Airbnb short-term rentals – a trend that caught Vail and other ski towns off-guard, Zemler says.
“I don't think there was any early recognition that [trend] could have an effect on workforce housing,” Zemler said. “It took a long time to get your arms around the fact that this might not be great for communities that have limited housing stock. So if you sort of drift to what's the biggest potential threat to any of these resort communities, it's clearly housing for workforce.”
And the reason is simple, he added. With unemployment hovering around 3%, or basically full employment, and the glamour of living four to a cramped condo and paying $1,200 a month for a bedroom clearly fading like a day-glow Columbia jacket from the '80s, ski areas have to offer much more to attract workers.
“The other part of why I think we were very successful in Vail is because we were so focused on the service culture -- that service is first and that's what we're going to do and we're going to do it better than anybody,” Zemler said. “That starts to be threatened a bit when you can't sustain an employment base or the turnover is greater than it's ever been.”
That, however, is a problem across Colorado and throughout any number of industries in the state, he added. People aren’t just coming out to have fun for a few years, enjoy the mountain lifestyle and then head back home to rejoin the real world.
“The big picture here is Colorado, not just the Western slope or the resort communities, it's Colorado. The influence of the changes in Colorado are starting to be pervasive throughout the state,” Zemler said. “People come to Colorado for different reasons now. It doesn't mean they're not going to enjoy the mountain stuff, but they're coming for jobs more so than the lifestyle."
Which means policymakers in the state’s mountain towns are having to think long and hard about what kinds of places they want to be, or become, over the next 25 years, and whether that means being the next Vail or Aspen.