Resort summit produces no magic

Article by Allen Best

Tourism – March 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Did you think that 150 people from five counties were going to get together and solve all our resort ills in a day? Don’t expect magic out of the five-county resort summit held at Beaver Creek last December. Any white rabbits delivered from this process will be labored, and unlike fecund rabbits, slow to arrive and in a small litter.

But don’t get me wrong — I think the summit symposium accomplished things. I heard synapses grinding away, I heard thoughts grounded in years of observation, and not least, I heard ideas that can be acted upon.

Will those ideas end poverty, turn bums into cherubs, and deliver a cure for both cancer and the common cold?

If you would think so, you’re probably the sort that responds to those ads about making thousands of dollars while stuffing envelopes in your spare time.

But enough of this prattle. Steve DeWire, general manager of the Hyatt Regency at Beaver Creek, illustrated the problems of the five resort-based counties (Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield, Summit, Lake) with myriad statistics. A few snapshots define symptoms and problems.

— 30.5% of Garfield County’s budget is spent on social services, and it’s 24.5% for Lake County. Both those counties serve as bedroom communities for Aspen, Vail, and Summit County. In contrast, 9.3% of the budget for Eagle County (itself partly a bedroom for Aspen) was spent on social services, 7% in Summit County, and 2.6% in Pitkin.

— A second snapshot: Lake County spends more on low-income daycare than does Eagle County. 31% of Lake County residents work in Eagle County, and 21% in Summit County.

— Of the four area hospitals, Leadville’s St. Vincent has only a slightly higher percentage of charity care (against total costs) compared to Vail Valley Medical Center.

The first two snapshots speak for themselves. The third muddies the picture. It tells me that white hats and black hats don’t always belong in this discussion; I see occasional shades of gray.

DeWire said we are facing problems with a declining middle class and expanding economic extremes of wealth and poverty. “Within our rural resort environment, it is our responsibility to get together and candidly begin discussing where lines of accountability fall.”

MUCH OF THE DAY was spent in small break-out groups. I latched onto Joe Sands, a Summit County commissioner known for both diligence and an incisive mind. Going into the sessions, he was pessimistic about achieving anything, but seemed to grow optimistic as the day progressed.

Others in my group had also thought long about these problems. We had diversity of geography and, to a lesser extent, backgrounds, although those in government dominated. Among us were the Pitkin County manager, a nurse from Leadville, the mayor of Rifle, a banker from Avon, and a priest representing the Catholic archdiocese.

The priest, Thomas Doerk, advanced an argument that disagreed with the basic premise of the summit. Essentially, he said that the problems we were talking about should be dealt with by a change in attitude on the part of employers. Those who write the paychecks, he argued, have an obligation to make sure that their workers do not become a burden on local governments.

A self-professed product of the ’60s, he expressed doubts that government solutions work.

For example, Pitkin County had adopted a base wage 200 percent above the federal poverty level. The priest crunched a few numbers and announced that the county was paying $9 an hour, hardly a wage to boast about in a price-inflated resort economy.

While his arguments were not ignored, neither were they greeted with hosannahs.

WE WERE ASKED TO CITE THINGS which work now. I found myself agreeing with the priest. I cited the proliferation of buses and vans between Leadville and Eagle County. Private businesses pay for the government-run buses because it is in their interest. Too, I pointed to lodges in Vail that had succeeded in avoiding employee shortages. How? By thinking ahead, by lining up affordable housing, and by paying better wages. It was in their interest.

My suggestions about solutions elicited little interest. Pointing to all the Wal-Mart workers in Leadville who are knocked down to a few hours a week during May, and even then earn less than the $9 minimum wage in Pitkin County, I made the case for a year-round economy. Vail does twice as much business from December through March as it does the other eight months. Without the mad fluctuations of ski-based economies, we’d function more efficiently, and fewer people would fall through the economic cracks.

Sands said he heard that argument about year-round business before — 20 years ago. And with increases in summer business have come proportional increases in winter business, so that the peaks, the disparities, still remain, and if anything have grown greater.

Sands, who worked at the Henderson molybdenum mill as a safety officer before going into government, advanced another case. He talked about outside interests owning venues, such as ski areas, with an interest in maximizing sales and revenues — not necessarily always in the best interest of locals. Outside interests, he implied, rarely have the best local interest at heart.

One idea from my group was creating an impact fee for resorts, not unlike the severance tax exacted on coal and molybdenum. Sands, who has worked in both mining and tourism, sees little difference in impacts.

Reid Haughey, the Pitkin County manager, said he thought there is enough money now. It’s just a matter of redirecting it to where the impacts are. There was little support for more taxation from him or others.

We talked about a homestead exemption, which would give lower property taxes to full-time residents of resort communities. We talked about lone eagles and what they are doing to our communities, and a lot of people had doubts about whether they do good.

Sands got angry at one point. “My problem with growth in this state is that we talk the son of a bitch to death, and we never do anything.”

Many of the break-out groups had the same reaction.

What will happen? I heard talk about the need for more communication among the counties — a regional newspaper would be good, said several. Others talked about computer links. Some groups talked about developing a regional master plan. Aspen people, in particular, brought up efforts to retain a middle class.

OTHERS SAID we should investigate what other regions are doing. I am dubious about that. One facilitator, a geographer from the University of Colorado at Boulder, said other resort areas around the country were waiting to see what solutions we found. Perhaps we can pick and choose ideas from elsewhere, but there is not some simple example to follow.

At the various newspapers I’ve worked at in the Vail area for the past nine years, I’ve sorted through these problems, but I haven’t seen answers. I’ve assailed my own community at times, and I’ve also defended it.

I go to symposiums and hear people from Steamboat and Boulder sanctimoniously rip Vail apart, bemoaning our high density, our stack-a-shack condominiums, our building-lined freeway. But in Vail, despite its flaws, you can still find seasonal workers, some of them college students and others Mexican immigrants, walking to work at the hotels and lifts and restaurants. That’s because of our high density.

In Boulder the service workers commute from Lafayette and Longmont, if not Denver or beyond. If Boulder is paradise, it is a flawed paradise. In Steamboat I see development sprawling across a broad valley. Density is always a bad word at these forums, although I don’t know why. Density is far more friendly to the environment, and density, if planned well, is far kinder to low-income workers.

Too, I have questioned Vail’s relationship to Leadville. Lake County is absorbing impacts from our resorts. Maybe political boundaries should be redrawn. Although Lake County is on the Eastern Slope, sharing the river with Salida and Canon City, and perhaps sharing cultural values with the Arkansas Valley, the stronger economic interests now are with the I-70 corridor.

JUST 15 YEARS AGO, THOUGH, Lake County was quite independent. I asked someone from Leadville which evil was lesser: filling with low-income workers from the resort counties, or having a town still empty after the Climax bust?

A close call, she said, but the lingering effect of the Climax bust was worse than the boom of the resort counties.

Climax had a union, the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers. Maybe the unions should turn their attention to resorts. However, it should be noted that the money Mexican immigrants make up here isn’t that bad — sometimes up to $20 an hour for relatively unskilled construction jobs.

Largely lost in all these discussions is any distinction between tourism and development. The two are related, but the relationship is seldom defined. Without the development coming from the people who move into these valleys because they’re nice places to live, you wouldn’t have the crunch on the low-income workers who serve tourists.

Tourism certainly plays a big role in attracting residents. But tourist-related businesses don’t necessarily benefit from residential increases. More year-round residents seldom translate into increased patronage at T-shirt shops or fudge stands. If your rent in Salida went up last year, can you blame it on tourism, or is it something else?

These counties along I-70 are grappling with greed, but there are other factors too: mythology about what constitutes the good life, political boundaries that don’t reflect modern geography, and forces we don’t yet understand.

Or at least I don’t understand them, and I suspect Central Colorado is being buffeted by the same forces, at a lower intensity.

IN MULLING OVER ALL THIS, I think of Vail’s open space. The parcel along the creek east of the golf course has beaver ponds and bike paths, aspen groves, and sagebrush. It’s a lovely interlude amid Vail’s development.

That open space wasn’t protected by an overnight announcement, though. There was a symposium with much rambling talk of problems large and small, much like this resort gathering at Beaver Creek last December. And at that Vail symposium, some Vail people came up with the germ of an idea for preserving some open space in town. Today those beaver ponds are the legacy of that community coffee klatch.

So I don’t expect an immediate announcement that solutions have been found to the problems that plague our resort communities and will soon spread as far as the buses can carry workers.

But I do expect to see some good come out of this someday. And if you’re smart in the potential Vails and Aspens, you’ll get together now to think about your communities, and what you want to change, and what you want to preserve.

Allen Best is managing editor of the Vail Valley Times in Avon. He has also edited the Vail Trail, the Winter Park Manifest, and the Middle Park Times. During his jejune days, he was entertainment editor of the CSU Collegian.