MEET THE MAN WHO PER­SUADED VAIL TO IN­VEST IN IT­SELF

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Ja­son Blevins

vail» Stan Zem­ler stops his stroll through Vail Vil­lage to gather ran­dom de­tri­tus from the heated brick streets.

“It’s one of the things I try to al­ways do,” he says, cradling cups and cans plucked from planters, side­walks and gut­ters.

It’s safe to guess that Zem­ler won’t stop comb­ing Vail’s streets when he steps down from his town man­ager gig next month af­ter more than 13 years of pi­lot­ing the re­sort com­mu­nity through a $2 bil­lion re­nais­sance and a belt-tight­en­ing re­ces­sion.

Like the skiers on the hill that tow­ers over town, Zem­ler’s up-and-down ride — the long­est ten­ure for a town man­ager in Vail his­tory — has had its thrills and chal­lenges. It was boom time when he stepped into Vail’s cock­pit in 2003. The Se­bas­tian, Son­nenalp, So­laris, Four Sea­sons Re­sort, Ritz Carl­ton, Wil­lows and Ara­belle at Vail Square would soon seed dozens of new lux­ury homes and ho­tel rooms in both Vail Vil­lage and Lion­shead.

The town was flush, with record sales and prop­erty tax rev­enues. Zem­ler guided a Vail Vil­lage streetscape project — scram­bling dur­ing the brief off­sea­son months to not dis­rupt busi­ness — that re­built just about ev­ery cor­ner, the largest cap­i­tal project in the town’s his­tory. By 2007, seven mas­sive cranes spun above the streets and side­walks.

“We joked those cranes were the of­fi­cial town bird,” he says.

Then the floor col­lapsed. Com­ing on­line with high-end lux­ury prop­er­ties in 2008 — at the dawn­ing of the Great Re­ces­sion — proved dev­as­tat­ing for de­vel­op­ers across the coun­try. Zem­ler, the for­mer head of the Boul­der Cham­ber of Com­merce, in 2009 di­rected a sur­gi­cal slic­ing of more than $4 mil­lion from the town’s nearly $50 mil­lion bud­get. While town lead­ers and de­vel­op­ers across Colorado turned off spend­ing and hud­dled, Vail pushed com­mu­nity projects.

“We shifted gears through some good lead­er­ship on the coun­cil. We mar­keted the hell out of our­selves. We de­cided we are not go­ing to hun­ker down, let’s be ag­gres­sive about who we are and let’s sell this new prod­uct that was just com­ing into fruition. We had no debt. We had a lot of cash. So we de­cided to get mov­ing on pub­lic projects,” he says.

Vail in­vested heav­ily on al­ready-planned fire sta­tions, af­ford­able hous­ing op­tions such as Lion’s Ridge and the new Cha­monix project, the Lion­shead park­ing garage, for­est health, Ford Park and am­phithe­ater, a golf club­house and a li­brary. When the eco­nomic light started to shine again in 2011 and 2012, Vail was well into its re­cov­ery. In fact, Vail’s tax rev­enue started to climb out of the eco­nomic malaise ear­lier than most Colorado towns. Since 2010, Vail has posted steadily in­creas­ing an­nual tax rev­enues. That en­abled it to quickly pay off loans, and the town re­mains free of debt.

Andy Daly joined the town coun­cil in 2008, even­tu­ally be­com­ing mayor in 2011, a post he held un­til 2015. He said most com­mu­ni­ties think in elec­tion cy­cles but Zem­ler fo­cused on long-term plans, even dur­ing the lean times.

“Stan was the glue that held it all to­gether,” Daly says.

Sam Mamet, the long­time di­rec­tor of the Colorado Mu­nic­i­pal League, says Zem­ler’s fi­nan­cial acu­men, his abil­ity to build con­sen­sus and long list of ac­com­plish­ments in Vail make him “an icon in the city man­ager

pro­fes­sion.”

Zem­ler served as pres­i­dent of the Colorado As­so­ci­a­tion of Ski Towns board and vice chair of the In­ter­state 70 Moun­tain Trans­porta­tion Cor­ri­dor Coali­tion, where he helped unify more than two dozen road­side com­mu­ni­ties to sup­port im­me­di­ate so­lu­tions to con­ges­tion.

Here, Zem­ler — who is fond of ask­ing ques­tions and then an­swer­ing them him­self as a way to il­lus­trate a point of view — ad­dresses press­ing is­sues for Vail in the years ahead.

Ques­tion: Will I-70 ever be a free-flow­ing high­way?

An­swer: Hell, no. That in­ter­state is a curse and a bless­ing. If you ex­pe­ri­ence a traf­fic jam a few times but you get a chance to come up here and have this in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence, is it worth it? There’s noth­ing like com­ing out of China Bowl and hit­ting the top and see­ing that view. It’s mind blow­ing. If you have to sit in traf­fic for 20 ex­tra min­utes or 40 min­utes … I’ll trade that off any day of the week.

Q: Are we spilling (park­ing onto the Vail frontage roads) a few more days than CDOT might like us to?

A: Yes. But we’ve done a good job with Sun­day church park­ing. We widened the Frontage Road and we put 12-foot (pedes­trian-pro­tect­ing) bar­ri­ers in. We’ve made more pedes­trian and park­ing safety im­prove­ments to make it even bet­ter on the days when we do go onto the Frontage Road.

Q: Does it make sense eco­nom­i­cally to build our way out of this (park­ing prob­lem)?

A: Ab­so­lutely not, if you av­er­age 20 days of cars on the Frontage Road and it costs more than $100,000 to build a park­ing spot. Do the math.

Q: Are we ever go­ing to solve the hous­ing prob­lem?

A: Prob­a­bly not. But we will al­ways be ag­gres­sively push­ing and al­ways watch­ing for each op­por­tu­nity. (He waves to a truck­load of gog­gle­tanned town work­ers as they creep through Vail Vil­lage on a main­te­nance task.) There are a few of our boys. They’ve fig­ured out a way to live here. Are they driv­ing fur­ther? Yes, and that’s a prob­lem. But we are ac­knowl­edg­ing that part of the cul­ture and try­ing to keep it go­ing. I think you are al­ways go­ing to have work­ers like that and we should cham­pion them. There are al­ways peo­ple who want this ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s part of the cul­ture. How do we fig­ure out a way to cel­e­brate that cul­ture? I’ve al­ways been just fas­ci­nated and re­spect­ful of the peo­ple who do their win­ter thing, get their days in and then in the off­sea­son go guide rafts or some­thing, and they just put it all to­gether. Q: So what now? A: I’m go­ing to walk around town and if I see peo­ple at work I’m go­ing to say, “Did you get up on the moun­tain to­day?” I got that ques­tion al­most ev­ery day and I said, “Does it look like I got up on the moun­tain to­day? No, I was work­ing.” Now I’m go­ing to be the one ask­ing that ques­tion.

RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

Stan Zem­ler, Vail’s am­bi­tious town man­ager, will re­tire in April af­ter more than 13 years of pi­lot­ing the re­sort com­mu­nity through a $2 bil­lion re­nais­sance while en­dur­ing a belt-tight­en­ing re­ces­sion.

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