MEET THE MAN WHO PERSUADED VAIL TO INVEST IN ITSELF
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
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.
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.