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Vail Resorts a good corporate citizen, most say

Cliff Thompson, Tribune News Service

VAIL, Colo. — If you talk to community leaders in Colorado, where Vail Resorts operates its upscale ski resorts today, most of them will tell you the company is a good community member committed to inclusive decision-making.

But it wasn’t always that way.

In 1992, when the company emerged under new ownership from the bankrupt George Gillett Jr., relations with the town of Vail were a little tense. After all, the town’s future is inextricably linked to the ski mountain and its operation. The Vail Town Council at one point discussed condemning the ski area through eminent domain.

At that point, relations between the mountain and the town were about as strained as they could get. These days, it’s sounding a little like a group hug between the ski company and local governments.

“They’re a pretty damn good corporate citizen,” says Vail Town Manager Bob McLaurin, who has been in Vail nearly a decade. “They are well-capitalized and have people on their staff that understand the public process. They’re smart business people and stay focused on the bottom line, but they understand the civic side of things. I don’t believe they get credit for it.”

The Vail community, not surprisingly, has a variety of perspectives.

Ski-industry expert and developer Jerry Jones of Avon, a former employee and frequent critic of Vail Resorts, grudgingly admits the company has done a good job.

“I do believe what they have done as far as vertically integrating all their activities and maximizing their marketing through all aspects to their profit centers has been fabulous,” he says.

Jones says Vail Resorts has become a strong competitor for Intrawest, as well as other Colorado ski resorts.

“They have done a better job of taking away market share in the state,” he says.

Last May, in the midst of its most profitable year, Vail Resorts laid off 37 mid-level managers in Colorado’s Eagle and Summit counties. Many of those had worked for the company for 30 or more years. The move provoked a fair amount of community criticism. The laid-off workers were, however, given generous severance packages that in some instances amounted to a year’s salary. Those who were due bonuses were paid, too.

It has been somewhat of a learning process for the company, says Andy Daly, president of Vail Resorts. “We’ve gone through a couple of metamorphoses. When Apollo gained control of the company in 1992, there was a lot of damage control. I was able to forge some relationships and build some confidence in the community.

“Then we merged (with Breckenridge and Keystone) and we may have been a little slow to realize (that we needed to stay connected),” Daly adds. “Now we’re extdodinarily sensitive to that.”

Daly says he and other company executives have already made numerous trips to Heavenly to begin the process of engaging the community there.

When Vail Resorts’ chief executive officer, Adam Aron, took over the helm he said he felt it was a good idea not to interfere with the operation of the towns. He later admitted publicly that that was a mistake.

This week the town of Breckenridge and Vail Resorts signed an 18-month, mutually-forged development agreement for $800 million in development the ski company plans. It includes ski area expansion, a gondola, base area development and parking.

“They’ve really stepped to the table with a new framework for how to partner with the community,” says Breckenridge Town Manager Tim Gagen. “If we disagree, we step back for a while to give everyone a chance to reformat their thoughts.”

It’s much the same in Avon, Colo., where six-year Town Manager Bill Efting says he’s “worked with a couple of ski companies and (VR’s) pretty open. We don’t always agree, but it’s not taken personally.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests it may be as much the people involved in the process as it is policy.

“The people I deal with — Andy Daly, Adam Aron and (Vail Mountain’s chief operating officer) Bill Jensen — I have a lot of respect for,” says Vail’s McLaurin.

The biggest downside for McLaurin is having ownership outside of the community. Vail Resorts is controlled by New York-based Apollo Investors.

But that group provides the ski company with excellent access to capital, and that is significant when it comes to accessing capital for expansion and improvements.

In Colorado, the company has invested more than $330 million in its four mountains over the last five years. That’s an average of $16.5 million per mountain per year.

On the civic side of the equation, the company spends nearly $4 million annually in grants and in-kind product donations, according to its corporate contributions department. Those donations include:

— Dental care for low-income children.

— Housing in Summit and Eagle counties for Habitat for Humanity.

— A gift of $10,000 to the Vail Associates Community Scholarship.

— Substantial contributions to the Bravo! Vail Valley Musical Festival.

— Cash and in-kind support for the Summit and Vail Valley foundations.

— Cleaning up highway traction sand along Interstate 70 aT Vail Pass.

— Funding for the town of Eagle’s first ice rink.


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