Kaye Ferry Loves Riff-Raff

It’s ironic that Kaye Ferry ended her eighteen-year run as head of the Vail Chamber and Business Association this week enmeshed in a controversy over a word as ridiculous as "riff-raff," considering that she’s said so much worse on the record before.

The outspoken commentator on Vail politics was quoted last week by the website Colorado Confidential as referring to Front Range skiers and snowboarders as “riff-raff” who could upset the careful balance of wealthy residents and out-of-state tourists in the well-heeled mountain town. “Throughout the history of [Vail], we have appealed to exclusivity,” Ferry was quoted in a story about the resort’s $579 Epic Pass, which is designed to draw more metro-area skiers to the slopes. “We had eliminated the Front Range riff-raff and all of a sudden, we’re selling a pass that’s to the masses.”

Ferry denies using "riff-raff"; Colorado Confidential reporter David O. Williams says she did. Either way, the riff-raff down on the plains are pissed. On message boards and online comments, they call Ferry an elitist. They imagine her as an out-of-touch, pearl-and-fur-wearing, champagne-sipping blue-blood, sneering at prairie-dwellers from the top of her faux Bavarian tower. There are grumblings of a skier revolution – kind of like the French one but with snowballs and windshield scrapers.

I’d be sharpening my snowboard edges, too, if it weren’t for my personal experience with Ferry, who showed herself to be one of the most forthright and entertaining figures in the small resort city. In April 2006, I was in Vail working on a story about a controversial redevelopment of a building called Solaris at the center of town (“Vail at the Crossroads,” May 4, 2006). In her regular column in the Vail Daily, Ferry had established herself as a strong supporter of the project, and I’d asked her to meet me for drinks.

I showed up at her one-room office at the top of the Vail Village parking structure and expected we’d relocate to some swanky martini bar for overpriced cocktails. Instead, she suggested we walk directly downstairs to a low-budget Mexican cantina inside the parking garage where she promptly ordered a margarita. She had just gotten off her other job teaching ski school, she explained. Besides that, she said she was a member of “the liquor board and a bunch of other shit," then launched into a profanity-laced oratory that criticized the privileged “old guard” within the town leadership as being fearful of change and newcomers. She talked crap about Vail Mayor Rod Slifer. She ordered a second margarita.

After a day of trying to break through the carefully contrived language of PR representatives and politicians, it was refreshing to hear such a brutally candid assessment of the town’s political landscape – especially from the head of the local business chamber. I got the feeling that Ferry was used to getting in trouble for saying what was on her mind and had long ago found a way to handle the blowback.

Indeed, Williams, who has reported on issues in Vail for a long time, noted in a subsequent Colorado Confidential post that Ferry’s opinionated takes have often put her at odds with town leadership and Vail Resorts. Williams even quoted my quote of Ferry talking about developer Peter Knobel’s difficulty getting his Solaris project approved:

"No matter what anyone wants to think, this is not a sleepy little town anymore," Ferry said. "This is a town that has a lot of money in it and a lot of power in it, a lot of people with egos and a lot of people with goals. And up until now, it's only been them. And he's come in and he's said, ‘I've got a legitimate property that I can do legitimate things with. And I've worked my way through the system, and you guys just can't fuck me anymore, and I'm going to win.' And they don't like that."

But here’s the thing: Ferry supported the $250 million development because of the amenities it would bring, such as a new movie theater, an ice rink, an arcade and underground parking – things would attract young people, families and day-trippers from the city. Can you say riff-raff?

For her part, Ferry insists that she isn’t even sure who the term "riff-raff" refers to. Not to mention that she’s been dependent on riff-raff types at different points in her life. After moving from Chicago to Vail more than twenty years ago, she opened the popular Daily Grind coffeehouse/bar on Bridge Street, where many of her employees had a certain riff-raff appearance. “I imagine riff-raff was half of my customers,” she notes. The shop closed in 2003.

Her issue with the Epic Pass is that the town already lacks sufficient parking, forcing day-trippers onto a frontage road that the state says is to be used only in emergency overflow situations. An increase in visitors may be great for the resort, but it screws the locals who can’t find spots and then the businesses that depend on plentiful parking.

Still, Ferry says it has long been apparent that her willingness to run her mouth wasn’t jiving with her position, especially in the midst of the town’s billion-dollar redevelopment. She told the mayor about her decision to step down as queen bee of the chamber weeks before the riff-raff flap – a contention confirmed by several Vail political insiders. Monday was the last day of the season, and therefore of her tenure.

“I have been outspoken, because I do have opinions. I’ve had to walk a fine line because as the head of the chamber, you’ve got to please a lot of people, and now I won’t have to watch what I say every day of my life,” she says. “And just coincidentally this other thing happened and everybody’s giving those idiots [at Colorado Confidential] too much credit.”

She says she plans to continue writing columns and being involved with Vail politics, including fighting for more parking. Four months ago, she purchased a carriage house in Denver where she plans to live part of the year, in Cherry Creek. Not exactly riff-raff central, but at least it’s a start. – Jared Jacang Maher

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes