Vail at the Crossroads

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Supporters pointed to other benefits. Solaris has the potential to bring in $1.4 million in annual sales-tax revenue and doesn't require any of the tax-increment financing schemes that cities often shell out to developers, they said. In fact, according to Solaris's lead planner, Dominic Mauriello, the project will pay for $4 million in streetscape improvements on East Meadow Drive.

The discussion continued on through three hearings, each more than four hours long, each full of bitter and contentious talk. And on August 2, the town council came out three to four against the project, with the majority saying that Knobel's plans needed still more adjustments.

But instead of going back to the drawing board, an exasperated and angry Knobel announced the next day that he was pulling the proposal, and that the decaying Crossroads would stay in its current state indefinitely.

"At the time they say to you, 'You're close,'" Knobel remembers. "And when we were close, we cut our building 10 percent in size, and they'd come back and say, 'You're close.' So at that point it became kind of a game. We said, 'Listen, we've got a great project. If it's not this council, it'll be the next council or the council after that or the council after that.'"

On the surface, it seemed that Knobel had surrendered. But the group Citizens for Change was already gearing up, registering voters -- particularly younger residents, families, seasonal workers and business owners -- and hosting its own debates. Although one of his own employees was leading the charge, Knobel says he gave no money to the campaign. "So no developer sat here and bought 500 radio spots and $50,000 worth of ads or anything like that," he adds.

Behind the scenes, though, Donovan says Knobel mounted a "smear campaign" against the two councilmembers who most opposed him -- Cleveland and herself -- and "let everybody know he was out to get us. Which is why I decided to run again." Also running was a newcomer, Mark Gordon, who supported Solaris.

With Vail's population of 4,500 residents -- about 3,800 of them registered voters -- it doesn't take much to sway a council election. And in a surprise upset, Donovan and Cleveland were both voted out, and Gordon was elected.

Knobel declared the election results a public mandate for his project. Within a month, he'd resubmitted his plans to the planning commission, which quickly passed them on to town council. On March 21, the council reversed its vote, approving Knobel's project four to three and looking to a 2007 start date for construction.

"I always say Vail is a Disneyland made out of real things," Donovan notes. "It's a pretend place -- it's also a real place that we live in -- but what we sell is this pretend European village that people don't get to just go to on the weekends, but they do because Vail's here. But it's still a community, a mountain community. It's not a suburb or a city. Even if it technically became that, we can't call it that. So it's not about what it will become, it's the product we sell. And if they want to make it all glass and chrome, then we're not selling what we've been so successful at for so long."

But that product is already changing.

Heading west on the frontage road toward the Holiday Inn, you pass Vail's most distinguishing feature: not the mountains, but construction cranes. They represent the infrastructure "renaissance" that boosters tout on www.futurevail.com as a "new chapter in Vail's legacy" in the push to become the "premier mountain resort community in the world."

Inside the Holiday Inn is the West Side Cafe, the place where locals like Jim Lamont and Rob Ford come to discuss politics. They used to go to a different spot in Vail Village, but it was torn down for a new development.

Ford is one of 35 residents working to collect enough signatures -- the target is 388 -- to put Crossroads' redevelopment to a public vote. Knobel's plan would be a dramatic change, he points out, and a referendum would give the whole town a chance to make the decision collectively. "With the old guard, unless their concerns are addressed, they are going to be cranky forever," he says. "You really can't appease these people until you give them the right to vote."

Tanned, with a voice like Casey Kasem, Ford refers to the old guard in the third person -- but the 55-year-old is the first to admit that he probably falls in this category, too. After Pete Siebert, a vet from the 10th Mountain Division, got together with Earl Eaton to found Vail Associates and start building a village at the base of the mountain, Ford's father bought one of the first partnership interests in Vail in 1963. Unlike at old mining towns like Aspen or Breckenridge that were starting to sprout ski areas, "there were no buildings here at all," Ford remembers. "Everything had to be built from the ground up. It was real pioneer stuff."

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Jared Jacang Maher