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Vail vs. Whistler

Vail vs. Whistler

Features
By Hal Clifford
posted: 11/21/2000

First Came Vail
For Pete Seibert, it was simple: "This was the West. This was America." In 1957, Seibert and Earl Eaton became convinced that the unnamed peak above Colorado's Gore Creek Valley had success written all over it. Eagle County, Colo., was a rural ranching community during Seibert's salad days. The county seat, Eagle, was 24 miles from what would become Vail and, in a land where just about everybody felt a man could do what he wanted with his property, nobody said "boo" about some guys taking a chance on a remote ski hill. "We were well removed, 100 miles west of Denver," Seibert says. "Eagle County had no planning commission at the time. They couldn't anticipate what might happen."

Seibert is a veteran of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, a fabled troop that fought in Italy and then launched more than 2,000 of its veterans into the American skiing industry. Since his childhood days in New England, Seibert had wanted to build a ski resort. With a handful of Denver friends, he and Eaton bought 1,200 acres at the base of their coveted mountain under the auspices of the specious Transmontane Rod & Gun Club, an organization that never hunted or fished for anything except land. In 1959, they obtained a permit from the U.S. Forest Service to build a ski area, but it included a key condition: The developers had to have $1.8 million in hand by December 1961.

Seibert and his partners raised money in $5,000 and $10,000 chunks, sometimes throwing in a house lot and a couple of lifetime ski passes to entice the original partners of Vail Associates to ante up. Then they built their resort as fast as they could, replicating the energy and purpose of Colorado's mining boom towns.

Vail was a product of pure faith in a sport that was only beginning to bloom, a resort built within a laissez-faire political environment where the government didn't care what developers did. Whistler Village, coming 15 years later, was Vail's child-and, like so many children, its opposite, built when growth in the skiing market was a sure thing, constructed by an extraordinary partnership in which the government itself was the developer and nothing was left to chance. In the simplest terms, those distinctions at the very beginning are why Whistler looks like Whistler today, and why Vail looks like Vail.

"There were about five buildings in Vail," says Elaine Kelton, who came to Vail in 1964 and still lives here. "None of us came here with a degree in hotel or retail management, starting a church, building a hospital, whatever. The community basically divided up-you take the church, I'll take the hospital."

Vail opened its lifts on Dec. 15, 1962 and counted a meager 50,000 skier days that first season, but it was off and running. "I acted as the Pied Piper," Seibert recalls, "and they believed me, because I believed myself. I didn't doubt for a moment. I knew in my mind this was going to work. I just didn't quite know how it was going to work."

The place grew like Topsy, and so it did work. Seibert had been deeply influenced by Lech, St. Anton and other European resorts that seemed to hang together as a whole. He and architects Fitzhugh Scott and Fritz Benedict envisioned a small, cohesive town. The trio comprised the architectural review committee-the only review until the town government was formed.

"It did not have the planning that goes on today," Kelton says. "Eagle County, for the first 10 years of Vail, was very much in the background." The town was formally constituted in 1966. Vail sold its millionth lift ticket in 1968. Suddenly people were building, and building fast. Seibert sold off property to individuals who would construct hotels, restaurants and homes. "My philosophy was that we would attract individuals and they would make their statement, and that would add to the mix," he says. "That way we could get a village with character and different inputs."

Plenty of Vail's pioneers had faith in the vision. Archict Scott built the very first home in Vail, just threw it up beside what would become Bridge Street that first crazy summer before the lifts opened, didn't ask anybody, didn't concern himself about who owned the property (it turned out Scott didn't, but Vail Associates did). Josef Staufer, an Austrian war refugee on his way to a California hotel job, stopped by a month after the lifts started running. The next day he was the manager of the Mid-Vail restaurant. Soon he was running The Lodge at Vail. Convinced that summer business would come, he opened The Lodge during the warm months-and waited 10 days for a customer to arrive. Staufer would eventually own the Vail Village Inn and serve on town council.

Seibert envisioned success, but he hadn't counted on what would happen beyond the resort's 1,200 original acres if things took off. "Vail was one of the first ski resorts that was designed as a ski resort and a community from scratch, so we naturally made a lot of mistakes," says Rod Slifer, who started his career in Vail as the assistant ski school director, went on to serve as mayor and is now a partner in Slifer, Smith & Frampton, the valley's dominant real estate firm. "The reality was that Vail Associates was strapped for capital, and they used all of their resources in developing the ski mountain." Seibert tried to exert some architectural control in the Village, but skiing was growing at a phenomenal rate and development was pushing down the valley, filling the former ranch lands. The boom was on-and it still is.

Then Came Whistler
While Seibert and Eaton were scrambling for their first funds, a consortium of Vancouver businessmen was sniffing around Garibaldi Provincial Park in British Columbia's Coast Range, seeking a possible site for a future Winter Olympics. Encouraged by a positive report from Austrian skier Willie Schaeffler concerning the mountains above the fishing resort of Alta, the group raised $800,000 and committed itself to building lifts on the south side of Whistler Mountain, at what is now the Creekside portion of the ski area.

The first paying skiers arrived on Feb. 15, 1966, following a rough dirt road. Alta had been a popular fishing resort since the Twenties, but there was no town or local government, and as more homes and lodges popped up among the tall timber of the Fraser River Valley, problems developed.

Most significant was pollution of the popular fishing lakes in the early Seventies, a problem attributable to inadequate septic systems. Something had to be done.

That something involved government at the highest levels. The late Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, an avid skier, hungered for a world-class Canadian ski resort. Al Raine, the Canadian National Ski Team's former coach, and his wife, Olympian Nancy Greene, had just the place at Alta.

The provincial government of British Columbia froze development in the Fraser Valley to create breathing room, then created the Resort Municipality of Whistler on Sept. 6, 1975. The governmental equivalent of a platypus, it was a public-private hybrid that had as its goal the creation and development of Whistler Village on what was then the local dump.

"The municipal council basically made a plan for the valley. They decided where development should occur, and they decided how much development should occur," says Drew Meredith, who ran the Whistler Resort Association for 14 years and is now president of The Whistler Real Estate Co. "They got anything they wanted. They had the prime minister of Canada, they had the premier of British Columbia eating out of their hands." The provincial government threw $10.45 million into the pot to help things along. Unlike Eagle County, Colo., the government down the road in Victoria was very interested indeed in what the ski pioneers were up to.

The critical factor in Whistler's development was that most of the land in the Fraser Valley was owned not by ranchers but by the government, or "crown." Because the land for the village was crown land, town council members, who also sat as the board of directors of the Whistler Land Development Company and were charged with building the resort, didn't have to worry about pesky details like private property rights. The village was envisioned first, then carved out of the public domain.

Properties were put up for bid in four phases, and every parcel was described in terms of what could be built there, what the mix of uses would be, how big the building could be. Before the land for a building was sold, the government had determined almost everything but the paint color on the window trim.

"You could create a master plan, you could put covenants on the titles to those properties, you could create design guidelines for the properties, volumetrics for how the building was constructed," recalls Mike Purcell, Whistler's town planning director. "Once that was done and the land was subdivided and sold off, then anybody buying the parcel knew what they were getting right from the outset. I think," he adds, "Canadians tend to be a little more accepting of government."

Not everybody was happy with the heavy-handedness of Ottawa and Victoria. The land outside the village core was down-zoned in the name of compact village development. "Once the development of the village was confirmed in the late Seventies it was pretty much scorched earth for the rest of the valley for commercial development, creating a number of very unhappy landowners," Meredith says.

The differences between Vail and Whistler were as simple as this: At Vail, Seibert and his cohorts saw a chance to make something happen in the open spaces of the American West, where the myth of Manifest Destiny and the power of property rights reigned supreme. The Gore Creek and Eagle River valleys were full of potential-and risk. At Whistler, everybody knew by 1976 exactly what was going to happen, because the government told them.

"We are the most planned community in Canada," says Meredith. "It's amazing how the plan that was laid out in the mid-Seventies by the town fathers has played out so well."

That planning stands as Whistler's great innovation. Vail's signature innovation was Seibert's determination to build a village tied to a ski mountain, and to draw from Europe's best mountain villages as his design inspiration. Only one other American resort, Sun Valley in the Thirties, had tried this. Otherwise, skiing in the early Sixties involved a few lifts coming out of existing towns such as Aspen or thrown up near a farmer's fields. Seibert also understood, 20 years before Whistler's town fathers did, the financial reasons to build a year-round resort.

He pushed hard and early for the golf course that was built in the late Sixties just east of Golden Peak's base-the first of 12 golf courses that now dot the Gore Creek and Eagle valleys. "I had to fight and argue with the board of directors," Seibert says. "They said, 'What do you need a golf course for?' They probably thought it would give me a chance to goof off. I knew the bank wants its money 12 months a year, and you can't live on winter alone."

Seibert found Terry Minger, who signed on as Vail's first town manager in 1969, and Eldon Beck, a California landscape architect who in 1972 convinced Vail Associates to convert the core of Vail Village to a pedestrian zone. Both men eventually were recruited to help develop Whistler Village, beginning a long tradition of one resort stealing ideas from the other.

"We tried to address the things that we had seen that didn't work in Vail and other places," Minger says. "By 1970, Whistler knew the market was there; it was just a question of capturing it."

Ground was broken on Aug. 21, 1978 for Whistler Village. By December 1980, new lifts were running at Blackcomb and Whistler, the two Canadian peaks bracketing the nascent Whistler Village, where early planning decisions still affect property owners. Whistler "crown." Because the land for the village was crown land, town council members, who also sat as the board of directors of the Whistler Land Development Company and were charged with building the resort, didn't have to worry about pesky details like private property rights. The village was envisioned first, then carved out of the public domain.

Properties were put up for bid in four phases, and every parcel was described in terms of what could be built there, what the mix of uses would be, how big the building could be. Before the land for a building was sold, the government had determined almost everything but the paint color on the window trim.

"You could create a master plan, you could put covenants on the titles to those properties, you could create design guidelines for the properties, volumetrics for how the building was constructed," recalls Mike Purcell, Whistler's town planning director. "Once that was done and the land was subdivided and sold off, then anybody buying the parcel knew what they were getting right from the outset. I think," he adds, "Canadians tend to be a little more accepting of government."

Not everybody was happy with the heavy-handedness of Ottawa and Victoria. The land outside the village core was down-zoned in the name of compact village development. "Once the development of the village was confirmed in the late Seventies it was pretty much scorched earth for the rest of the valley for commercial development, creating a number of very unhappy landowners," Meredith says.

The differences between Vail and Whistler were as simple as this: At Vail, Seibert and his cohorts saw a chance to make something happen in the open spaces of the American West, where the myth of Manifest Destiny and the power of property rights reigned supreme. The Gore Creek and Eagle River valleys were full of potential-and risk. At Whistler, everybody knew by 1976 exactly what was going to happen, because the government told them.

"We are the most planned community in Canada," says Meredith. "It's amazing how the plan that was laid out in the mid-Seventies by the town fathers has played out so well."

That planning stands as Whistler's great innovation. Vail's signature innovation was Seibert's determination to build a village tied to a ski mountain, and to draw from Europe's best mountain villages as his design inspiration. Only one other American resort, Sun Valley in the Thirties, had tried this. Otherwise, skiing in the early Sixties involved a few lifts coming out of existing towns such as Aspen or thrown up near a farmer's fields. Seibert also understood, 20 years before Whistler's town fathers did, the financial reasons to build a year-round resort.

He pushed hard and early for the golf course that was built in the late Sixties just east of Golden Peak's base-the first of 12 golf courses that now dot the Gore Creek and Eagle valleys. "I had to fight and argue with the board of directors," Seibert says. "They said, 'What do you need a golf course for?' They probably thought it would give me a chance to goof off. I knew the bank wants its money 12 months a year, and you can't live on winter alone."

Seibert found Terry Minger, who signed on as Vail's first town manager in 1969, and Eldon Beck, a California landscape architect who in 1972 convinced Vail Associates to convert the core of Vail Village to a pedestrian zone. Both men eventually were recruited to help develop Whistler Village, beginning a long tradition of one resort stealing ideas from the other.

"We tried to address the things that we had seen that didn't work in Vail and other places," Minger says. "By 1970, Whistler knew the market was there; it was just a question of capturing it."

Ground was broken on Aug. 21, 1978 for Whistler Village. By December 1980, new lifts were running at Blackcomb and Whistler, the two Canadian peaks bracketing the nascent Whistler Village, where early planning decisions still affect property owners. Whistler's Phase II and Phase III condominium owners may not reside in their units for more than eight weeks annually, and for the rest of each year must hand their property over for rental to tourists. These covenants were all part of the plan to keep Whistler's beds full of free-spending visitors rather than becoming a haven for vacant second homes, as has happened in Vail.

Today, at the base of Blackcomb and Whistler ski areas, a small satellite dish gathers a musical feed that is broadcast for the entertainment of skiers and boarders. Until 11 a.m., the music is classical; from 11 to 2 it's middle-of-the-road; after that, it's contemporary rock and rap for the après-skiers. These decisions are made by executives at Intrawest Corp., who run Whistler and Blackcomb and much of Whistler Village's real estate. Such decisions follow the command-and-control approach first elucidated by landscape architect Beck, who was hired to design Whistler Village after his work at Vail. Visiting Whistler Village is nice today because planners intend it to be nice; a ski shop or Starbucks or quaint French bistro is located where it is because Intrawest thought that it should be there, not because that's where an entrepreneur found some space for rent.

Whistler Village is the first ski resort that has tried to emulate-and compete with-Disney's theme parks and the world's cruise lines. "Disney is phenomenal," says Hugh Smythe, who is in charge of resort operations for Intrawest. "I sort of take it as a compliment when somebody says we're like Disney."

At Vail, things worked differently. "We went to them and we said to Vail Associates, 'We'd like to build a ski lodge, what land do you have available?'" Kelton says. The result was a ski town that was a little less arranged and a little more organic.

If he has any regrets-and he has few-Pete Seibert wishes two things: That Vail Associates (now Vail Resorts) had, in fact, been able to control more land, and that Interstate 70 had not come through the fledgling town in the early Seventies, forever altering its rural character.

"Twelve hundred acres was all we could afford at the time," Seibert says of Vail's inception, "and it gave us enough property to do what we wanted to do, but obviously we should have owned the whole valley, or at least been able to control it. Now we're even impacting Gypsum, which is 30 miles west of here."

The town of Vail today is 10 miles long and a half mile wide, stretching from the base of Vail Pass to Dowd Junction, where Gore Creek meets the Eagle River. Of the town's 3,200 acres, almost a third is open space, although the whole is ripped by I-70. The highway makes for a quick trip from Denver, but it destroys the pastoral character of the Gore Valley. Seibert preferred the old two-lane U.S. Highway 6 and wishes that were still the route from the east and that the Interstate had gone over a different pass.tler's Phase II and Phase III condominium owners may not reside in their units for more than eight weeks annually, and for the rest of each year must hand their property over for rental to tourists. These covenants were all part of the plan to keep Whistler's beds full of free-spending visitors rather than becoming a haven for vacant second homes, as has happened in Vail.

Today, at the base of Blackcomb and Whistler ski areas, a small satellite dish gathers a musical feed that is broadcast for the entertainment of skiers and boarders. Until 11 a.m., the music is classical; from 11 to 2 it's middle-of-the-road; after that, it's contemporary rock and rap for the après-skiers. These decisions are made by executives at Intrawest Corp., who run Whistler and Blackcomb and much of Whistler Village's real estate. Such decisions follow the command-and-control approach first elucidated by landscape architect Beck, who was hired to design Whistler Village after his work at Vail. Visiting Whistler Village is nice today because planners intend it to be nice; a ski shop or Starbucks orr quaint French bistro is located where it is because Intrawest thought that it should be there, not because that's where an entrepreneur found some space for rent.

Whistler Village is the first ski resort that has tried to emulate-and compete with-Disney's theme parks and the world's cruise lines. "Disney is phenomenal," says Hugh Smythe, who is in charge of resort operations for Intrawest. "I sort of take it as a compliment when somebody says we're like Disney."

At Vail, things worked differently. "We went to them and we said to Vail Associates, 'We'd like to build a ski lodge, what land do you have available?'" Kelton says. The result was a ski town that was a little less arranged and a little more organic.

If he has any regrets-and he has few-Pete Seibert wishes two things: That Vail Associates (now Vail Resorts) had, in fact, been able to control more land, and that Interstate 70 had not come through the fledgling town in the early Seventies, forever altering its rural character.

"Twelve hundred acres was all we could afford at the time," Seibert says of Vail's inception, "and it gave us enough property to do what we wanted to do, but obviously we should have owned the whole valley, or at least been able to control it. Now we're even impacting Gypsum, which is 30 miles west of here."

The town of Vail today is 10 miles long and a half mile wide, stretching from the base of Vail Pass to Dowd Junction, where Gore Creek meets the Eagle River. Of the town's 3,200 acres, almost a third is open space, although the whole is ripped by I-70. The highway makes for a quick trip from Denver, but it destroys the pastoral character of the Gore Valley. Seibert preferred the old two-lane U.S. Highway 6 and wishes that were still the route from the east and that the Interstate had gone over a different pass.

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