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January 12, 2010  |  permalink

The Vail Aerotropolis

Suburban Empire (think Jim Kunstler with less rage and more coherence) has posted an interesting jeremiad against the “Edwards Mircopolitan Statistical Area (EMSA),” better known as Vail and the towns in its economic orbit along I-70. The author rails against the typical suburban sprawl that has sprung up along the highway to service the middlebrow skiers:

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“Wal-Mart, Costco, Burger King, Comfort Inn, Wendy’s, Starbucks, Outback Steak House… and of course the “resorts” like Christie Lodge (“you have been selected to receive a free trip, just attend our short ownership advantage meeting”), Arrowhead, Vail, Streamside, Beaver Creek, any number of big name hotels…. and the exclusive subdivisions like Cordillera…. all jammed into the narrow and otherwise pretty valley, it takes just short of an hour to drive through it all, and on some days there is even a brown cloud floating above.”

As someone who grew up a flat-earther in Illinois, skiing is foreign to me (maybe my kids will learn at Stowe), and so I had no idea about the traits of the various ski towns in the Rockies, which the author describes at length:

The “Vail Valley” is one of the more milquetoast resort areas on the planet, and it is quite challenging to put a personality on it…. because it lacks so much. Aspen is about glamor, hard drugs, and the local sheriff running interference against the DEA on behalf of the drug industry… Hunter S. Thompson ran for sheriff there, and there were the stars who followed John Denver, kings, and rich Arabs with big jets into town. Telluride was (and still is) a hideout for people on the run from the law, a nasty divorce, etc….. Steamboat is serious Western “Ca-Boy” town, spurs, boots, and shit…. Even Park City has “Sundance”, and Olympic glory…. but Vail is just big (and no longer the biggest) and very, very, burby. In this I am not comparing the ski mountain, but rather the towns that support the mountain… after all you can’t ski all the time.

The reason for this is that Vail, unlike the others, is a recent creation:

Aspen, Telluride, Crested Butte, Breckenridge and Steamboat all had existing, old mining towns that were falling apart before the ski industry arrived. Most are cute and very Victorian. Vail wasn’t born until 1965 and started pretty much from scratch. While it was supposed to convey the feel of a Swiss ski town, somehow Vail comes across as if architect “Mike Brady” from the Brady Bunch had a hand in the design of everything in town. So many of the buildings come off as what the future was, instead of what the future will be… even the new ones. All and all the areas off I-70 between mm 140 and 180 come off as very suburban, and a little depressing.

How do you build a ski town from scratch in 1965, in the middle of the Colorado Rockies no less? Well, the advent of cross-country jet service just six years before helps:

If you were to go back in time to 1960 and tell a resident of the town of Gypsum that by 1995 their town would have nonstop, wide-body, jet service to Chicago, Atlanta, Newark, Dallas, and Los Angeles they would have laughed you right down to the bar and bought you a drink so they could sit down and explain the realities of the Western Colorado economy, and ranching. Then you could explain the realities of cheap oil and skiing to them and point out that not only would Gypsum have a powerhouse regional airport, but nearby Avon would open and close a private STOL-port owned by Rocky Mountain Airways in the interim; and a major four lane highway would be coming, and ultimately push West, right through Glenwood Canyon…... and you would have been laughed out of the bar and right out of town.

A quick check of Wikipedia lists additional non-stop service (some seasonal) to New York, Houston, Miami, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Minneapolis. Vail would seem to fit one definition of an aerotropolis—a place that would otherwise not exist without air service. But add non-stops to the equation and this is what you get. Whether the results are worth it depends on where you stand (and, evidently, on when you sold out):

Within the next four decades any of the people who laughed you out of the bar (and who also owned land in or near the town) would be laughing all the way to the bank. Environmentalists would spend that same era weeping for the “scars upon the land” caused by people like John Denver promoting the “Colorado Mountain Lifestyle” simply by building mansions, skiing, and snorting coke by the ton.

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion.  He is also a partner at FutureMap, a geo-strategic advisory firm based in Singapore, a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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