Riley:Lessons From the Alps | Guest Commentary
by Dave Riley, CEO Telluride Ski and Golf Co.
Oct 28, 2007 | 539 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In the July issue of Swiss News, St Moritz Tourism Director Hanspeter Danuser talks about the “Cold Bed Syndrome” that is destroying alpine mountain communities in Europe.

Evidently, wealthy foreigners are buying up houses and using them only three or four weeks of the year and leaving them deserted the rest of the time. At this point, the percent of cold beds in St Moritz has risen to an incredible 58 percent. The steady second home boom over the last 15 years has been marked by a steady decline in hotel stays.

“We have sold the cow instead of feeding it well and selling the milk,” Danuser says aptly. “It is a general problem for Swiss destinations. The long dead season is bad for the image – and just as bad for the local economy.”

Danuser’s solution is to renovate existing buildings in the center of the villages, hotels or other structures, and turn them into apartments that people can buy – on the condition that they are willing to rent them out when they are not in use.

The Swiss alpine village of Crans-Montana has been so damaged by the Cold Bed Syndrome that voters passed legislation which bans foreigners from buying holiday homes in seven local communities, including the resort of Verbier. Under the terms of the new rules, a new construction will only be permitted if at least 70 percent of the building is permanently occupied or used commercially. Another measure reduces the annual amount of land that holiday homes may be built on from 14,000 square metres to 8,000 square meters.

The foundation of Swiss environmentalist Franz Weber will launch a people’s initiative “Save Swiss soil” in December. It calls for a limit on the percentage of holiday homes in resorts to 20 percent. In Crans-Montana the level is well over 50 percent. “If this is not done, we will no longer have any countryside but a single town that stretches from Lake Constance to Geneva,” Weber says. “Added to that, prices will explode to such an extent that the Swiss will no longer have the means to buy or rent.”

Alpine community residents and small business operators all across Europe are becoming very concerned about cold beds and the lack of accommodation in some resorts despite thousands of beds remaining empty. With nowhere to stay, tourists are moving on and infrastructure such as ski lifts is going unused. High land prices also mean it has been more tempting to build expensive holiday homes for wealthy foreigners rather than hotels.

The local officials are recognizing a “hollowing out” of their communities. For decades, family-run boutique hotels lined the busy pedestrian oriented car-free streets in the high alpine villages of the Alps. Now, people are purchasing these hotels, combining small hotel rooms into large luxury condominiums which are occupied infrequently at best. Hotels that have been operating for several generations by families are now selling out for the quick buck, at the expense of the long-term sustainability of the historic mountain communities. Numerous articles regarding this significant problem can be found on www.swissinfo.ch.

Some communities have become very aggressive and creative. I was told by a friend recently that some alpine municipalities in Europe are paying free market condo owners the capital costs to remodel their units if they agree to put them into a rental pool. Taxes are being restructured to reduce the burden on commercial lodging units and increasing the burden on cold bed units.

Now to Telluride. Can we learn from our neighbors in the Swiss Alps? Do we see any parallels?

I’ll go out on a limb and make a prediction. If our elected officials in the Town of Telluride and the Town of Mountain Village do not address the imbalance between hot beds and cold beds, some number of years from now people from surrounding states will continue to buy out one-by-one all the remaining free market residences, apartments, and condos and convert them into large luxury cold beds.

Simultaneously, our small businesses will erode and suffer to the point of closing. The ski area will essentially become a carbon copy of the Yellowstone Club and our market will be second home owners who only come on peak holiday periods. Prices for land, recreation, and services will grow exponentially.

The good news is that if we recognize this potential outcome and take responsible action soon, we can still create a sustainable, vibrant, and wonderful place for generations to come.

It would be helpful if we had a common understanding and acknowledgement of the existing condition along with a vision and action plan for a balanced community. One of our challenges is that we have a fragmented structure. We have two incorporated towns, the county, the forest service, owners associations, and numerous other stakeholders. Recognizing that, our company endeavors to work with each and provide responsible input and leadership to the greatest extent possible.

In my opinion, we need to provide an appropriate amount of land which is made available for significant affordable housing and an appropriate number of beds which are permanently dedicated to commercial visitor use. Land also needs to be identified and zoned for additional school, medical, and other important social requirements. Environmentally sensitive areas should be protected while land most suited for these uses should be utilized responsibly. New construction and major re-development projects should be required to be implemented under environmental certification such as LEED and be based on the principals of new urbanism. We need “livable communities” after all is said and done.

Our public transportation system needs to be improved again to reduce the need for the automobile from expanded airports in Montrose and Telluride. The mix between cold beds and hot beds needs to be analyzed, and our elected officials need to absolutely assure we come into balance over a reasonable timeframe. The hot/cold bed base needs to balance with the ski area capacity. The square feet dedicated to commercial uses in the town and village core needs to balance with the foot traffic expected based on the unit types at build-out. Formulas exist for this kind of planning in mountain communities.

As with the small unique alpine villages in Europe, Telluride’s growth is inherently constrained. The reality is that we are seeking to dedicate the valley floor for conservation and we are surrounded by federal lands. These land allocations will help prevent sprawl – which is a good thing. My greatest hope is that the local citizens, businesses, and elected officials will act quickly enough to create a model for our community which will lead to a successful outcome once the available land is developed. At that point, I sure hope we have an appropriate balance between cold beds, hot beds, recreation, transportation, affordable housing, parking, and other pubic services.

Additionally, we have to proceed in a way that is responsible to the overall form and function of the natural environment. After all, that’s what brought us to this incredible alpine community in the first place.

I am very optimistic about the future of Telluride and look forward to your comments and suggestions. Please feel free to contact me directly at driley@tellurideskiresort.com.

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