A step back in time
A look back at January, 2020, feels like a trip through a time machine. Momentum and optimism were high as the Vail Valley community headed into the year eager to build on the successes of 2019 — a year in which the Vail Valley Foundation attracted more than 286,000 people to its events and entertainment programs, generated $33.1 million in economic activity, and engaged nearly 4,000 youth and families in education programming.
People attended VVF events in 2019
Amount of economic activity generated from vvf events and programs in 2019
Youth and families who engaged in YouthPower365 educational programming in 2019
January and February were buzzing with activity at the VVF offices, venues, and program locations:
- The Vilar Performing Arts Center was midway through one of the best winter seasons in its history and had announced its summer season.
- Registration had opened for the 2020 GoPro Mountain Games with more than 80,000 spectators and 4,000 athletes expected to arrive in early June.
- YouthPower365 programming was in full swing, with a new, all-electric Magic Bus on its way, and students were preparing to apply for a record amount of 2020 Dollars for Scholars scholarship funds.
- Announcements were already in the press for upcoming headliner concerts at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater – like Michael Franti and Lindsey Stirling – and a full season of Bravo! Vail events at the venue, as well as Hot Summer Nights concerts and high school graduations.
- The Vail Dance Festival had announced performances and schedules to much fanfare in the press.
It wasn’t long before the Covid-19 pandemic upended those plans.
Beginning in November, 2019, another story was unfolding in public health offices around the globe. As the news about the COVID-19 virus began to grab headlines, officials across the country were becoming increasingly concerned. They braced for the possibility of a potentially devastating health pandemic. With people from all around the globe continually visiting the area’s ski resorts each day, local officials, too, began to closely monitor the progress of what was then a largely regional outbreak.
By March, a worst-case scenario seemed to be bearing out. Within two weeks of the valley’s first confirmed case — on March 4, an international tourist — Vail and Beaver Creek had made global headlines as a Covid-19 hotspot. Vail Health CEO Will Cook warned that the number of infected persons was already likely “in the hundreds, if not thousands.” On March 15, Vail Resorts shut down its North American ski resorts for the season six weeks early, an unprecedented move that effectively emptied Eagle County of tourists — and ground its economic engine to a virtual halt. By the end of the month, the governor had issued a stay-at-home order and closed in-person schools.
A shock - then a shift
It quickly became clear that the Vail Valley Foundation would have to shut down as well, at least for the time being. For how long? The staff scrambled to make and then remake plans for spring and summer. Would we reopen again? If so, when … and what would that look like? As spring wore on, the organization was quickly forced to postpone, and later cancel, the 2020 GoPro Mountain Games for the first time in its 18-year history, foregoing the more than $7.3 million in economic impact (not to mention the countless smiles and high-fives) that the event brings.
Perhaps nowhere else was the impact so sudden as at the Vilar Performing Arts Center (VPAC), which was still in the swing of its spring season. As quickly as a house of cards, summer bookings began to postpone or cancel as artists and production companies halted tour plans. One of the first cancellations was of a scheduled March 12 performance by Illusionist Rick Thomas, one of the greatest illusions in the world, and star of both ‘Masters of Illusion’ and ‘The Illusionists.’
“Even Rick Thomas couldn’t wave his magic wand,” said VPAC Executive Director Duncan Horner.
The state of Colorado and Eagle County moved swiftly, declaring a state of emergency March 10. All non-essential activities were shut down by the state, and students were sent home for remote learning. YouthPower365 followed suit, taking programming virtual. The Magic Bus also went virtual, leaving dozens of four- and five-year-olds without the joy and companionship a ride on the Bus can bring (the Magic Bus, however, continued duty as a testing center on loan to Vail Health). For the hundreds of graduates who rely on PwrOn programming for help with financial aid, scholarships, and college and career-readiness, it was an abrupt … and often bumpy … adjustment to a world of online meetings and virtual discussions.
"If we looked at the VVF and COVID-19 solely through an economic lens, arguably the smartest thing we could have done is to shut down the organization, turn off the lights, and wait for the world to right itself. We did not do that. We continued our mission work however we could."
“It was unlike anything we could have ever foreseen,” said Sara Amberg, Executive Director of YouthPower365. “We plan every day for the future, but we had never planned for something like this.
“It’s hard to know the effect this pandemic will have on our young people,” she added. “It’s something we probably won’t be able to assess for years, if ever.”
Like organizations everywhere, the VVF had to take a hard look at the financial implications of the shut down, and was understandably concerned about the potential financial losses precipitated by cancellations of the events and programs that had become so interwoven with the financial well-being of the community and its people. Indeed, even after a successful round of PPP loans, the organization made the difficult decision to put almost 30 percent of staff on furlough or layoff, and instituted pay cuts and other cost-saving measures. The efforts did not fully close the financial gap, and in spring and summer of 2020, the financial picture was still far from rosy.
On the other hand, what would be the impact on the community as a whole if VVF were to cancel summertime events, venues, and programs? The VVF plays a significant role in supporting the local economy and caring for local families and children. The potential effects could be devastating.
“If we looked at the VVF and COVID-19 solely through an economic lens, arguably the smartest thing we could have done is to shut down the organization, turn off the lights, and wait for the world to right itself. We did not do that. We continued our mission work however we could,” said Mike Imhof, President of the Vail Valley Foundation.
Shutting down venues and programs, Imhof knew, would not be in keeping with the Foundation’s mission. The deeply-rooted culture of the Vail Valley Foundation was one of forward-thinking leadership, calculated risk-taking, thinking big and never taking the easy route. Cancelling, giving up, did not fit with the nearly 40-year history of the organization – nor the character of this adventurous, outdoorsy Western town.
This sentiment was echoing loudly through Imhof’s phone lines as the VVF’s Board Leadership, together with other community leaders, put Imhof on speed-dial. In a sign of things to come, most of Imhof’s calls were not primarily concerned with the VVF’s international events, but rather with the community’s people.
Most callers wanted to know one thing: how they could best help the most vulnerable members of the community? Business owners were also in touch with Imhof, concerned that extended shutdowns could lead to scores of permanent business closures and economic ruin. The way forward looked to be an exceptionally-difficult tightrope act, balancing the often-conflicting imperatives to keep the economy open while at the same time protecting public health.
This created an avalanche of urgent choices, from the very broad (do we re-open our performing arts venues in summertime?) down to an exquisite level of detail (if we do re-open, do we take temperature readings on the forehead or the wrist?)
As he and the staff weighed these critical choices, Imhof turned to a piece of advice that had always resonated with him, something founding VVF Board Member President Gerald R. Ford had told our first Board of Directors:
“Ford said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to write this into the mission, but I think VVF’s role is to constantly have your eyes open and to identify real need,’” Imhof remembered. “When something important is happening, the VVF should be the convener. The organization has always worked with all corners of the community, so we are in an ideal position to bring together individuals, donors, government, and corporations to solve whatever issue is at hand.”
Thus began VVF’s innovative efforts in 2020 to respond to the community’s greatest needs during the Covid-19 crisis. With the combined dedication of staff, board, and donors, as well as the commitment of generous members of the community at large, these efforts would allow the VVF to adapt and amend existing programs to keep them afloat in any way possible, by whatever means necessary, to continue in service to the mission and to the community.
And, critically, the efforts led the creation of two new initiatives:
- The Vail Valley Foundation Community Fund: a $1.5 million fund dedicated to helping the valley’s most vulnerable population with food, housing, youth education and programming, and mental and behavioral health assistance during the Covid-19 crisis; and,
- The Vail Valley Private Sector Task Force: a group of leaders from almost every single industry segment, including Eagle County government and public health, Eagle County School District, human service nonprofits, and healthcare, that work together to develop uniform guidelines in order to help safely re-open the valley economy and put people back to work.
Uncertainty is the only certainty
As phone calls continued to come in to Imhof, patterns emerged. The same questions arose again and again: “Who is suffering the most? Where lies the greatest need today, and in the coming months? What can we do?”
It wasn’t an easy question to answer. The Vail Valley is blessed with a robust support network of nonprofits, each of which specializes in one area or another. Some provide food security, others focus on behavioral health, others, like the VVF’s own YouthPower365, focus on children and education.
By late April, the pandemic was in full swing and the world was still very much in a land of the unknown. It was like a heavy fog had settled, and one could barely see the next lamppost to light the way.
This left donors in a quandary: there were many, many people who wanted to give, to donate, to help in any way they could, but where was the money needed most? And, if money was needed in one area today, would that still be an area of need in the coming weeks or months?
No one had a clear answer to this question.
“When Vail Resorts closed, that’s when things started to spiral,” one caller told Imhof. “Restaurants closed, hotels closed. You think about people who are living in the valley and doing many of those jobs, and they don’t have a safety net.”
Existing safety nets were disintegrating fast. Thousands of people had been living paycheck-to-paycheck, and suddenly found themselves without work or pay. Phones were ringing off the hook at local nonprofits, and foodbanks saw the need for their services spike almost overnight.
“I remember thinking, ‘Well, we have an ability to effect change here,’” Imhof said. “If not now, when? And if not us, who?”
Imhof took a huge first step: he asked Foundation’s Board of Directors if they would offer to match donations up to $250,000.
Chairman of the Board Ann Smead remembers the moment: “I think I sort of gulped when he said that,” she said. “Well — in the end, we got to $250,000 before the weekend was over.”
In fact, the VVF Board of Directors far exceeded the original match request. Thanks to a lead matching gift from Amy and Steve Coyer, the VVF board matched donations up to $450,000.
And so was born the VVF Community Fund. The funds were pledged to four key areas of need and, importantly, a Steering Committee was established so that donors could be sure their dollars would go the area most in need based on the ever-changing, and very hard to predict, nature of the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Food insecurity
- Behavioral health
- Shelter, clothing, and household assistance
- Youth education and programming
“The unbelievable, immediate generosity of our Board is pretty special,” said Imhof. “They care about this valley. They truly understand the symbiotic nature of it: that it is those most in need who need most to be lifted up. Because how go they, go all of us.”
Imhof adds that while the Board may have been “the catalyst that made it work,” it was the valley as a whole that came together to create the fund: Sixty-five percent of donations consisted of contributions of less than $250, and Eagle County government made an 11th-hour donation of $130,000 from their own fund which was also matched by the Vail Valley Foundation Board of Directors.
In two weeks, the Fund raised a remarkable $1.2 million. As of December, 2020, the Fund had raised more than $1.5 million, thanks in large part to a December grant from the Katz Amsterdam Charitable Trust and Foundation.
“I found it remarkable in terms of the dollars, but even more remarkable because of the attitude of giving, and the willingness to give.”
A circle that connects us
In the same way that donations came from all corners, so did the need. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Eagle County residents were left with reduced or eliminated pay, with nowhere they could turn to create income even in the short term.
Take, for example, Claudia Hurtado-Myers, a local humanitarian immigration attorney. Hurtado-Myers works around the nation on behalf of abused, abandoned, and/or neglected children as they navigate deportation proceedings. The pay, she explains, is not exceptionally good in her line of work since many of her clients, by definition, are destitute.
Hurtado-Myers husband had lost his job — along with the family’s health insurance — when his employer shut down. And while the state did approve his unemployment claim, he has yet to receive any funds from unemployment (as of Dec. 18, 2020), she said. Then, Claudia contracted Covid-19, and their new insurance, unexpectedly, did not cover their young son’s wellness visit. Even before the crisis, she said, the cost of living is so high in the valley that, “…we were just making it. We were just barely paying our bills.
“I know you would think an attorney would not be asking you for money, but let me spell out for you what we’re going through,” she said. “I am coming forward with this story because I want people to know that COVID has affected everyone and it is hard to ask for help. I want to encourage others to ask for help. It is a humbling experience, but having such a community behind you can be so heartwarming.”
Like thousands of others, Hurtado-Myers felt like she was falling without a net. New expenses were coming at a furious pace. At the same time, money had dried up. She felt she had nowhere to turn.
Then she read a story about the Vail Valley Foundation Community Fund, and contacted one of its beneficiaries, the Eagle Valley Family Assistance Fund (EVFAF), where she asked for help to pay her mortgage.
Although many know Alexia Jurschak for her work as Chair of the VPAC Committee, she is also one of a relatively small group of board members and donors who support the Eagle Valley Family Assistance Fund (EVFAF). The fund was started more than 27 years ago by the late John Galvin and his wife Linda to help local, hard-working, families weather their personal financial storms. The organization has never sought the spotlight – operating behind the scenes helping more than 500 families since 1993 with a mission to provide interest-free loans to individuals facing economic hardships.
When COVID-19 hit, Jurschak and the EVFAF had to put their organization into high gear, adapting their mission to the situation to include grants so that they could quickly transfer money into the hands of residents in need of housing and household assistance.
“I was beside myself. I thought, ‘This is who we are as an organization, and this is what we should be doing,’” Jurschak said. “From the time Mike and I talked about it, to three weeks later, we were out there granting money for rent assistance. Keeping a family in their shelter, keeping them from being homeless, is a key first step in human stabilization. It is having a true community impact.”
Families of all backgrounds found themselves desperately in need of a bridge of support that would safely help them travel through the deepest, darkest part of the COVID-19 shutdown. Hurtado-Myers was one of many who bridged that gap thanks to EVFAF support. The largest share of the Vail Valley Community Fund monies — $350,000 of the first $840,000 disbursed — has been dedicated to helping families like hers stay in their homes. Most of the recipients had been laid off by ski resorts, restaurants, and hotels, or seen their work as housekeepers or day laborers evaporate. Some were women and children who needed help escaping domestic violence exacerbated by the pandemic, and the community as a whole was facing rising behavioral health concerns.
“You guys have given me a chance to get back in front of my finances by removing the burden of not knowing where or how I was going to address my rent payments. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“Wow. I’m speechless. I’m very emotional. THANK YOU. THANK YOU. This is a good community.”
“This week I called the office and they told me that they had received the rent payment. Honestly I do not have words to show my appreciation for what you have done for my son and me. I truly cannot believe it!!! All I can say is: thank you. Thank you. We are eternally grateful.”
Recipient, housing assistance.
“The reality is that they need us, and we need them,” Jurschak said. “If one group is in significant trouble, we are all in significant trouble. What we are doing, collectively, is taking care of the people who take care of us. We are all taking care of one another.”
For Hurtado-Myers, who received two $1,900 mortgage payments for the family’s 700-square-foot apartment, the help has allowed her to stay in the Vail area, where, in addition to her full-time job, she provides free legal aid across the valley, the state, and beyond.
“I’m glad to be here, and to be a resource for my community,” Hurtado said. “Here, it’s a circle. Everybody gives, and everybody receives. We kind of all have to survive that way.”
A kitchen for us all
“If you’re not willing to be here, who else isn’t willing to be here? You can’t have shame because you need to feed your household.”
These are the words of Susie Davis, the director of community impact for the Eagle Valley Community Foundation (EVCF). She found herself saying them in a parking lot to a man who had hustled out of the organization’s free-food market after fearing he would be spotted by a colleague. Davis got him to take his food, and to return every week for more — as a volunteer. “We had a lot of talks about, ‘When is it pride? When is it that we all get our turn?’” she said.
Davis had a lot of conversations like this in 2020. By late spring, the EVCF was providing food to 4,000 residents of Eagle County every week, up from 1,100 a week before the pandemic. The organization raised more than $2 million in six months to help, including a $135,000 gift from the Vail Valley Community Fund, $60,000 of which was dedicated to buying meals from local restaurants, a move that helped several restaurants retain employees.
One man, a Vietnam veteran, would pick up half dozen meals and give them to fellow veterans too proud to accept charity. “I don’t tell them I get it for free,” the man told Davis. “I just feed them all.”
Another man, who seemed to be taking an awful lot of food for one, explained that he put it in front of his trailer for struggling neighbors. “I visited him,” Davis said. “He would just put the food out on his little overhang.”
The generosity, and the need, extends in many directions. Davis recalled one woman who came to the community market after she had continued to pay the four employees of her cleaning company for weeks after clients stopped service — and payment. When her savings ran out, she directed her workers to the free community food market.
“She’s describing this,” said Davis, “then tears just start pouring down and she says, ‘Now I’m here.’ She was so busy trying to take care of them that she didn’t have anything left.”
Leading the way back
Hotelier and community leader Johannes Faessler was among the first to realize that shutting down was only half the battle against COVID-19.
“We have to really think not just about shutting down, but think about how do we get going again,” he said, sharing this sentiment with Imhof in March, shortly after the statewide shutdown of non-essential businesses.
“We need to figure out how to turn the local economy back by summer to avoid huge bankruptcy numbers by the fall,” he said, “…and the VVF may be best-suited to lead that effort.”
“The reason I called Mike up is because the Vail Valley Foundation is the one structure that can gather people from every corner of the community, and act as an umbrella,” he said. “It has credibility, and the capacity, to deal with things that are tough.”
By mid-April the first meeting of the Vail Valley Private Sector Task Force met over Zoom. Within days, Imhof had assembled leaders from every sector of industry in the valley as well as representatives from Vail Resorts, Eagle County, Vail Health, Chambers of Commerce, and Eagle County Schools. Word spread quickly, and in the coming days and weeks, the Private Sector Task Force came into being. Each sector of private industry gathered their colleagues for a weekly meeting. Then, a representative from each sector would come together each Thursday for the weekly Steering Committee meeting, which included representatives from Public Health and Eagle County.
“The county public health leaders have been heroes through all of this and have done a marvelous job,” said Chris Jarnot, a VVF board member who represents the Marketing Task Force on the Steering Committee. “But they were under extraordinary pressure, and the idea that they would also be able to manage all of this communication with every individual business and the community, it just doesn’t work.”
The Task Force created a two-way communication framework whereby business, government, and health officials could agree to effective safety protocols.
“It was good to have a Task Force that represented each of those constituents be a part of developing the solutions and enforcing them,” said Will Cook, CEO of Vail Health. “It just really helped not only come up with solutions, but it helped ensure people were abiding by them.”
By summer, Eagle County had gone from one of the highest rates of infection of Covid-19 to among the lowest in the country, thanks to aggressive testing and outreach and community compliance. As resort destinations across the country discouraged travelers, the Vail Valley built a unified campaign to encourage tourists and second-home owners to come, carefully, and enjoy the wide-open spaces of Eagle County.
Mike Brumbaugh, owner of Venture Sports, said his and other outdoor-industry stores saw record sales in July and August. In Eagle County, Tourism and Outdoor Recreation make up 48% of the economy, so it was good news to many that, after an initial dip in April, many outdoor industries had an economically healthy season. Faessler, the president of Sonnenalp Properties, said his August room revenue declined by only 10 percent over August 2019.
Business owners say the Private Sector Task Force helped them pioneer a way forward during the critical planning months of April and May.
“Ultimately, it turned into this really very powerful tool for county public health to hear from the boots on the ground,” said Imhof. “Because we were diligent and organized and structured, we were able to get variances and allowances that other counties could not because we were managing the virus better than others. So we were given less arduous restrictions so long as we maintained our commitment to protecting the most vulnerable and reducing the virus spread, which ultimately helps us drive tourism and business and youth programs.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, and the Private Sector Task Force is still actively engaged in maintaining economic vibrancy, still looking ahead to what’s next as the country and the community forge ahead.
Blessings, not disguised
The VVF Community Fund and the Private Sector Task Forces were powerful tools in navigating the first few phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is still much work to be done, and many miles to go, before the community, the country, and the world are back to some semblance of normal.
“In the beginning it was very hard to see even one week ahead, we were more on a day-by-day basis,” Imhof said. “But as we have progressed, we are able to see farther in advance. We have a sense for where we are headed, and what things will look like when we are back.”
As the organization adapted, it discovered new ideas about what was possible (and not possible) during the pandemic. New discoveries were made, new and creative solutions employed, and some of these opened new doors of opportunity for the organization. One example: The VVF lent the Magic Bus to Vail Health so that the Bus, trusted community-wide, could act as a testing center until it was allowed to go back into service for preschoolers. Another was the implementation of summertime “Family Gatherings” for Magic Bus families, which are likely to continue even after COVID-19 is under control.
“Public health orders prohibited the operation of our Magic Bus as a preschool, but by summertime our Magic Bus teachers and families were able to convene in parks together, physically-distanced. We kept our bonds as strong as ever, and we realized that now we have a new way to connect with our Magic Bus families that we think will augment our program going forward.”
It is one of many such stories that embodied the work of the Vail Valley Foundation during the most difficult year in its history. The Vilar Performing Arts Center and the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater vastly improved their livestreaming and video capabilities, even while finding new and creative ways to connect with their audiences. Events like the GoPro Mountain Games and Birds of Prey World Cup couldn’t be held as normal, but they each benefited from a strong virtual and social media presence. The GoPro Mountain Games: Elements, events, were also able to bring together mountain people with the sports they love, albeit with physically-distancing protocols in place. The Vail Dance Festival, for its part, had one of the most successful years ever in terms of the amount of media reach and the number of people who (virtually) engaged. This new virtual paradigm is something that the VVF hopes will crossover into the Festival in future years.
Another success of the year is Magic of Lights Vail, which guides visitors through a multi-colored experience that highlight the natural majesty of Vail as it winds through a nearly half-mile winter wonderland in the Ford Park Lower Bench. The installation is a project of Vail Valley Foundation Events and FunGuys Events.
The VVF, as a whole, learned something as well, or rather confirmed something: that its reputation, built over 40 years, as a place for big, bold ideas is still holding strong. And, as a nonprofit that works in all areas of the community, the organization is well-suited to bring people together, build consensus, and find solutions, no matter the situation.
In those first, foggy, days of the pandemic, it was hard to see some of these positive outcomes, or any positive outcome at all from a pandemic that made it difficult to see what lay ahead. And, as this report goes live online, it is clear that the pandemic is far from over. The VVF, our community, and the world as a whole continues to grapple with the new challenges that have arisen from this unique situation. Each day, however, brings a new level of clarity, a new sense of what is coming next and how we can best tackle these challenges.
Video: VVF The Story of Our Year, a conversation with Ann Smead and Mike Imhof
This essay was composed by Karen Aho and Tom Boyd
Karen Aho is a journalist based in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in publications including Bloomberg Businessweek, MSN, the Anchorage Daily News, and New American Economy. She is a graduate of New York University and has her M.S. from the Columbia School of Journalism.
Tom Boyd is the Director of Public Relations and the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater for the Vail Valley Foundation. He was born and raised in Vail, graduated Vail Mountain School in 1993, and was editor of the Vail Trail in the mid-2000s. He worked as a journalist from 2000-2015, with work appearing in The Rocky Mountain News, the Denver Post, Ski and Skiing Magazine, 5280, and elsewhere. During that time he also served as a media chief at Olympic events in Torino, Innsbruck, Vancouver, and Nanjing. In 2010, he cofounded Nokero, a solar start up based in Denver, Colorado. He lives in Vail with his wife, Renee, and two children Alex and Tyler.