Prepare For Liftoff

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Though it's sandwiched between two of Colorado's most posh resorts, Avon is a place where you'll find fleece instead of fur, liquor stores instead of full-service spas, apartments instead of vacant trophy homes. It's also where you'll find most of Eagle County's local work force.

Drive eight miles west of world-famous Vail and just down the hill from elegant Beaver Creek, and you'll know you're entering the less flashy borders of Avon when you approach Bob the Bridge. The bridge's humble name embodies the normalcy of a town that holds the only discount chain store (an always-packed Wal-Mart) for 30 miles in any direction and more employee housing than the rest of the county combined.

The commercial and residential hub of the resort community, Avon is about as regular an American town as you'll find without going to rustic Eagle or Gypsum, more than 20 miles downvalley. Avon's lift operators, construction workers, teachers and firefighters spend their evenings playing pool in low-key nightspots such as Bob's Place or Cassidy's Hole in the Wall, where tourists are welcome but don't dominate the scene.

Nestled along the Eagle River, about 100 miles west of Denver, Avon was quiet ranchlands until the Eighties, when it evolved into a bedroom community for the Vail-empire ski areas. Incorporated only 23 years ago, it's a town still in transition.

Town leaders-readying for a monumental village development expected to double the population and a possible gondola that could link the town to Beaver Creek ski resort-say Avon is quickly coming into its own as the "heart of the valley."

"It has definitely evolved into its own personality," says Mayor Judy Yoder. "It's the town that supports the resorts and has, for lack of a better word, the real people."

Avon doesn't have the colorful mining history of nearby Minturn, the European polish of gated Beaver Creek Village or the Disney-like atmosphere of the Vail Village. Instead, the town has an authenticity owed to its working population, major recreation center and library, and family events such as ice skating on Nottingham Lake and one of the state's biggest fireworks displays on July 4. And yes, even its Wal-Mart.

Also known as "Bobtown," because of its trademark bridge, Avon sits at 7,430 feet. Above and to the south, with a summit of 11,440 feet, hover Beaver Creek's groomed trails, bump runs and famous Birds of Prey race course. On clear, crisp days, Avon's view of the sapphire sky and powdered slopes is like a perfect oil-painted backdrop to its own eclectic architecture.

The town core is a small, mismatched development of Eighties-built multistory office complexes, hotels, ski shops and restaurants. Roundabouts throughout town have left need for only one stoplight. The central wooden "boat building," named for its windows shaped like portholes, holds the offices of Benchmark Corporation, which began Avon's development and then moved to Telluride in 1978 to take over that ski area from entrepreneur Joe Zoline.

An infusion of new development is quickly stretching Avon's boundaries and revising its image. A new $44-million retail center-the gold-colored Chapel Square-opened last year with 100,000 square feet of commercial space.

Within the next few years, Vail Resorts expects to build a new 600-unit hotel in Avon, and the town council envisions a city center with a Main Street to pull together the structures that have evolved haphazardly over the past two decades. Leaders have approved a major village development that will add 650,000 square feet of commercial space and 2,500 homes over the next 10 to 20 years. They're also discussing the ski company's proposal for a $27-million gondola to connect Avon with the luxury Ritz-Carlton at Bachelor Gulch and Strawberry Park atop Beaver Creek. If approved, it will make Avon a true base-area community by 2003.

Six-year local Dominick Castelluccio, who builds homes in Beaver Creek for a living, is troubled by the changee in character, not to mention the traffic and parking hassles, the development boom could cause for Avon. "In a way, I think they're trying to make Avon something it's not," he says, concerned that real-estate price hikes could push local workers out of Avon if the gondola is built. "It's not a ski town. It's pretty much the only affordable place for locals, but that might change."

Ten years ago, Avon had just 1,800 year-round residents; last year that number had grown to more than 5,500, with seasonal workers and tourists more than doubling the population in winter. Such growth made Eagle County the 10th-fastest-growing county in the nation during the Nineties. While surrounding towns such as Vail and Edwards absorbed much of that population, Avon is now the focal point of growth.

"This is where it's happening. It's the hot place to be," says Scott Skillman, a 25-year Eagle County resident who recently opened a gallery called Collectorati in Chapel Square. He chose Avon because of its booming development and because space constraints have caused real-estate prices to skyrocket in neighboring towns, such as the Vail Village, where shop owners pay Manhattan-style rents. Skillman had 2,000 fewer square feet of space in Vail before he closed shop there in 1996, and he paid about the same commercial rent he pays now in Avon.

Avon's growth boom could have come much earlier had Pete Seibert and Earl Eaton succeeded in convincing rancher Willis Nottingham in the Fifties to sell his mountain land, which is now Beaver Creek. Nottingham refused to sell the property, so Seibert and Eaton turned just eastward and built Vail.

Avon remained ranchlands, as it had been for 80 years. Then in the early Seventies, the Olympic organizing committee began eyeing the undeveloped Beaver Creek resort as an alpine-race venue for the 1976 Winter Games. In 1972, Nottingham finally agreed to sell his property so Seibert could build Vail's sister ski resort. The same year, brothers Allan and Arnold Nottingham, cousins of Willis, sold their 1,500 acres to Benchmark, paving the way for Avon's development.

Though the Olympics never came to Colorado because state voters rejected the idea, Beaver Creek Resort opened for business in 1980. It now has more than 1,600 skiable acres, and the sophisticated Beaver Creek Village holds a world-class performing arts theater, majestic lodges and acclaimed restaurants and galleries. Avon locals often prefer to ski the Beav because it doesn't get as crowded as Vail. They also love its fast, rolling cruisers, its steeps, its scenic village-to-village skiing and the ease of the free bus system. But on a mid-week powder day, locals will almost always flock to Vail, the largest ski resort in the United States and home of the famed Back Bowls.

Because Avon is one of the nation's fastest-growing towns, its leaders say their biggest goal is to ensure that it matures responsibly. Colorado is known for its natural outdoor playgrounds, but is facing population-growth problems-evidenced by bumper-to-bumper traffic from Denver to the mountains, disappearing rural lands and increasingly out-of-reach real estate prices. The median price for an Avon home climbed from $335,000 in 1998 to $398,750 this year.

Town manager Bill Efting says he hopes to see Avon become a resort in its own right, but that it needs to grow with enough open space, affordable housing and locals' amenities to keep it "livable." To that end, Avon is requiring developer Magnus Lindholm to build a regional park, 500 employee housing units and two ice rinks along with the village project. And the town has asked that Vail Resorts add a convention center and improve pedestrian routes around its planned hotel and gondola. "Like everyone else, we want to do the growth correctly," Efting says. "We want balance."