Eight years as mayor of the Kingdom go by quickly; John Warner can attest. The longtime Summit County resident handed over the helm to Eric Mamula on Tuesday after serving two consecutive terms leading the town.
Warner has guided Breckenridge through periods of growth and uncertainty since moving to Summit to start his own dental practice in 1980. Originally from Connecticut, he moved to Denver, where he first fell in love with the mountains.
Warner graduated Thomas Jefferson High School in 1969. Then, he fell in love again. He and his wife, Carre, went on their first date in Breckenridge, where they spent the morning skiing and saw “some Elke Sommer movie” at the old Peak 8 Theater. A few years later, they married in 1972.
After graduating from dental school at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1979, John and Carre Warner searched for a new place to set their roots. They looked west due to a school policy that would require Warner to pay full tuition unless he left the “urban strip” of Colorado from Fort Collins to Pueblo. Eventually, the two settled on Breckenridge, where Warner has kept the same office since 1980.
“It’s been a great place to start a dental practice,” he said. “I started out with just one dental chair; now I have five. I started with just one employee, and now I have 10.”
“This was a big mountain for me to climb. It’s been a privilege.”John WarnerFormer mayor of Breckenridge
In the meantime, Carre Warner started her own interior design business, which she maintains to this day.
Since then, Warner has witnessed Breckenridge’s explosive growth, fueled by the ski area, snowmaking and sales taxes.
“All of this came together… It was kind of like the perfect storm,” Warner said. “We started seeing these amenities pop up because the town was doing well from the sales tax standpoint and the real estate tax standpoint.”
For Warner, an avid mountaineer, the “perfect storm” can hold a positive connotation. In past adventures, he has summited Denali and traversed the Alps. With the recent spring snow, he took the opportunity to skin up one of the surrounding mountains for a few fresh powder turns. One of the founders of the Summit Huts Association and a seven-year member of the Summit County Rescue Group, Warner used the mountains as a metaphor in his final address before town council.
“I’ve climbed a bunch of mountains in my life and I love doing that. When I start a climb, I would always like to be better friends, better acquainted going down than when I go up,” he said. “This was a big mountain for me to climb. It’s been a privilege.”
CALM IN THE STORM
Despite the many complicated issues faced by the last few councils, Warner has taken each one head-on with a calm assuredness and balanced approach.
“As a guy who has sat with John for six years on council, he is truly a gentleman,” Breckenridge councilman Mark Burke said. “He is truly a consensus builder.”
Warner attributed this trick to his previous years on council, where he learned working with three previous mayors: Steve West, Sam Mamula and Ernie Blake.
“I learned a lot from the styles of those three different mayors. Part of it was watching (them) beforehand and applying my own personality to the process,” he said. “You can see I’m usually pretty calm, not too excitable. I felt it important to let everybody be heard.”
Warner served on town council from 1998 until 2002, and ended up running for mayor in 2006 after a few councilmembers persuaded him to throw his hat in the ring.
“It certainly wasn’t on my radar screen,” Warner said. “But no one else wanted to run.”
During his first term, town council took on the rising cost of childcare, helping raise teacher wages and pay off mortgages for local childcare facilities.
“We did wonderful things in the childcare community. Then, we began to embrace workforce housing and that’s going on still,” he said.
Warner has observed a shift in the town since his early days with council, with a growing emphasis on workforce housing and transportation as Breckenridge continues to expand.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword. We’ve seen tremendous growth in our visitor numbers. It allows a small community like Breckenridge to offer a tremendous array of amenities, but then there’s the flipside of congestion,” Warner said. “People are getting their arms around the idea that we need workforce housing. Along with that goes daycare for our young children.”
One of the most contentious issues Warner faced during his first term was an ordinance that narrowly passed council, mandating residents create defensible space around their homes. Passed before some of Colorado’s largest wildland fires hit the Front Range, the ordinance met some resistance from the community and was made voluntary in 2009.
“The criticism came fast and hard,” Warner said. “I still think recommending and even mandating defensible space was the right thing to do. But the people spoke and we listened.”
BRAVE NEW WORLD
These issues may yet be less contentious than those faced by the most recent council, which met for the last time on March 22. Warner was elected as the incumbent without challenge in 2012, and two years later, worked to navigate the new world of retail marijuana.
In a controversial decision, council moved to relocate dispensaries to Airport Road in early 2015.
“It was difficult trying to understand the impacts of retail marijuana sales in downtown versus on Airport Road,” Warner said. “The town was pretty polarized on that issue. … But we came to a better place in that discussion and it took time.”
In addition to several affordable housing projects, during this term the town established the lift-ticket tax, voted in through a ballot measure to create sustainable transportation funding.
“I think our council laid the groundwork with our lift ticket tax Vail Resorts has agreed to,” Warner said. “Affordable housing is still on the table. I think we need to start thinking about for-sale or ownership workforce housing as well.”
Warner is also proud of the work council has done to further Breckenridge’s sustainability efforts, including creating recycling facilities, ordering hybrid vehicles and other creative solutions. But behind one of the town’s most recent initiatives, to reduce disposable plastic bag use, Warner said the key was to “listen to the kids,” referring to a group of elementary students who suggested the idea.
“They were the ones that got us into space of reducing the number of disposable bags,” Warner said. “I think they would also like us to reduce the number of plastic water bottles in the community. They’re keen observers.”
Ultimately, Warner is optimistic about Breckenridge’s future, noting the newly-elected council’s experience is unmatched, with each councilmember holding at least two years of town council experience under their belt.
“I think the town will be in good hands moving forward,” he said. “I think Eric will be a terrific mayor. I have good feelings about them.”
Reflecting back on the past four years, councilmembers Elisabeth Lawrence and Erin Gigliello noted the council’s successes in the midst of many challenging decisions.
“I think this has been a really good group. We faced two of the largest issues any council has ever faced,” Lawrence said. “We’re all still friends and that’s what this is all about.”
“I think these four people have really improved lives of our community members and neighbors — what could be better than that?” Gigliello added.