SILVERTHORNE - When Gary Drescher became the manager of the Buffalo Mountain Metro District in 1998, Wildernest was a neighborhood on the outskirts of Silverthorne.
Under his leadership over the last 14 years, it has become a community.
Now looking ahead to his retirement this week, Drescher is preparing to say goodbye to the community he helped build.
"It's hard to believe it's been 14 years. The time just goes by so quickly," he said. "And when I realize how closely connected we are to the community and what good friends we've developed, I realize how difficult it's going to be to leave."
With life at altitude becoming more difficult, Drescher and his wife, Barbara Leffler, plan to sell the property in Wildernest they've owned since the mid-1970s and relocate to the Front Range.
The couple first came to Summit County to visit in 1976, and bought their Wildernest condominium as a vacation residence two years later.
At that time, Wildernest was primarily populated by second-home owners and seen as being somewhat distant from the community, Drescher recalls.
At the time, he and Leffler lived in Denver, where Drescher worked for a large savings and loan company. When the position of manager for the Buffalo Mountain Metro District opened up, they jumped at the opportunity to make Summit County their permanent home.
Over the next few years, Drescher would realize a number of big wins for the neighborhood, including the hard-won construction of a walkway along Ryan Gulch Road, intended to keep pedestrians safe from traffic on the road.
"As we looked around, the nature of the community was changing from one where it was predominantly second homes, to one where we had a lot of local families," he said. "As a consequence, more and more school-aged children ... were walking there and there was no good way for them to get out of traffic."
A 22-year-old woman had been killed walking on Ryan Gulch Road in 1998, first sparking conversations around the need for the walkway. After years of work and negotiations with the county and the community, the sidewalk was completed in 2006.
"Hardly a day goes by that I don't see people on the walkway at all hours of the day," Drescher said. "That's really improved the safety for our residents here in Wildernest."
Drescher also lead a multi-year bark-beetle and wildfire mitigation effort in and around Wildernest, ridding the area of approximately 10,000 dangerous dead trees. The project became a statewide poster child for interagency partnerships on forest health.
"We realized we couldn't just expect the federal government or county government to do everything," Drescher said. "We had some serious fire issues within Wildernest, so starting in 2006, we set aside money every year to assist property owners in removing standing dead trees from their property."
When property owners took responsibility for cutting down the dead timber, the metro district stepped up to help remove it, covering approximately a third of the cost of the undertaking.
In the wake of a series of devastating wildfires that swept across the state this summer, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet visited Wildernest to tour the mitigation area and draw attention to the project as a success story and to promote proactive prevention efforts.
"It's obvious, facing these fires, that the mitigation work has been critical to saving people's homes," Bennet said in July following the tour.
The metro district, which has been in place since 1971, is a quasi-municipal corporation, collecting fees and property taxes to maintain the sewers, roads and water to the residents of Wildernest. In his tenure at the helm of the district, Drescher has managed to secure and protect open space surrounding the neighborhood from development and helped construct a new district office on a roughly $2 million annual budget.
Drescher was born in Hershey, Penn., and grew up on a small nearby farm that had been in his family for four generations. He met his future wife, Barbara, in the clarinet section of his high school band.
In 1969, he graduated from Lehigh University and later became an officer in the army.
Over the next six-and-a-half years Drescher traveled the world on military assignments, spending two tours in Europe and a third in Vietnam, where he was responsible for collecting intelligence along the Vietnamese-Cambodian border.
When he returned to the U.S., he and Leffler moved to Colorado. They'd never lived here before, but had passed through the state on a trip between duty stations.
"We found the scenery to be incredibly beautiful and the people friendlier than any place we'd ever been," he said. "We decided if we had a chance to live in Colorado (we would)."
They wanted to make their home in the mountains, but knew the best employment opportunities lived on the Front Range.
Drescher found a job with the savings and loan firm, while Leffler opened a psychology proactive. They lived in Denver full time for 22 years before the opportunity to move to the High Country presented itself.
Finally making it to their end goal, the couple immersed themselves in the local community. They've been involved in the Alpenglow Chamber Music Festival as well as the Lake Dillon Theatre and Foundation for the Performing Arts.
Two years ago, Drescher and the metro district started a scholarship program for graduating seniors who live in Wildernest.
It's a statement to how much the neighborhood has changed, and how many families now live there.
Now, after they return to the Front Range, Drescher and Leffler have plans to do some traveling.
There will be a retirement party for Drescher from 3-6 p.m. Saturday at the Buffalo Mountain Metro District Office on Adams Avenue in Silverthorne. Drinks and appetizers will be served and the public is welcome to attend.