Vail reassesses Vilar legacy | SummitDaily.com

Vail reassesses Vilar legacy

Cliff Thompson
Eagle County corespondent

VAIL – Tech investor, celebrated performing arts philanthropist and now criminal suspect Alberto Vilar has his name prominently displayed next to that of former President Gerald R. Ford at the outdoor amphitheater here, but maybe not for much longer.

Vilar was arrested Thursday at the Newark, N.J., airport as he got off a plane, charged with using $5 million of an investor’s money as a “a personal piggy bank.” The fraud charge was filed in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Vilar posted a $10 million bond – press accounts said friends raised the money – and was released from federal prison after spending the weekend behind bars. He has pleaded not guilty to the charge.

His partner in his investment company Amerindo, Gary Tanaka, was arrested in London on fraud charges, also.

The Vilar Pavilion at the amphitheater and the Vilar Center for the Performing Arts are both prominent local arts facilities bearing the investor’s name. But Vilar’s inability to honor some of his philanthropic commitments could change at least one of them.

Vail Valley Foundation president Harry Frampton said Tuesday the organization’s board is considering removal of the Vilar name from its prominent spot on the amphitheater – due to the fact that Vilar has not paid $1.5 million of the $3.5 million he pledged to the foundation five years ago for the $10 million remodeling of the structure. The foundation borrowed $1.5 million to complete the remodeling.

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“It might be appropriate to modify it,” Frampton said. “Given that it appears we might not get the $1.5 million.”

Vilar’s $2 million donation made him the single largest contributor to the project, Frampton said. He added that Vilar’s donation needs to be acknowledged, but he said he wasn’t sure how that would be accomplished.

High-flying Vilar – through Panama-based Amerindo Investment – invested early in the high-tech industry and rode its spectacular climb to billionaire status. When that bubble burst in 2000, his portfolio lost 80 percent of its value.

A rebound last year helped to place Vilar on the Forbes 400 richest list with a net worth of $950 million. His company subsequently lost ground when tech stocks fell into their current malaise.

During the late 1990s, Cuban-born Vilar, 64, made headlines for his financial contributions to the arts and became the talk of the performing arts world. It is estimated he gave $250 million to opera companies around the world in addition to donations to health care facilities and individuals.

He contributed $9 million to the Vail Valley Foundation and other cultural organizations – including $7 million to build the Vilar Center.

But while his generosity to the arts appeared almost limitless, cracks in the finances behind it all began appearing several years ago. In 2002, three properties Vilar owned in Beaver Creek and Edwards were foreclosed upon by a trio of local banks for nonpayment on $2.74 million in mortgages. He subsequently paid what was owed and sold the properties.

The headlines Vilar garnered at the time prompted an angry letter in March 2003 from Vilar to the banks that foreclosed on his properties.

“I don’t think I am just another mortgagee of your bank,” he wrote. “My generosity to the Vail Valley is unmatched, which has helped your bank, and which makes it unfortunate that I have not been given the benefit of the doubt … it makes me feel that I gave a very large sum of money to a very unappreciative community.”

Local banks weren’t the only organizations that took action when Vilar’s donations and pledges fell short. The Metropolitan Opera in New York removed Vilar’s name from the Grand Tier of seating. Other organizations also pursued payments from Vilar.

Last spring, the Internal Revenue Service filed $24.3 million in liens against Vilar for unpaid income taxes.

One property that continues to bear his name is Beaver Creek’s Vilar Center. That structure is owned by the Beaver Creek Resort Company and operated by the Vail Valley Foundation. Officials have given no indication that any name change there will be forthcoming.

“I hope it’s not true,” said Tony O’Rourke, executive director of the Beaver Creek Resort Company in an earlier interview. “He’s an outstanding individual who’s made big contributions to the Vilar Center and the Vail Valley. It’d be an absolute shame if these allegations proved to be true.”

Frampton echoed O’Rourke regarding the fraud charges.

“We hope it’s not true,” he said. “It’s a very sad situation.”