Eagle County wrestles with issues concerning big boxes

Kathy Heicher
Eagle correspondent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

EAGLE, Colorado” That small-town feel versus big-box retail revenues ” it’s an issue that’s being hashed out in many communities throughout western Colorado.

The towns are different; but the issues are the same. Local government has a serious need for revenues. Some citizens are desperate for more and better shopping opportunities.

Others fear the destruction of the small towns that attracted them. Small business owners are concerned about how they will compete.

New I-70 interchange

Next month, review of Eagle River Station, a proposed “lifestyle center” shopping mall design to include national retailers and homes, moves into a second phases. The development was approved preliminarily by the town, which will now start examining how dense the project it will, how it will be built, how much money it’s likely to generate in taxes and what open space will remain.

Supporters and opponents are campaigning through the mail and rallying citizens to attend meetings. Many observers predict the future of Eagle River Station will be decided at the ballot box.

Steamboat Springs: Watching the impacts

Ten years ago, when Wal-Mart wanted to come into this mountain resort town, the debate was hot and heavy. The City Council decided to put the question to citizens on a special ballot.

“They approved it. It wasn’t a close vote,” says Bob Keenan, senior planner for the town.

Wal-Mart is there, but the city has since updated its land use regulations in anticipation of other national chains moving to the resort. The new rules set standards for the store’s size and appearance and, require developers to provide “public benefits” beyond than tax revenues.

Chains interested in moving to Steamboat also have to study how their store will impact surrounding businesses, project how much tax revenues it will generate, and determine who its employees will be and where those workers will live.

Town leaders are also considering an ordinance that would restrict the location, size, and quantity of big chains.

“The concern is protecting the small-town character ” the visual character as well as the economic impacts,” Keenan says.

Some main street activists agree that a big name franchise can draw people into downtown. On the other hand, there’s a concern about the historic western town becoming too “generic,” with the same stores and shops that can be found in any mall in America, Keenan says.

“Why come to Steamboat to shop in the same stores that you have in your own town?” he says.

Keenan notes there is a demand for big box stores. He points out that Steamboat residents drive to the Eagle Valley to shop at The Home Depot in Avon and Costco in Gypsum.

Carbondale: Citizens find solutions

Several years ago, when the Carbondale Town Council approved a big box development, the community’s citizens rebelled. They overturned that decision in a referendum vote.

But the unanswered question was just what kind of commercial development would the citizens accept? The Town Council put together a group of citizens to create an “economic road map” that would spell out the type of commercial development that would be welcome in the town.

“We kind of let the community figure out how to handle this thing … we said ‘you guys talk it out,'” says Doug Dotson, community development director for Carbondale.

People from both sides of the big box development issue were appointed to the committee. They spent months drawing up a document detailing their vision for the community’s commercial future.

The end result was a 50-page document, the Carbondale Economic Development and Community Sustainability Plan, that went well beyond addressing just the parcel of land that had been targeted for big box development. The document spells out a vision for different neighborhoods, including the historic downtown, and makes recommendations on the size and types of stores the town wants.

The plan sees room for stores that area but 20,000 square feet.

When a developer recently proposed a Home Depot, the Town Council voted to follow recommendations of the citizen committee. Now there’s a new developer for that parcel, who has designed a mixed use project that has stores and homes.

“It worked reasonably well. The key is to make sure the elected officials have taken ownership of the process, so they’re not out there with their own agendas,” says Dotson.

Big box development is one of those issues that never really goes away, Dotson notes.

“Hopefully you sort of solve it so you can move on as a community,” he says.

Frisco: Fighting the big boxes

The big box battle in Frisco and Summit County has lasted a decade. There’s been three citizen votes in the past 10 years tied big boxes.

Most recently, the Town Council looked for a developer to build on town land next to Interstate 70. Home Depot was picked as the most viable option, but the council wanted to know what the citizens thought about the proposal, and it went to a vote.

Voters rejected Home Depot, 57 percent to 43 percent. The issues were familiar: concern about impacts on small businesses and loss of Frisco’s small-town character.

Don Sather, the owner of the local Ace Hardware Store and an opponent of big box development, says big box development is always volatile in small towns.

“It has been very polarizing ” neighbor against neighbor,” he says.

He’s spent endless hours in public meetings, and educating himself about big box economics. He’s particularly concerned about “trickle down” impacts, he says.

“A lot of data shows that money spent with local businesses turns in that community three or four times more than money spent with a national chain,” he says.

For example, a local business would likely hire a local accountant, buy supplies locally, and purchase insurance locally.

Sather maintains that four key impacts must be thoroughly analyzed by communities faced with big box retail development: the environment, traffic, the economy and labor.

The big box battle in Frisco did change the political scenery a bit. Two people who actively opposed the project were elected to the Town Board, defeating two pro-Home Depot incumbents.

Mark Gage, community development director for the town of Frisco, says development of the contested parcel is on the back burner for the moment.

“We’re still holding out hope that something is going to go there … we want sales taxes. Like any other town in Colorado, we are dependent on sales tax,” he says.

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