Pro, con groups woo voters in Village at Crystal River debate
Post Independent staff
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
CARBONDALE, Colorado – Two groups are vying for voter support in the upcoming election on the Village at Crystal River (VCR) mixed-use development proposal.
Ballots for the special election are to be mailed out by Jan. 9, and are due back at the Garfield County Clerk’s office by 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 31. Today is the last day for town residents to register to vote.
The group opposing the VCR project, Locals for Smarter Growth, is in many ways the successor of a community organization that opposed an earlier development proposal at the VCR site, the Town Mothers, which defeated then-developer Brian Huster at the polls in 2003.
Supporting current developer Rich Schierburg’s proposal is the Say YES to Carbondale group, which formed earlier this year in response to the news that the VCR’s fate would be up to the voters.
The groups are debating in social media and in public forums scheduled for this week. If Facebook is any measure, Locals for Smarter Growth has 62 fans, while Say YES to Carbondale has 33.
The groups have identified various points of argument bolstering their views that the development proposal should either be rejected or approved. These include a 1 percent public improvements fee assessed on sales, and the need for 164 residential housing units at a time when the housing market is struggling.
The 1 percent public improvements fee, or PIF, is to be charged on all gross sales by retail businesses in the project. Shoppers at any store in the village would pay $1 per $100 of goods purchased at any retail store in the complex, in addition to existing state, county and town sales taxes.
The PIF was created in order to finance $2.4 million in infrastructure improvements to about 1,000 linear feet along Highway 133, on either side of the main VCR entrance.
VCR opponents argue that the PIF will be a burden to Carbondale shoppers, while VCR supporters say shoppers pay a hidden fee in travel time and transportation costs to shop in Glenwood Springs or Basalt.
“Basically, it’s shifting construction costs onto the backs of Carbondale shoppers, which is totally inappropriate,” said Deb Bruell, a member of the steering committee for Locals for Smarter Growth.
“And it’s just 1,000 feet of improvements in front of the VCR, which would not be necessary if the mall were not there,” Bruell added.
She said it is particularly inappropriate if Schierburg finances the bonds himself rather than selling them to investors, as is mentioned as a possibility on the Say YES website.
If that were the case, she said, Schierburg would be pocketing the interest paid on the bonds, which is estimated to be as much as $2.5 million over a 20-year period.
Bruell said the Colorado Department of Transportation has already shown interest in taking on $4.5 million worth of improvements to the Highway 133 corridor at the entrance to Carbondale, with $500,000 in matching funds from the town. The project could begin as early at 2013, she said, according to information available from town hall.
“And that’s just about the highway, it’s not about the mall,” she concluded.
On the other hand, Frank McSwain Jr. of the Say YES group said a type of PIF is already being paid by Carbondale residents who shop outside of town.
“Most people that live and work in Carbondale drive to Glenwood Springs, to El Jebel for shopping,” he said. “So they’re paying a PIF right now, in effect,” in terms of gas money and wear and tear on their vehicles.
He said the PIF is needed to pay for improvements that are needed anyway, and to make Schierburg pay those costs would threaten the project’s success.
“The project has got to be economically viable, or it’s not going to come to fruition,” he said. “I feel that folks are willing to pay 1 percent to see a quality development take place.”
He also objected to the Locals for Smarter Growth’s insistence that the PIF represents a $5 million burden on local shoppers.
“That $5 million represents a worst-case scenario,” he said.
The projects supporters, he said, “think it will be potentially half that.” They expect the shopping complex to be a financial success, allowing the bonds to be paid back more quickly than 20 years.
Opponents of the VCR question the plans to build 164 apartments, condos and townhouses along with the commercial development, arguing that the added housing is not needed.
“We already have people who can’t sell their houses,” said Bruell, noting that the housing component of the project originated in 2005, when the region’s economy was booming and housing was in short supply.
In the current economy, she argued, “We absolutely don’t need it.”
McSwain, speaking for the Say YES group, agreed that “there has been a huge shift over the last couple of years” in the housing market.
But while the housing sector is marked by falling prices, foreclosures and empty houses in once-thriving neighborhoods, it will not always be that way.
“You’ve got to look beyond the current market,” he said. “The project is something that would be completed over potentially 20 years.” By 2022 or 2032, there should be a demand for housing again.
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