Saturday, March 27, 2004
The Steamboat Springs City Council was right to impose a 90-day moratorium on big-box retail stores. Now comes the hard part -- deciding what to do in the long-term.
Council President Paul Strong pushed for the moratorium after being approached by two groups -- the Downtown Business Association and the Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley -- who typically have differing agendas.
Members of the Downtown Business Association are rightfully concerned about the impact big-box retailers could have on their stores. Big boxes do not compete on a level playing field. They have access to inventory and pricing that independently owned businesses cannot match. Their size and buying power allow them to dictate conditions to suppliers, who in turn dictate to the independents.
Members of the Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley are rightfully concerned about the impact big boxes will have on Steamboat's character and environment. Big-box stores follow formulas. The Office Depot in Topeka looks like the Office Depot in Denver, which looks like the Office Depot everywhere else. Big boxes require big parking lots. They increase traffic. Allow too many and suddenly Steamboat is no longer unique, and the city loses its allure to the visitors who drive our economy.
But it's wrong to write big boxes off as a scourge on the community and ban them. Steamboat only has a few big boxes -- Wal Mart, City Market and Safeway, for example -- but they are all at the top of the list when it comes to sales-tax receipts. Without big boxes, residents likely would spend a greater percentage of their shopping dollars elsewhere, making it harder to fund government on sales taxes alone.
As Strong noted, big boxes can provide greater access to lower cost goods and services, which, like affordable housing, is critically important to working families in a mountain resort.
That's the quandary the Steamboat Springs City Council faces -- how to address the minuses of big box without indirectly hurting the city in the process.
Here are some priorities the city should address:
n The city can best preserve the unique character of Steamboat through planning and zoning. Commercial building requirements that, among other things, place limits on square footage and location and require strict architectural standards likely would discourage some big boxes. But remember, such requirements also could discourage expansion by locally owned businesses.
n Councilwoman Kathy Connell recommends a big-box enterprise zone near the Yampa Valley Regional Airport that would help plug retail leakage without disrupting Steamboat's character. Such a plan might have merit; however, it would require significant discussions with the big-box retailers to determine the location's viability and with Hayden to determine if the town would support the idea.
n The city's big-box policy will be influenced by the work of its newly formed Tax Advisory Committee. A shift in tax policy to lessen the weight placed upon sales taxes would give the city more latitude in its big-box approach.
Big-box stores have yet to overrun Steamboat Springs, but with a number of commercial projects in the works, that could change quickly. The council was right to implement a moratorium, giving it time to formulate a community-minded policy before it's too late.