Our View: Finding the right formula

Downtown business leaders are right to begin working now on a plan to address formula stores -- such proactive efforts are necessary to preserve the character that makes downtown Steamboat Springs unique.

Steamboat already has an ordinance dealing with "big box" retailers. Formula stores are a slightly different approach by national chains. Formula stores are smaller shops and restaurants aimed at leveraging national brands in specific shopping districts.

Main Street Steamboat Springs, a group of downtown business owners, sent a letter to City Planning Director Tom Leeson last month suggesting an ordinance that would define terms for formula stores in downtown Steamboat, which includes Lincoln Avenue and Yampa and Oak streets.

The goal isn't to prevent such stores. That wouldn't be practical, and such stores already are in the downtown area. Rather, the goal is to ensure that the proliferation of such stores doesn't turn downtown Steamboat into downtown Anywhere.

The Institute for Local Self Reliance, a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization, has done extensive studies on formula stores as part of a project to help towns build stronger communities. The project defines formula businesses as "retail stores, restaurants, hotels and other establishments that are required by contract to adopt standardized services, methods of operation, decor, uniforms, architecture or other features virtually identical to businesses located in other communities." The project cites several ways other communities have used ordinances to address formula stores. Among the examples:

Bristol, R.I., a community of 23,000 people, bars formula businesses larger than 2,500 square feet or that take up more than 65 feet of street frontage from locating in its historic downtown.

Arcata, a town of 16,000 on the coast of Northern California, has an ordinance limiting the number of formula restaurants -- the most common type of formula store -- to no more than nine at any time.

Such ordinances -- or a combination of the approaches they take -- provide a roadmap for Steamboat to consider.

We don't have anything against formula stores per se, and an argument could be made that a lack of such stores could hurt downtown. If all such chains wind up in another part of the community -- the mountain area, for example -- then the leakage to that area will have a negative effect on downtown sales.

It should be noted that the biggest advocates of this ordinance are those with significant financial interest at stake -- downtown business owners. Given that dynamic, the city must make sure that it stays focused on preserving our unique downtown, not preserving individual businesses.

Maintaining a strong, appealing downtown shopping district is a communitywide issue. In our sales-tax driven city, downtown sales directly correlate to the quality of our roads, parks, schools and other public services. We applaud Main Street Steamboat for raising the formula-store issue now, and we urge the city to consider an ordinance that recognizes the potential effects -- negative and positive -- such stores can have on our downtown.

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