A better town
At 100 years old the Town of Eagle is having growing pains. For many, Eagle represents the “Small Town America” they have always imagined. It’s where they have always wanted to live and raise a family. The town’s web site opens with the claim that “The Town of Eagle is rich in traditional values and character as it grows both residentially and commercially. A proud working person’s community with a great future.”Eagle may be on the verge of joining small towns all across the country with its commercial growth. Welcome to the “Big Box Nation.”Merv Lapin, a long time and well regarded developer in Vail and the Eagle Valley, has proposed a development east of Eagle that would include 80 acres of retail, and a Big Box store. The sketch plan approved a couple years ago is now beginning to solidify. The process has been something akin to smacking a hornet’s nest with a baseball bat. Lapin brought City Market to Eagle, which then lost Beasley’s Food Town, and no one raised much of a fuss. So what’s the difference now?It’s in the Box. It’s also in the train of courtiers who follow these “Big Box” stores. National chain stores come in as well, surrounding the Big Box like remoras following a shark.Just the thought of this development has many people in Eagle upset. The Town Board of Trustees is considering this development right now, and some of the arguments in favor are compelling. Eagle is growing and faces a bright future for developers and real estate agents, but there may be some bumps in the road literally.Eagle is facing the dilemma that has haunted, and some claim ruined, small towns all over America. The cliffs of Red Canyon could disappear behind the facade of a faux Main Street, dominated by stores whose employees do not live in Eagle, whose profits benefit shareholders outside Colorado, and whose cost to support might belie the promise of revenue and end up crippling Eagle’s financial future.Yet there are valid arguments for considering this development. Towns in Colorado are limited when it comes to revenue, thanks to the poorly thought out constitutional amendment known as TABOR. Voters thought they were getting a good deal in 1992 when TABOR was approved, but very few read the whole thing. To this day most voters don’t realize the hole TABOR has led us down.The lure of potential sales tax revenue from Big Box developments is often too attractive and seemingly too easy a solution to resist. But is it really worth it? What really happens to communities who invite, and even help pay for these Big Box developments? Most expect a jackpot that will keep their Towns solvent for decades. The reality can be far different.It all lies in who to believe and what people really want for their small “Home Town” here in the heart of the American Dream. What really happens is also shaped by how communities allow these commercial interests in, or how they create a situation independent of the Big Box influence.The projectThe Red Mountain Ranch development would annex 442 acres into the Town of Eagle, most of it between I-70 and the Eagle River. The project stretches east from Chambers Road all the way to Red Canyon with two parcels north of I-70. Most of the land is currently open hay fields and pasture land, the eastern “entry” to Eagle and the lower Eagle Valley.It is a picture of the agricultural past that once sustained the community and the County. Cattle and horses graze the hay stubble below the irrigation ditches and elk bed down not far from the eastern end of Chambers Road. The cliffs of Red Canyon rise as a backdrop to this quintessential scene of the Old West, the Eagle County of a generation past. Add a summer thunderstorm with a rainbow glowing in the brilliant evening sunset and the vision is complete.The plan is to set the development so that some of this “entry” appearance is retained. The eastern end of the development would be kept in large, single family parcels with an agricultural or ranch setting. Then there is a bit of open space where the land narrows between I-70 and Highway 6. The fields widen going westward and project increases in density as it approaches Eagle. The parcel just east of the Van Campen place is designated for “future development.” This is a vague term open to interpretation and change over time. The land west to Chambers Road is designated “Mixed Use” some residential, small to medium commercial, and the Big Box.There is a substantial amount of open space, mostly along the Eagle River and north of I-70. There are two pods of low density residential development along the river, one where the recently reclaimed gravel pit is, the other filling the broad pasture along the west side of the Diamond Star Ranch entry. The long reaches of open space along the river will be given to the Town of Eagle and public access to the river will be preserved through the two residential areas.Primary access to the initial phase of the project, the commercial mixed use area, will be from Chambers Road. A second road will be built across the old rail road track and out to Highway 6. There are no improvements planned for Highway 6 back into town. A new interchange on I-70 is also being considered, but is not planned for at this point.This isn’t the first large scale development for Eagle, not by a long shot. The whole commercial and industrial area along Chambers Road between I-70 and the river began the shift of Eagles commercial core from downtown and along highway 6 out to the I-70 interchange. The Bull Pasture, the Terrace and Eby Creek added substantial residential development to the old town core. Extending south along Brush Creek is the Brush Creek Meadows and the new Recreation Center. Then there is Eagle Ranch.Eagle Ranch more than doubled the size of Eagle and added a new commercial district of its own. This commercial district is different from the Chambers Road area. It holds small locally owned shops, restaurants and a movie theater. It was planned, and billed, as an extension of the existing downtown core of Eagle. It is a counter-weight to development along I-70, pulling commerce back into the heart of town.So why should development of Red Mountain Ranch be so fundamentally different that it has inspired such an intense debate and opposition? It’s all in the Box and the type of businesses that the Big Boxes attract.The mixed use parcels are being planned to support one, maybe two, Big Box stores. The rest would consist of smaller and “medium box” stores. National chain stores fill the lots around the Big Box magnet. Indeed, these chain stores will not come without the shadow of the Big Box.Increased revenue needsTown of Eagle Mayor Jon Stavney stated in a column in the Vail Daily (March 25) that “The Red Mountain Ranch project proposes regional shopping, which means ‘Big Boxes,’ a concept dissonant with our image of a Norman Rockwell town.” Yet the Town Trustee’s are taking a close look at this “dissonant” option. Sales tax revenue is the main concern for the Trustee’s as they consider Red Mountain Ranch while trying to peer into Eagles future. The town is growing rapidly and will need more money to support that growth.Since the passage of TABOR, towns like Eagle are largely dependent on sales tax generation as their primary source of revenue. Property taxes provide some income, but not nearly enough. In Eagle last year sales tax receipts were about $2.5 million and property tax under $250,000.Admittedly, Eagle is no shopping Mecca. Not yet anyway. The argument made by the developer is that the Big Box store will create that Mecca. Other stores will follow and Eagle will become a regional shopping center. The increase in sales tax revenue will see Eagle into a much brighter and secure future. Red Mountain Ranch will create a ‘third’ downtown for Eagle, along with Broadway and Eagle Ranch. There is the notion that all this can be done while protecting Eagle’s town core. The increased shopping will be a draw for people to come downtown for the restaurants, entertainment and to find businesses not located in the “new” downtown along I-70. This all hinges on people coming to Eagle from miles around, from as far as Aspen and Basalt, Glenwood Springs and even Craig and Hot Sulphur Springs, rather than shopping in Denver or Grand Junction.Because of this, Big Box stores with large scale retail development are very tempting to towns like Eagle. Vastly improved sales tax revenue, more jobs and increased retail efficiency with lower prices for consumers are the treats dangled for consideration. But how true are these promises? People, especially small local business owners worry about the overwhelming competition and hear tales of other small towns across America that have been literally eviscerated by the Big Boxes moving in on the fringe. Boarded up Main Streets and a town that no longer has any distinctive character or personality are the primary concerns. Visions of Eagle turning into just another undistinguished wide spot in the highway of American suburban sprawl haunt many.Will Eagle become another Parker, Highlands Ranch, or, God forbid, Avon? Are these concerns valid or even close to the mark, or do they represent a national small town fear that has little grounding in reality?The National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), a national organization that seeks private sector solutions for public policy problems thinks the trend toward Big Box retail development is a good thing. As stated in a Brief Analysis on Feb. 21, 2005, “Undoubtedly, as retail evolves and reduces market inefficiencies, small retailers will be affected.” However, “The efficiencies and market benefits brought by Big Box retailers should not be ignored in the community debate.”But are the sterile concepts of retail and marketing “efficiency” the most important factor for determining a town’s worth, its core values, or for planning its future?The NCPA Brief Analysis goes on to site other examples of the “numerous benefits” provided by Big Box complexes. There is, according to one study, an increase in sales tax revenue, but at the cost of lost sales tax revenue to other surrounding communities. There is a spike in jobs, although not in real wages or benefits.There is also incentive to shop locally rather than spending dollars in distant cities. The fact that other stores do move in is well documented, although they are rarely the local homegrown variety. This is an important point for Eagle. Some of the potential Big Box retailers looking at Eagle are the membership stores, like Costco. They have noticed the number of members who drive down to Denver from Eagle and surrounding counties on a monthly basis to shop. They are paying attention and want to improve their own “market efficiencies.”The NCPA report is one of the very few favorable to the Big Box Nation. The majority are either neutral or negative.Competition and jobsSeveral studies by Kenneth Stone of Iowa State University, such as “Impact of the Wal-Mart Phenomenon on Rural Communities,” are some of the most cited. He found that debilitating competition from the larger and more efficient Big Box stores is very real. Another study done in 2002 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation states that “While superstores are popular with consumers, when they create more retail space than a local economy can absorb, they may displace locally owned small businesses and discourage new businesses from getting started. Superstores that are built in outlying locations often drain economic activity from downtown and place huge burdens on public infrastructure.”Another study done by the Trust in 1996 found that 84 percent of all sales at a new Wal-Mart come at the expense of existing businesses within the same county, with only 16 percent of sales being drawn from outside the county.The economic study prepared for the Town of Eagle, paid for by the developer, pointed out that the Big Box folks calculate their “regional” impact in different ways. Mostly these have the stores at the center of a large circle of influence. These calculations do not take into account driving and terrain challenges of the central mountains. Yet this economic study dutifully predicts that shoppers will be coming from Aspen and Basalt, past the new Target complex in Glenwood Springs and up through Glenwood Canyon to Eagle. There seems to be something of a flaw in a study that does not consider real driving distances and conditions in the mountains to make its case for a regional shopping center. Painting a circle of influence around Eagle as one would do in Westminster or Arvada ignores reality.The fact that Big Box complexes and their attendant national chain stores drive local business under, making simple employees out of people who used to own their own business, is real. If stores like the Eagle Pharmacy can’t cut costs by getting their merchandise directly from the manufacturer in China, than they will become extinct according to the evolutionary theory of “efficient retail.” The only other way to survive is to hope that there is a niche market that the Big Box and national chains don’t capitalize on.Another apparent misconception lies in the idea that these shopping centers create jobs. After you include all the jobs lost due to closed or downsized local businesses, the result is a “zero-sum game” according to Kenneth Stone at Iowa State. The new jobs also tend to be very different. They are low paying and often have minimal or no benefits. A study done by Stephan J. Goetz and Hema Swaminathan at Pennsylvania State University showed that the Big Box phenomenon can actually increase poverty in a county. As workers lose income and benefits they do not lose the need for the materials and services that the lost jobs provided. The taxpayer picks up the tab for health care and other services that these new jobs no longer provide. Wal-Mart even has a program that helps “associates” apply for food stamps and public health services. Thirty-eight percent of Wal-Mart employees receive food stamps, 50 percent rely on public subsidized health care.It is also doubtful that the majority of employees at the new Red Mountain Ranch regional shopping Mecca will be able to afford homes in Eagle or even Eagle County. There will also likely be far more employees than any required “affordable” housing can accommodate. They will swell the growing traffic from our “regional” affordable residential centers in Rifle, New Castle and Leadville.Hidden costsEmployees needing public health care and even welfare are one of the hidden costs that the local taxpayer pays for the privilege of having a Big Box retail complex. Another is in the tremendous costs required to build and maintain the infrastructure and other services the community provides. Big Box retail centers often require more in public services than they generate in revenue. A study commissioned by the City of Eugene, Ore., concluded that there is “a new realization that Big Box retail takes more from the community than it gives.”Another hidden cost to the community is in the lost dollars spent at the Big Box and the national chains. When a dollar is spent at a local business two to three times more from that dollar stays in town rather than going straight to corporate headquarters. Many non-retail businesses in a community also depend on the local retailers for their business. Big Box stores and the chains don’t need these local support services. They are more “efficient.” When the local retailer closes the local supporting businesses suffers as well.Other problems arise when downtown businesses close. Kennedy Lawson Smith, writing about the impact of Big Box retailers in the Winter 2005 Planning Commissioners Journal, notes that “As downtown businesses died or relocated, downtown property owners had less rental income with which to maintain their buildings. Downtown buildings began deteriorating, and many downtown districts started looking shabby, deterring shoppers.”An informal study conducted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the Friends of Midcoast Maine found that only 14 percent of the revenue generated by the Big Box stayed at home. Payroll accounted for most of that, and since it is unlikely that Red Mountain Ranch employees will be living here, even that won’t stay in Eagle.Another large cost to small towns like Eagle is in the subsidies that these developments extract, usually in the form of a sales tax break. Subsidies are offered as an attraction to draw the Big Box complex in. These subsidies cost communities millions of dollars and often negate the very reason the stores were “needed” in the first place. Local businesses and developers don’t get these advantages. The big national retailers also get tax breaks unavailable to small local businesses.The developer for Red Mountain Ranch is proposing that the Town of Eagle do the same, and provide a break to whatever Big Box comes on board. Right now the Town collects a 4 percent sales tax. The proposal is to give half of that, 2 percent, back to the Big Box retailer to pay for the infrastructure that makes the entire development possible. This would cut the promised revenue in half and the Eagle taxpayer will be paying for the infrastructure; the roads, sewer, water and other utilities needed to operate. We will also get to maintain this infrastructure for 15 years or so with only half the money promised. That doesn’t include all the other things this revenue is supposed to pay for.Eagle Ranch was never offered any such deal for their commercial core. Usually, in a free market economy, if the cost of doing business is too high you try something else. The Big Box businesses don’t appear to be hurting financially. They are getting huge breaks on both ends. They often get a free ride from construction of the infrastructure they need and then short their employees out of a living wage and benefits. The taxpayer seems to be paying a much higher price than expected for the opportunity to shop with the retail giants.The revenue hookOne of the most troubling findings from all these studies is that the revenue promise, that pot of gold laying at the feet of the Big Box rainbow may itself be little more than illusion.”Big Box retailers claim that their stores generate new jobs and tax revenue. But dozens of studies have found that these stores destroy as many jobs and as much tax revenue as they create” according to researcher Stacy Mitchell with the Institute for Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. Zanetta Doyle, Editor of the Economic Development Digest pointed out in February 2003 that, according to a study by the Center for Applied Research “when stores such as Wal-Mart and Target propose building in small communities, the initial reaction of local authorities is positive, citing an increased tax base and more options for the community. However, over the years, the result is often a lower tax base as the smaller businesses close.” Or are kept away.The promise of increased revenues may be nothing more than that. There are cases where the revenue enhancement has occurred no where near the anticipated levels. Often the new revenue is washed away in a flood of the increased costs for services that these developments create and do not pay for. There are further losses from the “incentives,” tax breaks and subsidies and finally lost revenue as local businesses close. There is also loss of potential revenue as businesses that might have opened don’t, never entering the growing market where they once saw an opportunity before the shadow of the Big Box complex fell across the community.Will this happen in Eagle? It’s hard to tell. Some towns seem to be doing just fine with Big Box neighbors. These towns generally have something else going on that sustains the small local shops like a resort. In other places it may be just the Big Box alone, without the national chain stores. Local shops that do well in the shadow of the Box tend to be higher end specialty stores, ones that the Big Box does not compete with. Not yet anyway. Kenneth Stone found that these stores, like high end furniture boutiques, flourish with the additional customers attracted by the Box store.However, in the case of regional centers, the national chain stores can be the competition that really breaks the back of the local businesses. Small local businesses can not compete with the “efficiency” that a huge national corporation can muster, even if that national store is packaged with Main Street appeal.All these situations are different, but the overall trends are not encouraging. The Big Box is more often a Pandora’s Box, rather than a money box, releasing all manor of unforeseen consequences that small towns find even harder to deal with. “Communities that succumb to chain-store sprawl are far worse off economically than those that protect the vitality of their downtowns and strengthen their locally owned businesses,” according to Stacy Mitchell.Thinking outside the boxThe need for increased revenue is undeniable and the Mayor and Eagle Trustees are right to be concerned about the future. Whether the estimated amounts are valid or are to be borne fully by the Town can be debated. The Big Box solution seems the easy way out, and the potential that is offered is hard to resist.A number of the studies also showed that the Big Box doesn’t need to be the answer. Increasing revenue without the Big Box complex just takes a bit more community spirit and work. It’s that “vision thing.”Eagle might be something of a special case. The current downtown isn’t exactly a thriving Mecca for shoppers. There are some empty buildings along both Broadway and Grand Avenue (Hwy. 6). The Eagle Ranch downtown extension is still in its formative stage, with more shops planned. The Chambers Avenue area along I-70 is more industrial, and works well that way.But there must be some potential here. The Town is planning to spend a considerable amount of money, more than one year’s sales tax receipts, on re-building and revitalizing Broadway. Would they do this if they felt that the buildings along the street would deteriorate, get boarded up and otherwise become “shabby?”In fact there may be a tremendous potential for retail, restaurants and other businesses in the heart of old town Eagle. Many cities along the Front Range are beginning to try and re-capture their “Downtowns.” Empty malls and the shells of closed down Big Box stores are starting to become common. These cities are trying to create or regain the “character” of a real town. Many Big Box developments are also trying to create that feel with charming “Main Street” facades masking the national chain interior. Unfortunately, the charm is simply a marketing tool. It’s not the real thing, not by a long shot. Red Mountain Ranch proposes the same thing and would create a “third” downtown for Eagle.The Town of Carbondale recently went through the same challenge that Eagle is facing. The town “Fathers” decided that Carbondale needed the revenue from a Big Box store. Predictions for Carbondale’s economic future without the Box and the chains were dire and so the town “Fathers” took the easy way out. Then they ran into the “Town Mothers.” This spirited group of locals got the issue put in a ballot referendum for the entire town to decide. The Big Box was dismissed overwhelmingly.Since then Carbondale has not folded up. Downtown is going through a renaissance and booming. New buildings and businesses have come in. Carbondale has become a Mecca, a hub in the mid Roaring Fork Valley because of what it is. It is a town with abundant character. It is a real town, based on a bedrock of local business and a citizenry that takes pride in where they are. That is something no Big Box complex can ever re-create.Will it work for Carbondale in the long run? It has taken a lot of work and community pride to make Carbondale what it is now. Carbondale still faces uncertainties. But then all towns do, even with the Big Boxes. Carbondale has discovered a fact uncovered by yet another study. The “Economic Impact Analysis” prepared by Civic Economics in Austin, Texas, found that “Modest changes in consumer spending habits can generate substantial local economic impact.”Eagle could do the same thing. The Town of Eagle might spend more of its effort on improving local conditions and attracting local businesses. Mayor Stavney challenged town residents to “remember the last time they spent $100 at a business in the Town of Eagle other than at a restaurant or City Market.” The real challenge is for the Town, the businesses, Chamber of Commerce and citizens to create an Eagle where people will spend that $100, without the Big Box. A town where the $100 will be spent and where most of it will remain.If properties are “blighted” and “abandoned,” create incentives for them to change locally. Mayor Stavney states that “The reality is that most of us do not shop in town, and few people from outside of town come to Eagle to shop.” That may be true right now, but it is no reason to run for the shelters and call in the Big Box. Eagle has the potential, we just need to be creative and think outside the Box. Mayor Stavney, the Trustees, town staff, Merv Lapin and the Chamber of Commerce are all pretty bright folks.Eagle has a character and a potential that most towns would envy. That is our great advantage. Let’s make Eagle a place to come to and shop at the same time we continue to make this a desirable place to live and raise families. We can do this ourselves, without the Box and its chain store entourage. It will take some work to create a future for Eagle without following the lock step example of homogeneous marketing “efficiency” that too many small towns in America have become. Let the other towns go their way with the Big Box solution if they want. Eagle might someday want a chain store development, even a Big Box store, but not now. We need to strengthen Eagle’s retail potential, through its unique character, businesses and people first. Let’s nourish those rich “traditional values and character” that will help Eagle grow “both residentially and commercially” before we succumb to the alluring and often empty temptations of the Big Box. That would be a pretty good 100th birthday present for Eagle. VTKen Neubecker is an Eagle resident who writes about rivers and the environment for the Vail Trail. He can be reached for comment at email@example.com.
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