Big-box battle brews in mountain town
CARBONDALE – First it was a Target. Now it’s a Home Depot.And there are rumblings that could herald a second electoral confrontation to decide whether a “big-box” retail chain store will ever be welcome in Carbondale.Despite a hotly contested 2003 election in which the town’s voters decisively rejected a big-box development proposal by Crystal River Market Place property owner Brian Huster of California, many residents continue to feel that a big box is just what the local economy needs to remain vibrant and competitive.The town board of trustees has yet to vote on whether to allow current developer Richard Schierburg, who is poised to buy the Crystal River site from Huster, to even apply for permission to build a big-box project. And before making any decision on whether a big-box proposal is appropriate, said Mayor Michael Hassig, the town needs to talk about its financial prospects for the near future.”I’d say the next step will be a serious, focused conversation” among the trustees regarding the town’s revenue stream versus its anticipated expenses, and what if any measures the town should consider to raise revenues, Hassig said.
The Crystal River Market Place had been a contentious issue in Carbondale since the late 1990s, when Huster bought the land from Colorado Rocky Mountain School – 24 acres located along Highway 133 to the north of the Main Street intersection.
The property had been zoned for high-density residential development, but Huster wanted to build a mixed residential and commercial project, which necessitated a land-use review by the town. An initial plan, proposed in 2001, was turned down by the trustees due to community opposition, even though there was no big-box.From the beginning, Huster and his local representatives emphasized the sales taxes and other income that a shopping mall would bring to the town. Sales tax revenues were estimated to go as high as $1.4 million per year, and many citizens thought it would be fiscal suicide to turn down the project.By 2002, Huster had settled on plans to build a 252,000-square-foot shopping mall to include a 125,000-square-foot big-box anchor, which he hinted could be a Target department store.After the town trustees approved the development in early 2003, a group of activists called the Town Mothers mounted a petition drive that placed the trustees’ decision before the electorate in July. Voters tossed out the plan by a margin of 787 to 601, in what observers at the time said was a record turnout of voters for a special election.
During the weeks leading up to the election, opponents of the Crystal River project argued that, among other problems, the project would cause massive traffic jams on Highway 133. Town planners countered that Huster had pledged $2.8 million toward the $8 million to $10 million cost of widening the highway, and argued that a phased construction plan would be adequate to handle any traffic growth. The Colorado Department of Transportation also said it planned to widen a bridge on Highway 133.Opponents countered that Huster’s highway-widening money was not guaranteed and the town could be stuck with an unmanageable bill. They also maintained that the town would be better off with a number of smaller businesses, located in a revitalized downtown business district farther east on Main Street from the Crystal River site.In the wake of the election battle, the town created a citizen task force called the Economic Road Map Group, which crafted a development scenario for the site. Among other things, the Road Map Group initially proposed a cap of 60,000 square feet on commercial buildings, but the cap was never written into the town’s land-use codes.Schierburg, the new developer, has been working with the Road Map Group and the town for more than a year to figure out how to proceed. At one point Schierburg agreed to a tentative plan that eliminated the big-box component of the project but added several “junior anchor” stores. He later reported to the town, however, that he had contacted 61 of the “junior-anchor” companies and none had been interested in Carbondale.Schierburg then asked the town for permission to explore several options, one of which was to try to enlist a big-box tenant. He is currently courting The Home Depot, and representatives of the home-improvement retailer came to Carbondale recently to talk with citizens and officials. Town officials say the chain store appears sincere in its interest.
As the community continues to contemplate the fate of the site, the local newspaper, The Valley Journal, has suggested it might be time for a second election.Editor John Stroud said he is unaware of a general community sentiment favoring an election, but that he “just wanted to put the question out there.” He said he was thinking of an advisory ballot question giving voters a choice – is a big-box retailer desirable or even permissible, or should the Crystal River site be reserved for smaller stores?The Road Map Group’s “Plan B” focuses on smaller stores, and Schierburg supported the idea conceptually – until the “junior anchors” showed no interest.The possibility of another electoral dustup also was mentioned recently by consultant Michael Shuman, author of “The Small Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses are Beating the Global Competition,” who met with town activists and officials in February.”I fear the city is sliding toward another civil war over the project,” Shuman wrote in an e-mailed response to questions from The Aspen Times. “Rich Schierburg continues to offer Home Depot as the preferred option, while activists in the community are preparing to do everything they can to block it.”
He suggested a “middle course – a variation on Schierburg’s Plan B, which provides a greater role for local retail instead of baby boxes – around which a community consensus could be built.” He maintained “there are a huge number of local business in the valley” that would be interested in setting up shop on the Crystal River site.One option, Shuman wrote, is for “a group of local investors bidding against Home Depot for the purchase rights to the retail part of the site. Schierburg gets everything but the big box, and cashes out early. The city then has time to bring more local retailers to the table. And the activists then are willing to disarm.”Shuman wrote that Schierburg has said in “a recent e-mail” that he “would not resist this approach, if the town rallies behind it.”Mayor Hassig said he is “more than sympathetic” to the idea that there may be alternative possible uses for the site, including enterprises with an emphasis on locally produced foods and consumer goods.But, he pointed out, the Crystal River site is private property. He called Schierburg “a cooperative developer” who, while seeking direction from the town, “hasn’t been shy” about making his own preferences known.Schierburg could not be reached for comment.