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Can we talk?

Don Cohen

Red Mountain Ranch! Like any hot topic, the rhetoric around building this retail/residential development in the town of Eagle has produced a lot more heat than enlightenment. I think it’s worth taking a step away from the emotionalism that’s played out in hearings and letters to the editor, and try to improve the debate by taking a broader view.The town of Eagle’s retail arrangement is a mess. Within a space of a couple of miles there’s a hodgepodge of four shopping zones, starting with the City Market center north of I-70, the commercial strip on Chambers Road, the “downtown” Eagle business district and the new commercial “core” at Eagle Ranch. While some businesses can survive in this crazy-quilt arrangement, the customer-friendly advantage of a more densely clustered retail model, like in an urban downtown or suburban shopping mall, is lost.The argument to revitalize and promote downtown Eagle has emotional appeal but very little practicality. The existing buildings aren’t particularly conducive to good retail, as their rentable size is quite small. Renovation and rehabilitation of these structures is going to be expensive, and it remains to be seen if such improvements can be borne solely by the landlords and tenants. Additionally, for the downtown business district to generate statistically significant sales tax revenue, it would take the square footage of about two City Markets to make a difference. That’s roughly the equivalent of four blocks of land.The idea of locating a large retail center near the airport sure has appeal to the residents of Eagle and Gypsum, even to the point of their willingness to discuss revenue sharing. However, national retailers aren’t thinking about the local populations of the two towns as much as the significantly larger population they’re pulling out of a five-county region. They don’t want their stores under a flight path and hidden from view. Even if a new freeway access is built near the airport (not likely in the near future), the location and noise concerns won’t go away and will be tough objections to overcome.The hard reality is that with the currently approved residential developments in Eagle, the cost of delivering basic city services will dramatically outstrip the money collected by property taxes. And without a healthy sales tax base, the town will certainly face an eventual economic shortfall. Beyond potential sales tax revenues, the town is also straitjacketed by state law (the Gallagher Amendment) that limits residential property taxes to less than one-third of that of businesses.If you step back from thinking locally about the issue of adding more national retailers, the Village at Avon has land zoned for at least one, and possibly two, big box stores. While it might make sense to concentrate retail activity in the county there, it is difficult to predict Magnus Lindholm’s position on this. He has proven to be a very difficult partner with the Town of Avon.While many residents in Eagle argue passionately about preserving their smalltown feel, the inevitability of demographic growth trends are working against them. You can feel some of that change already. As Eagle Ranch fills with new residents, many of them young families, the political makeup of the town will surely change. Long-time locals will find themselves outnumbered with newer residents who, with less sense of history, may look more favorably at national retail as an amenity, not an intrusion.Now am I saying, “Give up, let the developers have their way?” Absolutely not! The towns of Eagle and Gypsum are over 100 years old. They’re part of our Western heritage that deserves our respect and commitment to preservation. Why? Because they add a richness to our county that provides a valuable counterpoint to our 21st century resort and recreational communities.Is it possible to have it both ways? To enjoy the tax benefits and convenience that comes with the creation of a regional shopping draw while still maintaining a smalltown feel? It might be. Here are some strategies:– In Eagle’s case, pair any large retail development with an overall commercial plan. For instance, some tax revenue might be earmarked for a local marketing district to promote the downtown area. Consider a program to provide low-interest loans and redevelopment funding for the town core. Think of ways to encourage complementary businesses into downtown and along Grand Avenue. Denver has done this very successfully to revitalize Santa Fe Drive into an area with architects, art galleries and theaters.– Demand great architecture to create a strong sense of place and community pride. Riverwalk at Edwards is a good example of combining a fun feeling of the Old West with very modern retailing.– Protect and preserve the Eagle River corridor with an eye to providing a generational legacy of public access for hiking, fishing and whitewater sports.– Don’t give away the store to get a store. Incentive tools such as tax abatements or investment in infrastructure shouldn’t be overlooked. If employed wisely, they can help prime the pump for a healthy future revenue stream. But negotiate from strength while times are good. If down the road the town finds itself behind a big tax shortfall, it can be dangerously tempting for a future town board to cave into big developer tax breaks and design concessions. — Finally, negotiate any development agreement with appropriate checks and balances – not to destroy a developer’s expectation of a reasonable profit, but to provide leverage for the town to insure that promises made are promises kept.Don Cohen is the executive director of the Vail Valley Economic Council and can be reached by e-mail at dcohen@vvec.orgVail, Colorado


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