Neighbors offer Eagle advice
Eagle, CO Colorado
Possible pull quotes:
“Everybody wants the small guy to come in and run a business … but maybe the people go to Costco, anyway.” ” John Foulkrod, Carbondale councilman
“Eagle River Station, if built, will irrevocably change the community.” ” Ron Wolfe, Avon Mayor
EAGLE, Colorado ” For the past two years, the controversial Eagle River Station shopping mall development has been studied and debated in Eagle, Colorado.
The proposal has been presented at community open houses, neighborhood “fireside chats,” and in hundreds of hours of public hearings. The mixed use project, which includes some big-box retail space and more than 500 housing units, has provided steady fodder for an unending stream of letters to the editor.
Finally, as an actual vote by the Eagle Town Board appears just weeks of away, leaders in neighboring communities are offering insights and advice to Eagle decision-makers and citizens.
The mountain town of Carbondale, in the Roaring Fork Valley, has been through the big box store debate a couple of times. In a 2003 referendum, citizens decisively overturned the town council’s decision to allow a big box development.
Subsequently, the town council organized a group of citizens from both sides of the issue to come up with a plan for the town’s economic future. The resulting “Economic Roadmap” is a 50-page land use plan that endorse residential-retail developments but not national big-box stores with huge parking lots.
Councilman John Foulkrod wasn’t on the town council at the time of the controversy, but he watched it happen. He remembers the debate between citizens who feared a big box retail store would suck the life out of smaller businesses in town; while others argued that regional retail revenues were a necessity for keeping the town going.
“It gets real ugly, real emotional. Do you give up a little bit of being someplace different to get the money?” he asks.
Foulkrod notes that every town in Colorado depends on sales tax revenues. Right now, he says, Carbondale is “sales tax starved” because it is buffered by the shopping districts in Glenwood Springs and Basalt.
“We do OK, but we need something to revitalize the retail community,” he says. “Everybody wants all the stuff ” a recreation center, trails, snow plowed ” but when you don’t have money to do it, it gets sketchy.”
Philosophically, Foulkrod questions whether the town has the right to say what kind of commercial development gets to go in.
“It’s a tough call. Everybody wants the small guy to come in and run a business … but maybe the people go to Costco, anyway,” he says. “People have to get the best value that they can with limited funds,”
Ro Mead, who works for the Carbondale Council for the Arts and Humanities, was a leading big box store opponents when the issue went to a referendum. What’s her advice to citizens who are likely to become embroiled in a campaign?
“Keep it really positive. Find a group, and come up with a really positive kind of game plan,” Mead says.
In Carbondale, it was a group of women who led the anti-big box campaign. They named themselves the “Town Mothers,” and drummed up public interest in their cause by donning aprons at public events, handing out cookies and urging citizens to “listen to your mothers.”
“We waged our campaign in a really polite way. Our signs said ‘Please vote.’ We never slammed anybody,” she says. “The money just came pouring in. We didn’t have to fundraise … and we won big.”
After the referendum, Mead was a co-chair of the citizens group that hammered out the economic roadmap.
“People from both sides of the issue came together, and decided that a big box development did not serve the community. We’re so grateful,” she says.
“I think the day for big boxes is over .. I can’t imagine anybody wanting to do that right now,” Mead adds.
Glenwood City Councilman Russ Arensman was serving on that city’s planning commission when the Glenwood Meadows shopping mall proposal came through several years ago. The project was to be located on land that had at one time been designated as open space; but when the voters rejected an open space tax, that deal fell through.
Next, a citizen group had dreams of putting a championship golf course on the hillside. The prospect of a big box store shopping mall on the site was not welcome for some.
Ultimately, the project was approved. The town worked a financing deal somewhat like what Eagle is negotiating with Eagle River Station with an extra 1.5 percent tax on items purchased at Glenwood Meadows. The revenues go to pay off about $18 million in infrastructure, including the new roundabout in west Glenwood, and a new bridge over the Roaring Fork River.
“It will be interesting to see if we actually make enough revenue to pay back (the infrastructure costs),” Arensman says.
The fact that Carbondale has rejected big box development probably steers that kind of retail toward Glenwood, he says. Plus, the councilman notes that the shopping mall brings in about $1 million in additional sales tax every year.
“It really turned around a lack of funding,” he says. “Like every other town in Colorado, we are very sales tax dependent.”
Arensman does offer some advice to Eagle decision makers.
“Be careful about being played off against other communities … it is always sort of implied that if you don’t take it, somebody else will,” he says, “Every community is unique, and represents its own market and opportunities.”
He also suggests that the developers can be much more flexible than they often claim to be. Ask for what you want; and don’t be buffaloed by a developer’s threats to walk away, says Arensman.
Arensman says the new mall has not had a big impact on Glenwood’s historic downtown.
“The two commercial districts are just so different. People looking to go out to dinner at a Chili’s restaurant are a different market than a little Italian bistro downtown. They’re selling different experiences,” he says.
Time is always on government’s side, says Avon Councilman Brian Sipes.
The upvalley town, which approved the huge commercial development that includes Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and Traer Creek Plaza, has had some difficulties with the project. Most recently, a dispute between the town and the developer Magnus Lindholm over payment of infrastructure costs erupted into a lawsuit.
“What we learned in the fight with Magnus is he promised a huge development that would happen very quickly. For whatever reason, he hasn’t been able to deliver on the ‘quickly’ part,” says Sipes.
“I think Eagle should be wary of things that occur too quickly. There is no rush,” he notes, “Do not lose sight of the fact that Eagle is 100 years old … and in that time change occurred relatively slowly.”
Avon Mayor Ron Wolfe has very specific advice for the Eagle decision makers.
First of all, play close attention to the mechanics of any deals.
“The agreement has to be absolutely beyond debate regarding who is going to do what, and when they are going to do it,” he says, “Our biggest failing with the Village at Avon was leaving too many things open to interpretation.”
Secondly, pay attention to the sequencing of the development. For example, he says, if the commercial development has a housing requirement, it needs to be executed in the proper sequence. Otherwise, the town could end up with just big box stores, when what it was really after was affordable housing, or a developed park.
Third, the Avon mayor cautions his downvalley co-horts to be careful what they are asking for. He points out that Eagle is a historical town, with distinct characteristics and charm.
“Eagle River Station, if built, will irrevocably change the community ” not only Eagle, but also Gypsum, and up and down the valley,” he says. “It will continue to make this place like any other place.
“Did the people all come here because they needed to have a Target or a Best Buy? Is having to go to Denver or shop on the Internet a reasonable price to pay for quality of life, raising kids in a small town? That is the big decision they have to make,” says Wolfe.
Still, he acknowledges the town’s critical need for income. He’d like to see the decision made by the people of Eagle, such as in a referendum vote). In fact, he regrets that Avon voters didn’t decide the Village at Avon project.
Wolfe believes the community as a whole needs more local businesses, instead of big box stores; and it needs a diversity of housing, rather than time shares or mansions.
“We’re all just rushing headlong, chasing bucks, to make something that is not what we came here for, and in the end is unsustainable,” he says.
“If we add up everything that developers in Eagle, Avon, and Gypsum want to do, there is simply not enough people, and not enough spendable income. To me, it is an unreasonable vision that private entities have to turn us into ‘Silverthorne plus.'”