Steamboat Springs The Yellow Pages lists 12 liquor stores in Steamboat Springs.
Added to those 12 stores are all the merchants that sell 3.2 percent beer and the restaurants licensed to serve alcohol. City Councilman Bud Romberg roughly estimates there are 40 liquor licenses between Third and 13th streets alone.
Romberg started questioning the growing number of liquor licenses and other commercial venues this summer, when an application came before the city for a combination gas station, liquor store, convenience store and car wash at the east entrance of town just off U.S. Highway 40.
The council approved the Southside Gas Station in December, but the question of limiting commercial growth has yet to go away.
"The question is, when is enough enough?" Romberg said. "Should we have something in our code that would allow us to say for the time being, we have got enough liquor stores or gas stations or T-shirt shops or grocery stores?"
The council has never officially discussed controls on commercial growth, but Romberg has brought the issue to the table during the informal council members' reports. Commercial growth will appear on a March agenda, and other council members have already weighed in on the discussion.
Council President Kathy Connell said the issue goes beyond liquor stores. New lodging that is added each year, despite a stagnating tourism economy, and the danger of national chains are also at issue, she said.
Councilwoman Arianthe Stettner points to the proliferation of real estate offices on main street and the closing of Boggs Hardware, a Lincoln Avenue staple since 1939, as harbingers of a changing downtown.
The concerned council members are quick to acknowledge the right to free enterprise, the right of property owners and the right to let businesses succeed or fail. But Stettner also asks if the free market is the best way to build a community.
"You say the market will decide. But is the market fair, is the market just, is the market the best way to design a community?" Stettner asked. "I think a community that defines itself and defines its vision is, one, more attractive and two, a better place to live and have a business."
At the heart of the concern is keeping the downtown storefronts occupied, longtime local businesses intact and the character of Steamboat unique.
"If all that drives businesses is prices, the individual merchant is going to have a really tough time making it. What we end up with looks like Anywhere, USA," Romberg said. "The concern about when enough is enough is really a concern about what makes Steamboat unique and how do we keep it."
Another development proposal, the South Village at Steamboat, which proposed a 27,000-square-foot anchor store on a 9-acre commercial site along the U.S. 40 corridor, also raised concern this summer. Gart Sports, which has more than 20 stores in Colorado and more than 60 in nine northwestern states, has been mentioned as a possible tenant for the anchor store.
Romberg said a national chain such as Gart could undermine local businesses, and the strip-mall development would risk pulling stores off Lincoln Avenue.
Vacant storefronts are also a concern of Stettner's. She notes a study done by Place Economics, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm, which looks at the cost of an empty storefront. A small building sitting empty for one year in a small-town commercial district keeps almost $400,000 from circulating in the community.
The study showed $250,000 is lost in sales, another $12,500 in sales tax revenue, $15,000 in rent to the property owner, $1,500 in property tax, $51,000 in loan demand to local banks for building, $15,000 in loan demand to local banks for business, $750 in management fees, $24,750 in business profits and owner compensation, and $16,250 in employee payroll.
"It would be a disaster for the economy of Steamboat for a development (like South Village) to come in, pull business off of Lincoln Avenue and see vacant storefronts on Lincoln Avenue," Romberg said.
Council members point to Boggs as an example of a downtown, locally owned store that could not compete with national chain stores like True Value and Ace Hardware, which set up shop on the outskirts of town.
Romberg said the national chains do allow for more competitive pricing, and contribute through sales tax and creation of local jobs, but stresses the profits from the chain stores go out of town.
An even bigger concern is that national chains will diminish the character of Steamboat, which has traditionally flourished with smaller, locally owned stores.
Connell points to mountain resort towns such as Jackson Hole -- a town, she said, that did not pay attention to the influx of national chains.
"They lost their core of local businesses. Now the pendulum is swinging back. The national chains are pulling out and the locals are coming back," she said.
Her main concern lies with the lodging community, where 1,200 new pillows were added last year, when tourism and skier days did not increase. Spurred by low interest rates, building continues, Connell said, regardless of a need and a glut in inventory.
Connell, who co-owns a property management company, said it doesn't affect her as much as the properties' owners, who must now compete by dramatically dropping prices and discounting lodging by as much as 50 percent. The end result, Connell said, is local companies selling out to national chains.
"Lodging is going to national chains because it is the only way to survive," Connell said. "And you don't want to do that to the community, because then you lose the character of a community."
None of the council members gave specifics on what tools are available to control commercial growth or cultivate locally owned business. Connell suggested using tax incentives to support small and locally owned businesses.
"We keep talking out of two sides of our mouth. We want to foster diversity and small businesses, but we kept doing things to put them out of business," Connell said.
Stettner said tools are already out there and used by other communities. And the working groups and consultants updating the Steamboat Springs Area Community Plan are looking at growth management.
Romberg recommends an economic study be done for the city's commercial inventory, similar to the one being done for housing. The housing-needs assessment will make a list of what housing is available and what is needed, he believes the same can be done for businesses.
Romberg admits he doesn't have a solution or even know if Steamboat has a problem. He said businesses do have the right to fail but wonders if they have the right to build what they want.
"We should be able to say that the merchant that comes here has a reasonable chance of succeeding, if he or she is a good merchant," Romberg said. "They have to do the work to provide the services, but I don't want to get into something where if we continue to approve developments, we put our existing business community in jeopardy."