Steamboat Springs City Council members must be careful in broaching the subject of limiting commercial growth.
Last week, several council members expressed worries that new commercial businesses could hurt existing stores, create more open storefronts and damage the fabric that makes Steamboat unique.
"The question is, when is enough, enough?" said City Councilman Bud Romberg. "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?"
We agree that the council, through proper planning and zoning, should create a vision for the city that includes regulations that define where certain types of businesses are located and that require new businesses to meet the architectural standards of the community.
As Councilwoman Arianthe Stettner noted, it would be too simple to let the free market dictate Steamboat's business environment.
"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."
But in defining a vision, the City Council must avoid going too far. For example, is it the council's role, as Romberg suggests, to decide how many grocery stores belong in Steamboat Springs?
We think not.
Certainly, it was sad to see Boggs Hardware, a fixture on Lincoln Avenue for more than half a century, close its doors. No one wants to see Steamboat businesses fail, and few would argue that vacant storefronts downtown are good for the community. No doubt the emergence of major chain competitors, with larger inventories and better pricing, contributed to Boggs' demise.
But the success or failure of a business is something that, for the most part, should be left to the free market. Businesses must provide products and services that meet the needs and desires of residents and visitors.
Even if it wanted to, the City Council can't protect stores that don't have good business models.
The council should not be in the business of trying to regulate competition, making judgments on businesses that are not locally owned or trying to prevent larger chains from opening stores here. Competition can be healthy. It helps ensure residents get better selection, pricing and service. Often, it can make existing businesses stronger.
Much of Steamboat's unique character is because of its array of successful locally owned stores that can't be found anywhere else. There are appropriate ways for the city to support those businesses.
An example is the city's participation -- along with the county and the Chamber Resort Association -- in the creation of an economic gardening program. Noreen Moore, hired to run the program, will work with local businesses to help them build their customer bases and gain access to capital that can help them expand.
Through well-defined zoning regulations and programs like economic gardening, the city can exert proper control over commercial activity and aid existing businesses. They are the kinds of measures the council should take.
Trying to put a cap on the number of gas stations or grocery stores in town isn't.