Steamboat Springs' downtown shopping district isn't as robust as it could be, and revitalizing it could be key to jumpstarting the retail economy.
Consultant Kent Burnes shared that message with about 60 people Wednesday night during a talk that was the culmination of three days of focus groups with business leaders from various parts of the county.
"I can tell you your downtown is a beautiful area, but nothing is as healthy as (merchants) would like," Burnes said. "It's not producing the money per square foot as other," similar communities.
Burnes was invited to speak in Steamboat after he made a favorable impression with the business community during last summer's Economic Summit, said Noreen Moore, the business resource director for Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association.
Burnes' talk was a success, Moore said. He shared impressions Wednesday night that he formed during the focus groups. He discussed universal truths he has observed in consulting with many small towns. Finally, he introduced the time-tested "Main Street Approach," which has been used by more than 2,600 communities to revitalize their shopping districts.
Focus on Main Street
Many communities that undertake economic revitalization already are in bad shape, Burnes observed. That is not the case in Steamboat, but it doesn't mean the community doesn't need to take action.
"You have a lot to build from," Burnes said. "There is a lot of enterprise here."
Burnes said his experience has taught him that economic revitalization must start with a historic downtown. After that is accomplished, retail districts outside downtown also will benefit.
Burnes travels 200 days of the year and has had to the opportunity to study many small cities. A commitment to protecting the economic vitality of the core of the community is one of the commonalities Burnes has found among successful towns.
Historic downtown districts, where the community's enduring values are reflected in the buildings and streetscape, are the natural destination for local and visiting shoppers, he said.
Strong downtown crucial
"Downtown could and should be a leader," Burnes said. "As downtown goes, the rest of the retail community goes. It becomes downtown revitalization for the (broader) community."
Weak downtown districts lead to a variety of ills, Burnes said. They encourage sprawl and lead to reduction in charitable giving within a community. Eighty percent of charitable giving typically comes from independently owned businesses, he said.
Burnes was careful to say that many of the comments he presented about Steamboat's retail and community scene were not reflective of his opinion, but rather, themes he was able to draw from the focus groups.
"I heard distinctly several weaknesses when we talked about the community and the retail community as a whole," Burnes said.
They included: a lack of focus in the community; projects don't always get adopted; there is a lack of volunteers outside of the same dozen people who do it all (not necessarily limited to the entire community but a few people within different segments of the community); government doesn't partner with the business community; the cost of living is high; and there is a prevailing state of organized chaos.
Keys to success
Burnes said he heard there is a wedge between the mountain and downtown business communities and that city planning drives a wedge between the business community and city hall. Rebuilding bridges where wedges now exist is critical, Burnes said.
He pointed out that visitors arriving in Steamboat on U.S. Highway 40 from Rabbit Ears Pass are not directed on how to exit the highway to visit the mountain shopping district. And even if there were signs on the highway, visitors wouldn't be able to find the retail stores.
One sentiment he heard repeatedly, Burnes said, is "We want sales taxes to pay for it all, but we do not manage retail for maximum productivity."
Burnes said there is a perception that Steamboat doesn't provide the right mix of shopping for visitors. Ironically, he said, it's important to first ensure there is adequate shopping variety for residents, because visitors want to go where the residents go. Tourists want to find the local environment, Burnes said.
Burnes cautioned against becoming a community where the development of new commercial capacity exceeds demand and new centers merely shift existing stores into new locations. The best way to avoid sprawl, he said, is to focus on infill development.
Where to grow from here
Main Street projects have been used for decades to establish public/private partnerships to organize and manage retail districts, Burnes said.
The process begins with determining the political will of the community, he said. Next, local government typically provides seed money and engages a consultant (he said he is not seeking Steamboat's business) to provide the training that community groups need to carry out an economic revitalization project over a period of years.
Communities that undertake a Main Street project hire an executive director to work with a community board, Burnes said. They begin to establish committees to attack a written plan, with guidance by established principles.
The process of beginning a Main Street project could be undertaken with as few as nine to 20 committed people, Burnes concluded.