The Steamboat Springs City Council is to be commended for taking a positive step toward managing the pace of retail growth, but as council members know, much work is yet to be done, and the most difficult discussions lie ahead.
Given information from Economic Summit 2004, the city's big-box ordinance -- which the council passed Tuesday -- may not even regulate what it is intended to regulate.
The ordinance focuses solely on store size, requiring buildings 12,000 square feet or larger to go through a stricter planning process that demands a building's public benefits increase with its size.
But Economic Summit speaker Carl Steidtmann said the chances of true big-box (which he defines as stores 100,000 square feet or larger) coming here in their current configuration is essentially zero. Instead, he said, the trend in big-box retail is moving away from the big boxes targeted by the ordinance and toward smaller, psuedo-neighborhood shops that likely would work in markets such as Steamboat.
Wal-Mart, for example, which evolved from large discount stores to gargantuan supercenters, is downsizing for its next expansion effort. Wal-Mart's Neighborhood Markets, a string of groceries introduced in 1998 and spreading ever since, are about 40,000 square feet -- less than a quarter of the size of a typical supercenter -- and designed to appeal to smaller markets and consumers turned off by the giant stores.
Advancing business technology, such as low-cost data chips that allow retailers to track inventory and react quickly to demand trends, allows large retailers to fit into smaller spaces where they can offer just the products that sell well in a given market.
With size becoming less of an issue, Steamboat Springs needs to take another hard look at what aspects of retail growth its residents truly want to manage.
In earlier discussions about big-box development, residents worried not only about the actual size of stores such as Home Depot and Target, but about issues such as "generification" by national brands and deadly competition for local, independent businesses.
When big boxes morph into small boxes, the latter issues persist. The question before the council and the community now is whether such issues should be regulated, and if so, how?
Seeking to stifle economic development, particularly in a sales-tax-driven city, is dangerous ground to tread. But losing Steamboat's Western, small-town character and unique shops to national brands packaged behind smaller, trendier storefronts could pose an equal threat.
Steidtmann's message was encouraging: Even in this new era of small boxes that offer rock-bottom prices, independent retailers can flourish by providing merchandise and an experience that gives consumers a sense of place.
Developing an ordinance that regulates commercial growth in the ways the community desires is only half the council's challenge; the other half is doing it quickly enough -- and in the future, being agile enough -- to keep up with the ever changing world of business and technology.