Gart Sports is coming to Steamboat Springs. Gauging the impact the national sporting goods chain will have is not easy -- there are pluses and minuses. And while the city has held discussions about ways to limit big-box growth, there is no reasonable argument to prevent the store from coming.
What is reasonable is to ask what kind of community partner Gart Sports will be -- one that invests money and personnel for the greater good of the city or one that simply ships its profits elsewhere.
Whitney Ward, developer of Wildhorse Marketplace, confirmed last week what had been rumored for more than a year -- he is close to reaching a deal to open a Gart Sports store as the anchor in his commercial development near the intersection of U.S. Highway 40 and Mount Werner Road. Gart and The Sports Authority merged last year to create the nation's largest sporting-goods retailer.
Clearly, Gart's arrival will affect the community's small, independently owned sporting goods and outdoor equipment stores such as Ski Haus, Ski and Bike Kare, One Stop Ski Shop and Straightline. Gart also likely will steal sales from another big-box retailer -- Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart sold nearly $6 billion in sporting goods in 2002, more than any retailer worldwide.
Gart is not on a level playing field with its smaller competitors. Because it is affiliated with the largest sporting goods chain in the country, Gart has access to inventory, pricing and product advantages that Ski Haus, Ski and Bike Kare, Straightline and One Stop Ski Shop don't have. But all of those stores have something Gart doesn't -- well-established reputations and strong customer bases in Steamboat.
There are advantages to having a Gart store. Gart offers more than ski and outdoor equipment, giving residents access to sporting goods they otherwise might have to buy outside of Steamboat. That should help plug retail leakage and increase sales-tax revenues.
Gart also will create jobs.
And give Gart credit for agreeing to come to Steamboat on Steamboat's terms. Gart typically opens stores of more than 40,000 square feet. When the City Council told Ward he could not have a store that size, Gart reportedly pulled out. But the company later decided it could work with a 20,000-square-foot space.
What kind of role Gart will play in the community remains to be seen. Large corporations are in the best position to enhance the civic and cultural lives of the communities where they do business. Yet a U.S. Small Business Administration study showed that small, independently owned businesses give more time and money to charitable organizations and civic endeavors than do their large competitors.
That's not to say all large companies and national chains shirk civic responsibility. For all of the criticism it absorbs, American Skiing Co. is a true community partner. Through grants, volunteerism of personnel and in-kind donations, Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. is a civic leader that sets an example in Steamboat that others -- small and large -- should follow.
Given its inventory and pricing power, Gart seems likely to have success in Steamboat. It will be a major player in sporting goods sales. The question is, will it be a major player in the larger community?