The Steamboat Springs City Council slammed the door on future "super-stores" in Steamboat Springs.
According to Planned Unit Development regulations adopted by the council last week, grocery stores now are the only single-tenant commercial developments larger than 40,000 square feet permitted in the city.
The regulations state commercial developments larger than 15,000 square feet - except for grocery stores - are not permitted south and east of 13th Street. The 40,000-square-foot limit applies to commercial developments west and north of 13th Street.
It isn't clear how the city arrived at 40,000 square feet. There are numerous examples of big box caps of 60,000, 80,000 or 100,000 square feet in towns such as Taos, N.M., Madison, Wisc., and Bozeman, Mont. There are very few with caps as small as 40,000. Examples include Walpole, N.H. (40,000); Hailey, Idaho (36,000); and Homer, Alaska (25,000 to 45,000).
The kinds of stores Steamboat's new rules preclude from coming here include Wal-Mart (SuperCenter or regular); Sam's Club; Target; Office Depot; Bed, Bath and Beyond; Lowe's; Home Depot; and Costco. Chain bookstores like Barnes and Nobles and Borders range in size from 25,000 to 45,000 square feet.
We understand the reasoning behind the council's decision-making. Steamboat's attractiveness to visitors is built in part on its natural beauty and its unique sense of community. Big box stores detract from both.
But we would be remiss if we did not note that the council is gambling with future sales tax revenues. That's no small risk when the city has committed to sales tax revenues as its primary income source.
Big box retailers work because they provide consumers what they crave - large selection and lower prices. There is little that governments can do about the economic realities driving their success and keeping big box retailers out does not keep local dollars from flowing there. Steamboat already suffers significant retail leakage to other communities and to online shopping. The new PUD regulations simply ensure that such leakage will continue, especially now that Craig will open a new Wal-Mart SuperCenter within the next year.
It should be noted that Steamboat isn't exactly about to be overrun by big-box chains. Yes, The Sports Authority opened a store here in December 2004, but that store is 32,000 square feet, including its basement storage. Staples opened earlier this year in a 13,000-square-foot store. And Walgreens has an interest here but that store has been reduced from 14,000 square feet to 11,000 square feet and it is unclear whether it will be built at all.
None of the so-called super-stores (Target, Lowe's and Home Depot, for example) has shown interest in the area. That's understandable - Northwest Colorado simply does not have the population to be overly attractive to the major big-box chains. Steamboat Springs is a vacation destination; it is not a regional shopping destination.
But there is change on the horizon. A number of significant residential projects are under way. Steamboat's economy is healthy and the town is growing. Five or 10 years from now, some of the super-stores may have a much stronger interest in the area.
Give the City Council credit for being proactive in establishing its big box limits. But remember, there is a price to pay for keeping big box stores out, especially in a city where sales taxes are the engine that drive city government.