Heart of Steamboat

Downtown leaders question cookie-cutter businesses

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Local business leaders are actively weighing the proper balance of formula stores and independent retailers and restaurateurs in downtown Steamboat Springs.

Steamboat already has an ordinance that gives it the tools to manage "big-box" retailers. Formula stores are a slightly different species of nationally branded chain stores. Formula stores are smaller shops and restaurants that can physically fit into a historic downtown shopping district.

Main Street Steamboat Springs, a group of downtown business owners and other officials, sent a letter to City Planning Director Tom Leeson this month with suggestions for a possible draft ordinance that would spell out terms for formula stores contemplating a move to Steamboat --- more specifically to the Main Street district that runs along Yampa Street, Lincoln Avenue and Oak Street.

Preserving character

The formal definition of formula stores describes businesses that are required by contract to adopt standardized services and policies -- employee uniforms and corporate architecture, for example.

"We definitely are not saying that we want to keep them out," said Ruth Dombrowski. "But there's got to be a proper mix."

Dombrowski is a vice president at Alpine Bank and chairwoman of Main Street Steamboat Springs' Economic Restructuring Committee. Her group recently drafted a set of recommendations on language it thinks should be included in a draft "formula store ordinance" being researched by the city planning department.

The recommendations were endorsed by Main Street Steamboat's board of directors and sent to the city.

"We, like so many other small towns, are trying to preserve the unique character of our downtown," the letter from the Main Street board read. "Now, as a state-designated Main Street district, we feel even stronger about our position."

Main Street recommends that formula restaurants and stores not be allowed to locate on a downtown street corner. The experiences of other communities, such as Sausalito, Calif., show that fast-food restaurants at corner locations shape the public's perception of the entire block, Dombrowski said.

In addition, the Main Street board recommends that formula businesses be compatible with surrounding uses and not be allowed to occupy more than 50 linear feet of street frontage.

The most complex of Main Street's recommendations would kick in if formula retail stores and restaurants in downtown Steamboat, taken in aggregate, exceeded 20 percent of the total amount of commercial street-level spaces in the district.

At that point, Main Street recommends that new formula businesses be held to a higher level of review requiring a conditional use permit.

When formula businesses exceed 20 percent of the space in downtown, Main Street's board recommends the city weigh questions such as, "Will

it contribute to maintaining our unique character?" and "How will its square footage occupancy affect other establishments selling similar products?"

Strengthening businesses

Scott Ford, director of the Small Business Development Center at Colorado Mountain College and a recent addition to Dombrowski's committee, said he thinks it's reasonable to regulate how big formula stores can be, what they can look like and where they are located. But he said he would be hesitant to go further and try to rule out certain categories of merchandise.

"I'm in favor of making sure their visual character can be integrated into the community. But you have to be careful about saying, 'We are not going to let another shoe store in,'" for example, Ford said. "As soon as you do, you sow the seeds of mediocrity. Not that the existing store is necessarily going to become mediocre. But what incentive does it have to improve? That concerns me."

Ford thinks the best preparation for a possible increase in the number of nationally branded formula stores here is to strengthen existing businesses and the skill sets of their proprietors.

"We could agonize about them coming and not grab a hold of what's important," Ford said.

Big retailers such as Old Navy have entire departments devoted to recognizing consumer trends in advance, Ford said. Independent retailers don't have those resources. An important role for Main Street, he said, is to continue to bring in national merchandising and marketing experts to offer their expertise to local independents.

"We need to integrate formula stores into the community when they arrive," Ford said. "In the meantime, we can become better at what we do and prepare to outplay them on this playing field we know so well."

'Great years ahead'

Steamboat is not alone in its efforts to regulate formula stores. An organization called The New Rules Project reports that cities such as Arcata, Calif.; Bainbridge Island, Wash.; Bristol, R.I.; Coronado, Calif., and Port Jefferson, N.Y.; among others, have taken steps to manage the terms under which formula stores can enter their communities.

Port Jefferson passed an ordinance in 2000 that barred formula fast-food restaurants from its historic waterfront district.

Bristol, south of Providence, passed an ordinance in 2004 that limits formula businesses to 2,500 square feet and forbids them from taking up more than 65 feet of street frontage in the downtown district.

Arcata passed an ordinance in 2002 that limits the number of formula restaurants in the city to nine.

Dombrowski said her committee members have an open mind to the possibility that the right formula store in the right place could be good for business. They recognize, Dombrowski said, that some formula stores might fill a need for local shoppers that isn't currently being met.

A trio of redevelopment projects poised to begin construction in Steamboat's downtown will add to the inventory of commercial spaces in Steamboat's Main Street district.

Ford speculates those new buildings may afford well-established local businesses the opportunity they've been seeking to own their real estate. If leased commercial spaces open up, formula stores, with their deep pockets and proven track records, might look like ideal tenants.

"I think we have some great years ahead of us," Ford said.

-- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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