At the heart of the city

Officials debate downtown's future

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— Jim Cook remembers Christmas in downtown South Bend, Ind. Lights lined the streets, and the smell of warm donuts permeated the air.

That's why Cook, a developer and Realtor, loves downtowns.

Cook is behind a couple of major downtown Steamboat Springs redevelopment projects that have been approved or are going through the planning process.

The projects are controversial, but no one can question whether Cook is interested in Steamboat's downtown. He has been a member of Main Street Steamboat Springs since the organization's inception, and he keeps sketches of his projects up in his office.

Cook loved South Bend's downtown because it was the center for shopping and entertainment.

"It was so warm and fun because everything was right there," Cook said.

Cook is worried about downtown Steamboat's future, as are others.

Downtown sales tax revenues are dropping, he said, and that's going to hurt the entire city.

"We are a sales tax-based economy," he said. "Our infrastructure depends upon it."

Cook envisions a downtown with residences, retail shopping and cultural events all in one place. That will change the town's vitality, which is necessary, he said.

"If we don't have a viable downtown, then we don't have anything," Cook said.

Moving away

Steamboat Springs City Council member Towny Anderson is passionate about downtowns.

He thinks Steamboat's downtown is one of the city's top assets, ranking up there with the ski mountain.

Anderson was one of two council members who voted against building the city's new community center at the Stock Bridge Transit Center area. The Stock Bridge area, which is west of town, includes a transit center with parking.

The city is building a new community center because the old one will be torn down for expansion of the Bud Werner Memorial Library. The previous council promised that a new center would be built before the old one is razed. The council has faced a deadline based on issuance of the library district's bond monies.

Anderson said that deadline led the council to make a poor decision.

"It was all about expediency," he said. "It had nothing to do with, 'How does this fit into a healthy community?'"

Tracy Barnett of Main Street Steamboat Springs said it is her opinion that the transit center was a visionary concept that should have been preserved.

"I think that may be a huge source of solving our parking problem. We may need that parking in the future," Barnett said.

Plans for the transit center included the possibility of a building. Barnett said she understands that plan but that she thought the building would have been a day care or other service building where people come and go quickly. At a community center, cars would be parked for several hours, she said.

"It may not impact downtown right now, but in the future it just may," Barnett said.

City council member Paul Strong, who consistently voted in favor of the Stock Bridge site, said he understands the need to keep downtowns full of vitality.

"I agree with Towny that we need to try to keep functions downtown," Strong said.

He said his initial opinion of Stock Bridge as a community center site was not favorable.

"I was concerned because it was designated for a park and ride," he said. However, a building was in the plans for the site, and it would break up the parking lot from drivers' view along U.S. 40. Those issues raised his comfort level.

Strong said he was more concerned about the library's location than the community center's.

"I think the library is a much more important asset to keep downtown than the community center," Strong said.

Anderson was also part of a group that opposed the building of Routt County's justice center west of town.

Routt County commissioners originally planned to build the new center downtown. But in November 2002, voters denied a proposal to fund a $17.2 million building with a tax increase. In spring 2003, commissioners decided to build a less expensive site west of downtown, next to the jail. The center did not require a vote because there was not a tax proposal.

Anderson said that the commissioners took the easy way out.

"Building on green fields is a default decision. You can always do that; it's easy," Anderson said. "Does that mean it's the right thing to do? Of course not."

The downtown was built around judicial functions dedicated to Steamboat, Anderson said. And every dollar spent on the justice center is a dollar taken away from downtown, he said.

"The healthiest communities in the country are the ones that have invested in their downtowns," Anderson said. He said it takes ignorance on the part of government to disinvest in a city's assets.

The justice center did not belong downtown, Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said.

"The more I tried to envision the size I just felt it was not in character with what's in the rest of the area," she said.

The community always will have a split opinion on commissioners' decision to build the courthouse downtown, Stahoviak said. But she is confident in the decision.

"I still believe we made the right decision in the future and that that will be borne out," she said.

Barnett thinks the justice center has the potential to negatively affect downtown businesses, but there are good ways to prevent that.

"We can do things to bring people back downtown," Barnett said. She said jurors could receive handbooks describing downtown restaurants and parking. She also said lawyers should be polled about whether they plan to move their offices away from downtown.

Barnett said change is coming to Steamboat's downtown.

"It's going to be totally different than it has in the past. Steamboat is growing up, and change is inevitable," Barnett said. "Hopefully, we will be able to guide the change in the way that we want it to happen."

Changes are happening downtown, Strong said. Some people think they are positive, and some think they are negative, but only time will tell.

"We won't know for a number of years which is the right viewpoint," he said.

To reach Dana Strongin, call 871-4229

or e-mail dstrongin@steamboatpilot.com.

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