The city of Steamboat Springs and the Main Street Steamboat downtown business organization are wise to work together on an ordinance that establishes regulations for future retail stores in the city.
At a meeting today, Main Street officials will take public input on the proposed ordinance and then make recommendations to the City Council. The meeting is at 3:30 p.m. at Bank of the West.
The ordinance being discussed specifically targets "formula stores." The city's preliminary definition of a formula store is a store or restaurant among a chain of 10 or more that contains these features: a standardized array of merchandise, a standardized faÃ§ade, standard decor and color scheme, uniforms for employees and standard signage along with a trademark.
Steamboat has a handful of retail outlets that meet the definition of a formula store - Overland Sheepskin, Images of Nature, Fuzziwig's Candy Factory, Great Outdoor Clothing, Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and Blimpie Subs and Salads. The big fear is that, with five major downtown developments under construction or planned, there could be a sudden concentration of new formula stores in the downtown area.
Why does this matter? Because our government funding depends heavily on sales tax success, and our sales tax success depends heavily on enticing visitors to shop here. A glut of brand-name formula stores - Barnes and Noble, Gap, Ralph Lauren, Old Navy, Starbucks and American Eagle Outfitters, for example - will not distinguish Steamboat as a shopping destination. Rather, they will simply give visitors the same shopping options they can find in Omaha, Dallas, Des Moines and, for that matter, Summit County.
That's not to say all formula stores are bad; only that our government, which depends so heavily on retail for funding, is wise to establish some guidelines for regulating such stores before they destroy the unique character of our downtown shopping districts.
Here is what an ordinance can do:
n Establish design standards, not only for formula stores, but for all businesses. This allows the community to set the terms upon which a formula store can enter the market.
n Establish limits on signs. Many formula stores market their brands with large signs that can obstruct views and dominate buildings. Limiting the size, style and placement of signs is another way to give the community greater control over downtown's appearance and appeal.
n Apply the ordinance citywide. Using the ordinance only in the downtown area could inadvertently create a formula store shopping district elsewhere, which could undercut downtown vitality.
n Require formula stores to go through a conditional-use process. This step would give the Steamboat Springs Planning Commission and the City Council greater control of what kinds of formula stories enter the market.
Don't misunderstand us - not all formula stores are bad. In fact, we believe identifying and recruiting the right kinds of formula stores can increase traffic and enhance the shopping experience downtown. Given the escalating cost of leasing space downtown, formula stores may be the only retailers who can afford certain commercial spaces. Tracy Barnett, program director for Main Street Steamboat, said part of the group's long-term strategy is identifying and pitching the right stores, whether they are formula or independently owned.
We support the free market as much as anyone, but we also support smart government. Putting policies in place that protect our community standards and our sales tax base certainly qualifies as the latter.