For 20 years, Steamboat resident Rob Douglas was a Washington, D.C. private detective specializing in homicide, political corruption and terrorism. Since 1998, Douglas has been a commentator on local, state and national politics in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Colorado. To reach Rob Douglas, email

For 20 years, Steamboat resident Rob Douglas was a Washington, D.C. private detective specializing in homicide, political corruption and terrorism. Since 1998, Douglas has been a commentator on local, state and national politics in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Colorado. To reach Rob Douglas, email

Rob Douglas: Bigger isn't always better


Rob Douglas

Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at

Find more columns by Douglas here.

This week marks the start of my eighth year in the Yampa Valley and my second year writing a column for the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Unbeknownst to Steamboat Springs City Council members, they gave me an anniversary present last week.

When the council voted overwhelmingly to kill large-format retail stores - "big box" in the vernacular - as an annexation requirement for proposed developments west of Steamboat, I quietly celebrated that gift to all of us who cherish Steamboat's rural character.

I detest the assault of big box stores upon small town America.

I moved here to escape the bigger-is-better culture that begat big box retail.

I hope I don't see the day when more of the behemoths arrive in Steamboat.

For me, big box retail is one of those issues in which objectivity and reason gives way to subjectivity and emotion. Although I understand the objective reasoning of those in support of enticing big box stores to Steamboat, my subjective emotions are aligned with those in opposition.

The arguments for and against encouraging development of large-format retail within Steamboat have repeatedly been debated before the city Planning Commission, the City Council and the public at large for many years.

Additionally, the Steamboat Pilot & Today extensively has covered the pros and cons of big box stores on the news and editorial pages. As recently as last month, the paper published an editorial arguing that "the Steamboat Springs City Council should strongly consider requiring the developers of Steamboat 700 to dedicate space for big box retailers, including a grocery store."

The rationale in favor of big box stores within Steamboat Springs - specifically a large-format general merchandise store and a large-format home improvement store - includes:

- Retention of $18 million of the $23 million in sales of general merchandise, building and garden supplies currently purchased outside the city annually.

- $1.1 million per year in increased sales tax for the city's coffers.

- Increased affordability for residents through lower prices close to home.

The argument against big box stores includes:

- Economic harm to existing and future small businesses.

- Harm to Steamboat's small-town character.

- Increased congestion, noise and pollution commensurate with a regional shopping destination.

Boiled down to its essence, the question becomes: Should we pursue increased sales tax dollars that big box retailers might bring, or should we nurture our small proprietors who play such a significant role in creating the locale and culture known as Ski Town USA?

Hopefully, with the Planning Commission's 6-0 vote followed by the council's 6-1 tally removing any requirement for developers with projects currently in the pipeline to provide space for big box retail, our city leaders have cast aside the pursuit of the almighty sales tax dollar before big box envy changes the character of this community to the degree none of us will recognize the town we'll have collectively destroyed.

Admittedly, the notion that a few multi-acre-sized stores will destroy Steamboat might be overkill. But, once the deceptively dangerous big box genie is out of the bottle, it is the rare town that can recork that demon. The temptation to add more mammoth monuments of consumer consumption - for the sake of even more sales tax - inevitably results in shredding the small-town fabric of rural communities.

I've witnessed it firsthand.

I grew up in a small town in an agricultural county not unlike the Steamboat and Routt County of today. Believe me, once the unique ingredients that magically combine to create the beauty and camaraderie of rural life are tampered with too much, there is no way to resuscitate what you've extinguished.

It becomes a battle between David and Goliath, and eventually, Goliath wins. Given that our country and our valley now are suffering in large part because of the unquenchable fiscal appetites of the Goliaths who've been running things for years, perhaps it's time we side with the Davids of the world for the foreseeable future.

So, instead of wasting any more time plotting to entice large-scale retail stores and the tax lucre they attempt to seduce us with, let's double up on our efforts to improve and support our shopping, dining and nightlife offerings downtown and below the slopes. Let's keep the Steamboat we love.

To reach Rob Douglas, e-mail


Fred Duckels 8 years ago

Rob, I agree with your desire to prevent Steamboat from duplicating the atmosphere that can be found in a million other places. Steamboat has limitless potential, and we can afford to be choosy. Big box will fuel growth along with affordable housing. If we are going to be special we will need to adress the traffic problems, and let the downtown area blossom. We will have no problem with growth but it must be selective if we are to become a special place. Quality resorts are not done by coincidence. We need to have a choice of customers other than ball teams. This may seem snobbish but we need to distinguish our town from the rest of the pack. There is talk of losing tax revenue but I think the tradeoff is shortsighted in the long run.


Scott Ford 8 years ago

Sales tax and building use tax as the primary funding source for the city is likely a deal with the devil and perhaps more so in an area with a high number of visitors (tourist). However, I know of no better devil. There are those that promote a city property tax as a way to help wean ourselves from such a dependency on sales tax and thus the crazy deals we make with the devil. I am not too sure the pros of having a city property tax outweigh the negative impact it has on the business community as a result of the distorted impact of Gallagher Amendment in our area. It may be possible to structure a property tax that would have exemptions for certain property classifications so it may be worth exploring.

Way too often focusing on the goal of increasing sales tax becomes confused with economic development. Such a focus is not economic development. The city paid some $100K+ for a study released last spring that was called an economic development plan for Steamboat Springs but it was a study on ways to increase sales tax revenues by plugging retail leaks.

The benefit of plugging retail leaks in the Steamboat Springs area is likely a 90/10 proposition. Ninety percent of the benefit results in increased sales tax collections. Since there is such a low multiplier on retail dollars only 10% or less likely result in increased wages/household incomes.


JLM 8 years ago

There is a huge difference between a sales tax and a property tax. A sales tax is primarily a tax on consumption or behavior while a property tax (for an individual) is a tax on shelter.

Shelter is not "discretionary" product while the decision to purchase or consume something very often is.

Multiple sources of tax revenue are the dream of politicians who desire to obscure the sheer magnitude of the taxes they are collecting. They would rather dumb you down and dismember you a digit or small limb at a time rather than just doing the honorable thing and beheading you in one fell swoop.

Add up Fed income tax, state income tax, FICA, FUTA, SUTA, Medicare, property tax, sales tax, gasoline tax, communication tax, estate tax, excise taxes, gift tax, communication tax, travel tax, carbon cap and trade tax --- the total list is literally hundreds of taxes which we pay. But because they are comparatively small, we do not "see" them clearly.

Now let's take a look at government fees --- license fees, parks fees, registration fees, recording fees, renewal fees, entrance fees, library card fees, use fees, landing fees, etc. etc. etc.

What is YOUR effective tax rate? Really? I bet it is about 75-85% of every freakin' $$$ you make!

So, do we need another tax? Hmmmmm, not so much!

Oh, yeah, where is the momentum for taxes and fees just now? Ever upward. Don't take any comfort that only the top 2% are getting taxed --- this year it will be them and then not enough revenue and who is next? YOU!

Only an idiot puts their own neck into the noose! It is truly time for another Tea Party! Pass the word --- tax revolt!


Scott Ford 8 years ago

I appreciate Rob's appeal to shop locally. This appeal tugs on the heart strings of the local population and makes for some good politically correct reading. I am not too sure that even a herculean effort to increase local spending would have a meaningful economic impact. Let me illustrate why I think this.

Typically only 30% of a household's expenditures are for tangible goods that are subject to sales tax. Of this 30% about 2/3's are spent on food (at home or dining out) and utilities. We know that in the area of food and utilities the local households in Steamboat Springs already "shop" locally for such items in the range of 95%+. So the only leak plugging available is in the area of clothing and other stuff such as home furnishings, hardware, office supplies, etc. This 1/3 is split about 60/40 (clothing 60% and other stuff 40%). Depending whether it is women's, men's or children's clothing the leakage averages about 60%. The leakage on the other stuff is about 50%.

So let's put this in perspective using $100 of household income/spending. The amount spent of items subject to sales tax = $30 ($100 x 30%). The amount spent on food and utilities which we are already buying locally $19.80 ($30 x 66%). The balance of $10.20 ($30 - $19.80) spent on clothing = $6.12 ($10.20 x60%); spent on other stuff = $4.08 ($10.20 x 40%). Value of clothing leakage = $3.67 ($6.12 x 60%) Value of other stuff leakage = $2.04 ($4.08 x 50%). Total value of leakage = $5.71 ($3.67+$2.04)

Why doesn't the local consumer spend this $5.71 locally? When this question was explored in more depth in the Routt County Consumer Preference Survey it was not simply price and selection. Price and selection may account for about 1/2 of the reason. The other 1/2 is that "we locals" when we leave town to go to a Rockies game for example or drop someone off at DIA do some shopping when we are in the metro area. We did not necessarily leave town to primarily go shopping for lower prices and selection we often go for another reason and while we are in Denver we stop at Target, Dillard's, Borders or PetSmart and buy stuff.

I do not think we can change this behavior of "local" consumers which accounts for 50% of the leakage. So the only leakage we can even influence accounts for $2.86 ($5.71 x 50%). Even if we were wildly successful in plugging 25% of this leakage it may be at best worth $.72 ($2.86 x 25%).

To summarize a herculean effort to plug local retail leaks will likely has a 2% ($.72/$30) impact in local retail spending.

In reality it is just easier and likely more effective to bring new dollars into the community than it is to do the herculean work associated with plugging retail leaks. Even if this effort is done successfully it has very little meaningful impact. Often bring new dollars into the community involves making a bargain with the devil. It is a bargain, however, we seem to understand and tolerate.


Requires free registration

Posting comments requires a free account and verification.