Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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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 Rob.Douglas@Comcast.net