Big-box development issues eyed
FRISCO – Although Frisco town citizens are still far from deciding whether they want to welcome a new big-box retailer like Home Depot into their community, about 50 to 60 residents from Frisco and the rest of the county turned out for a panel discussion Thursday night to hear how other Colorado towns have grappled with the mass-merchandising phenomenon.Former Fort Morgan Chamber of Commerce director Cathy Shull said that, in contrast to Frisco’s very public and step-by-step path toward big-box development, her town was presented with a done deal, when Wal-Mart officials one day announced that they’d purchased some land and were preparing to build one of their trademark super stores. The only thing left for her town to decide was whether to annex the property – a no-brainer, according to Shull.”There was already a Wal-Mart 45 miles to the east and another 45 miles to the West,” said Shull. “I never thought they’d come here, but they’d done their demographics.”Shull went on to explain how the local business community responded to the imminent arrival of the country’s biggest retailer, working with consultants and other experts to beef up customer relations and focus on offering products and services that the giant retailer doesn’t offer. The locally owned grocery store, for example, started delivering, and focused on catering to the Hispanic community, while an office supply store thrived by including handmade fudge with their deliveries.Some citizens in the audience said after the meeting that the information was interesting, but premature, as the town still faces what could be an uphill battle to gain voter approval for any big-box development. Frisco residents have time and again voiced their reluctance to make the Faustian bargain of trading their mountain-town soul for sales-tax revenue.The panel’s other speaker was Brian Sipes, an architect whose involvement in Avon town politics dates back to a decision by the town to dance the big-box tango with a developer by annexing a big chunk of land that is now home to a Home Depot and Super Wal-Mart.”That was 1998. From the outside, it didn’t look like a good decision,” Sipes said. “We found ourselves with a gun to our head,” he added, explaining that the developer had been playing the town against the county in the typical divide-and-conquer game used to such great effectiveness against well-meaning but often over-matched local officials.Sipes explained that Avon’s situation was completely unique and very unlike the current debate and process in Frisco, but nevertheless offered a few lessons that are valid for any mountain town facing similar questions.He encouraged local towns and counties to work together instead of competing when it comes to managing commercial development.”Don’t let them play you one against the other,” he said, urging communities to get on the same page to create a level playing field for discussions with developers.That message resonated with panel moderator Dr. Flo Raitano, who hearkened back to the intra-community friction generated when City Market moved from Silverthorne to Dillon in a move that had repercussions years later, when Silverthorne started courting development of a new Safeway Store on the Smith Ranch.Both Sipes and Raitano called on town governments to negotiate smart contracts with potential developers, making sure to address the potential empty store syndrome up front.”It seems prudent that a community would negotiate a contract that makes provisions for an abandoned store,” Raitano said.Sipes suggested that high land values in mountain towns would ensure that any vacant retail space would be quickly filled by other tenants. The retail and development dynamic in the exurban mountain West is dramatically different from suburban areas back East, where store abandonment has been a painful issue for some communities.Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or at email@example.com.
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