The new executive director of the Basalt Chamber of Commerce is undaunted by the economic challenges the town faces and has a plan to help revitalize the downtown commercial core.
Robin Waters said Basalt is going through a transition and that she sees the present as a time of opportunity. One of her main thrusts as the head of the chamber will be to educate prospective business operators and developers about the plans of two nonprofits to build a river center and energy-efficiency innovation center just west of downtown. Those projects by the Rocky Mountain Institute and Roaring Fork Conservancy will be a catalyst for downtown revitalization, she said. Infrastructure work on the buildings is scheduled to begin this year. The innovation center could be completed in late 2015. The river center is likely to be completed the following year.
“I and a lot of people see possibilities,” Waters said.
She plans to form a volunteer committee that works on business and economic development. They will prepare a package on what is happening in Basalt and urge interested parties to get involved in the town now, whether it’s renting a commercial space or seizing a development opportunity, before prices rise and opportunities slip away.
Waters said Basalt isn’t the first town to experience a “devitalization” of its downtown.
“It’s a phenomenon that happens all across the country,” she said.
When a community is proactive and engaged in addressing the underlining issues “it almost always changes back,” she said.
Basalt is taking the right steps to spur revitalization, in Waters’ view. Business owners and operators formed the Downtown Business Association to promote the core and provide a voice in issues.
The town government started a community planning effort that will help determine what gets built on key open spaces, such as the former Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park, and other downtown properties. Some differences in opinions have emerged from that process. Some people want open space preserved; others see development opportunities.
Waters views the differences as healthy community debate. Everyone has the same goals — to increase vitality while preserving a high quality of life — so it’s a matter of finding compromises that benefit all, according to Waters. She said she sees the conflict as friction that will provide the spark for a solution.
Waters said she believes the turnaround for the downtown core is less than a year away. She is asking current business owners to remain patient.
“I would only say to them, ‘Hang tight. Hold your place. You’ll be happy you’re here in less than a year,’” she said.
Waters acknowledged the chamber is in a bit of a sticky spot when it comes to downtown revitalization. It cannot focus on that issue and ignore the needs of members outside the core.
“We all need to keep in mind, Basalt is bigger than downtown,” she said.
Willits Town Center and Orchard Plaza are economic drivers, she noted. Whole Foods Market and City Market draw the traffic that businesses need to thrive. Two key businesses — Basalt Bike and Ski, and Bristlecone Mountain Sports — relocated from spaces in or around downtown to Willits Town Center. Another key downtown retailer, Midland Clothing, is preparing to move to Willits.
She credited Willits Town Center for expanding the diversity of Basalt businesses and producing the sales tax revenue base needed for municipal projects. Waters said the Basalt Business Center on the south side of Highway 82 deserves special recognition for “some great stores” that it brings to the mix. The Midvalley Design and Industrial Center along Willits Lane is another business incubator.
Basalt would be wise to promote the attributes and special character of each area, Waters said, while also working on a plan to tie them all together. The Basalt chamber previously helped launch an effort to install common monument signs for each of the neighborhoods, she noted. She also wants to resurrect discussion of a shuttle between the neighborhoods.
Waters replaced Heather Smith, the chamber director for the past seven years. Smith is moving to Telluride with her family. She helped Waters with the transition this month.
The position was advertised at a pay range of $40,000 to $45,000 and no benefit package.
Waters credited Smith with keeping the membership solid throughout the difficult recession. Membership has ranged from 375 to 500 in recent years, according to Waters. The chamber’s budget is about $200,000.
Waters has 29 years of experience in public relations, marketing, management, fundraising, program development and event coordination. She lives in the Basalt area, and her ties to the Roaring Fork Valley go back to 1980. She was a reporter for the Snowmass Sun and the Aspen Daily News in the early 1980s.
Her other goals as the head of the chamber include:
• Broadening the chamber’s connection to the community. Waters said she wants to represent more than business owners and operators. She wants to establish a “Friends of the Chamber” membership for residents. She hopes that chamber businesses will formalize a discount system for community members who have a “friend” membership.
• Increasing personal communication so that businesses can directly tell consumers what they have to offer. Waters also wants to implement an ambassador program that will greet new businesses and new residents.
• Partnering with the town government and other entities to pursue scenic byway designation for Frying Pan Road. That would increase exposure and potentially free up grant money.
• Tapping Basalt’s business community for volunteers for a variety of tasks. Some volunteers are needed for specialized duties, such as working on marketing plans. Others are needed for grunt work during special events.
Robin Waters replaced Heather Smith, the chamber director for the last seven years.