Hodgepodge of ideas emerge on how to save downtown Basalt
May 19, 2014
Editor's note: This is the third part in a three-part series about Basalt's Our Town effort to plan the future of the downtown Wednesday's article looked at the five properties involved in the unique planning process. Thursday's article looked at who is participating in the process. Today's article takes a sample of opinions.
A civic activist thinks Basalt's soul is already lost. A business owner counters that the town is as charming as ever and just needs to market itself better. A banker sees the economic needs of downtown conflicting with the sentiments of residents.
That's the hodgepodge of opinions that spills out when a town invites its residents to plot its future. About 300 residents have gotten involved in Basalt's Our Town planning process. Hundreds more who haven't gotten involved have an opinion about what's needed to breathe life into downtown.
Following is a sample of opinions from people of both camps.
Cathy Click and Bernard Moffroid tied their economic fate to the downtown core nearly 24 years ago when they opened a French-style cafe on the main drag of a town that was still dominated by farmers and ranchers.
"We had no business opening a restaurant. It was very hit-or-miss," Click said.
Moffroid remembers that early customers asked, "What's a scone?" But good food earned a following. They knew that they could survive when they saw a cowboy eating a croissant.
There have been ups and downs since then. The development of the Roaring Fork Club vastly expanded their clientele. The recession exaggerated the offseasons and weakened the tourism seasons.
"We coasted for years, and now we have to work at it," Moffroid said.
Despite the tougher times, Moffroid and Click are wary of Basalt overreacting and jeopardizing what they feel are the existing great attributes of the historic, charming downtown.
"Let's be realistic about it — Willits isn't killing downtown," Click said. "That's an easy out."
Willits is battling a high vacancy rate, as well, she noted, and downtown has never been a major commercial center throughout Basalt's history.
Promote what Basalt offers
Click wants downtown to remain small and quaint, but she believes steps can be taken to make it much more lively. Moffroid and Click are active in the Downtown Business Association, which is working on ways to draw people in with events and marketing plans. Click said she feels that the town needs to find "an opportunity to put Basalt on the map with something that has nothing to do with shopping or buying things."
The fishing on the two gold-medal trout streams that converge in the town is unparalleled, she noted. World-class skiing is just a few miles away. The cycling is top-notch. There's a lot to promote.
She favors more efforts to bring people downtown to enjoy what Basalt already has to offer. Not everyone in the business association shares their view, Moffroid is quick to point out. The organization as a whole is very supportive of the possible addition of a hotel downtown.
Click said she could support a unique hotel that blends in with the current downtown. She believes the best spot for it would be where the Clark's Market building is located rather than at the former Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park site.
"I don't think putting it next to the river is the answer," she said.
But, they add, they can live with whatever the Our Town planning process produces. They support the planning effort because it will tell developers what the town wants rather than forcing the town to react to a developer's application. But Moffroid sounds a note of caution about the process and the potential effect on downtown.
"You have to be careful, not give it away," he said.
Character already gone?
Jim Paussa, who has been involved in various civic issues but declined to get involved in Our Town planning, fears Basalt has sold its soul already. Tearing down funky old neighborhoods and buildings and replacing them with new structures won't be a panacea for what ails Basalt, he said. He believes there is too much emphasis on adding structures and not enough attention to the real problems and solutions.
"You can't buy cool," Paussa said. "You always put the culture first. That's why Carbondale is cool. That's why Aspen is complex."
Basalt lacks affordable housing that is critical to keeping it diverse, he said. The town has a tendency to "tear down anything cool and make it comfortable for white suburbanites."
He sees the Taqueria el Nopal as the town's Alamo. The restaurant must vacate its space this summer to make way for site preparation for the new Rocky Mountain Institute office. Taqueria owner Ismael Argueta is seeking a new location in Basalt, and the town government will pay as much as $50,000 to assist relocation within town, but so far no new home has been found. Argueta plans to close down May 31 and continue his search.
Paussa said that means Basalt would lose more of its character.
"It's the last cool thing in town," he said.
Basalt's downtown conundrum
Mike Taets, a Basalt resident and president of an Aspen bank, believes Basalt is in a tough spot. He said something needs to be done to revitalize downtown, but any worthwhile project probably will face hurdles.
Numerous storefronts are vacant, and in some instances, there's been a downgrading in the types of tenants on Midland Avenue, Basalt's main street, he said. A Chinese massage parlor opened recently. Owner-occupied business spaces have been stable, while many rental spaces have been a revolving door, Taets said.
He personally believes that the town's best course of action is to "bulldoze" the Aspenalt motel, the Clark's building and gas station and redevelop them as a whole through a public-private partnership. Taets believes a hotel and other amenities are needed to make downtown more attractive to people.
But there's the problem. Taets, who attended a neighborhood Our Town meeting, said most people he's talked to about the downtown situation wouldn't support the extra traffic and added commotion of a 100-room hotel.
"The people that go downtown on a Friday night like it just the way it is," Taets said. "They don't want the vitality in downtown. They want it quiet.
"I don't know if that's sustainable."
Taets was complementary of Basalt's planning effort but identified another potential problem for the goal of recharging vitality downtown. Some of the key property owners "have stars in their eyes" about the value of their property, he said. That could hamper sales and development, he said.
Clark's Market closing in June
Tom Clark knows firsthand how difficult it is to run a successful business in downtown Basalt. He opened the Clark's Market 15 years ago and spent the last 10 years lamenting being stuck in the lease. He finally will get his wish this year. Clark's Market will close its Basalt store by the end of June, he said.
Clark's couldn't compete against City Market and Whole Foods, both located in Willits/West Basalt/El Jebel.
Clark believes the space he is vacating as well as downtown as a whole have a lot of potential. Basalt can capitalize on its charm and historic look, he said, and really differentiate itself from Willits Town Center.
"I just think Basalt is the neatest town," Clark said. "I just hope whatever they come up with ties it all together."
The town would be best off if a single developer amassed the five parcels eyed in the Our Town planning process, he said. That includes the old Pan and Fork, the former recycling center, Lions Park — which are all wholly or partially in public ownership — and the privately owned Phillips 66 and Clark's Market building.
"That's a great location. It's a terrible building," Clark said of his grocery store's current home.
Former mayor: Capitalize on cycling
One of Basalt's former mayors, Pauline Bowles, has observed the Our Town process with interest. She served as mayor from 1972 to 1974. Even back then, in a much sleepier time, Basalt residents debated the proper level of growth and development, she said. Bowles fought to keep the town small.
She said she would like to see the town move ahead with its plan for a park on the old Pan and Fork site closest to the river. The market will dictate what happens on the half of the property closest to Two Rivers Road, she said.
She wants the town to focus on ways to improve parking. She wants the town government to relocate, tear down Town Hall and replace it with parking for workers so that downtown spaces are free for shoppers. Improving the parking situation at the current Clark's building is also vital, especially if more shops are developed there, she said.
Bowles also promoted an idea to cash in on the town's lure of cyclists. She suggested establishing a parking lot at the "first wide area" up Frying Pan Road for bike riders to park their vehicles.
"When they finished their bike ride they could easily stop in town for a beer, because there would be space to park," Bowles wrote in an email.
Bowles also thought outside the downtown box to propose an improvement. She wants the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority to connect the two parts of Basalt split by Highway 82.
"I hope to live long enough to see RFTA build us a walkway across the highway," Bowles said.