Guest opinion: An assist to Willits will go a long way | AspenTimes.com

Guest opinion: An assist to Willits will go a long way

Tim Belinski
Guest Commentary

"What's coming next at Willits?" It's a really common question. The neighborhood is busy, and people are genuinely excited to support new businesses as they arrive.

Our memories of a stalled project and exposed concrete foundation, now transformed into a fabulous Whole Foods Market, have faded. It has taken 15 years to get to this point of a half-built project; another 15 years to complete it is not in anyone's best interests. On Tuesday, the Basalt Town Council will vote on the second reading of an amendment to the planned unit development that will help finish the project more quickly.

What's new at Willits is an Element hotel, with Bonfire Coffee and Basalt Bike & Ski's satellite. In the past year, Dr. Timothy Bauer's eyewear and Gordon Keating's art gallery opened their doors. Fifty new affordable apartments are under construction, and two buildings are in the planning stages. New tenant "prospecting" is intense. There's plenty to be optimistic about.

Since its approval 15 years ago, retail has dramatically changed. Online retail was barely an idea then, and the economic crush of the recession has forced retailers to be extremely cautious about adding new stores. Willits is in a small town that relies on seasonal tourists and second-home-owner shoppers, each of which are difficult to count or gauge. Shoppers have indeed discovered Willits, but Willits has difficulty convincing new retailers what type of shoppers exist, how many there are and whether they're reliably going to shop in the future.

For the benefit of shops at Willits, it needs to get built out quickly and fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle, plus a cloud of doubt will hang over downtown Basalt until it's done.

Mariner Real Estate Management owns Willits Town Center, and I can confirm that it is a very good group of people with sufficient financial depth. I'd put my 26 years of local business experience on the line to affirm we won't do any better if they opt out.

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Willits is operating below industry national average return rates, so Mariner has reached out to the community, asking the town to work together on ideas to solve the dilemma. The town hired a public finance firm to analyze the financials, and it determined that an assist of some sort would be worth consideration. The suggested solution is called a public-improvement fee, which entails sharing future sales taxes from new retail businesses at Willits. The costs to build public improvements such as streets, sidewalks, public parking and the like are capable of being reimbursed. This also creates an opportunity to solve some of the traffic issues that have been raised. Complete buildout under the current public-improvement fee would create additional traffic, as well, but there would be no developer responsibility to solve potential future problems. The fee could help solve traffic concerns using developer funds and not town money.

Fundamentally, this involves sharing the goal to get Willits built out as soon as possible. It involves community support to see Willits completed and an endorsement of the development and the team to get the job done. The solution helps settle uncertainties about growth at Willits, adds sales tax base and assures the level of quality that is expected.

Alongside the public-improvement fee is the request to add square footage to fill out the open blocks. Embedded within these changes are other improvements: day care funding, a WeCycle shared-bike station, traffic-monitoring regiments, parking and additional affordable housing.

One more significant point: Teachers and school staff have had to leave the area due to the high cost of living. Those of us with families see the stress. Through this process, we can carve out 14 residences for the Re-1 school district to purchase and have available to address the problem. Re-1's work on this has made national news, and we are proud of its efforts.

Is the assist being extended to Willits ideal? Of course not. But it shows that a solution is possible and that the project, already well underway, is an important neighborhood to the town and the broader valleywide community. The health of Willits is important to all of us, and the recent work with Basalt's leaders proves everybody's spirit of cooperation, awareness of current realities and shared vision.

If you have questions, I'd appreciate hearing your feedback, or if you would like to chat, you can drop by my office located above Mauka at Willits. My email address is tbelinski@indventures.com.

Thanks for your time, and I look forward to seeing you at Willits.

Tim Belinski is a tenant of Willits Town Center and is the local representative for Mariner Real Estate Management. He's a former certified public accountant and chief financial officer and has lived and worked in the Roaring Fork Valley for 26 years while raising his family.

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