Basalt’s troubles were forecasted | AspenTimes.com

Basalt’s troubles were forecasted

Efforts are underway to revitalize downtown Basalt, which has character and historic structures on its side.

An economic consultant warned the Basalt Town Council during its review of Willits Town Center in the early 2000s that downtown businesses would suffer consequences if the massive commercial center was approved.

The council approved the project anyway, and now the predictions made by Economic and Planning Systems, a Denver firm hired by the town to help it consider implications, are unfolding and creating headaches for the town. The town government is gripped in an effort to try to pump life back into downtown, which is facing high vacancy rates in commercial space and what many business operators have identified as a lack of vibrancy.

Most Basalt officials avoid talking about the effects of Willits on downtown because they say they don't want to get bogged down in a blame game. Residents appointed to the Downtown Area Advisory Committee to help come up with a plan for downtown were asked earlier this month not to talk about how Willits affected downtown. Committee member Steve Chase raised the issue but was cut off by moderator Paul Andersen. In a meeting Thursday, Andersen explained he did that because he didn't feel the committee was formed to assign blame for what's affecting downtown.

Nevertheless, it's an undeniable part of history that many have raised concerns about Willits Town Center's potential impact on downtown after the Willits application was submitted in 1999.

Basalt town government hired Economic and Planning Systems in 2000 to help sort through the good and bad economic impacts of the Willits proposal at the request of the council.

A report issued to the Town Council on April 20, 2000, said it would take the market 18 to 19 years to absorb the retail space proposed at Willits Town Center. That forecast, of course, didn't foresee the Great Recession that started in 2008 and brought Willits to a standstill.

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On the positive side, the report predicted Willits Town Center businesses would generate between $1.15 million and $1.25 million annually in additional sales tax revenue for the town once it was built out.

On the negative side, Economic and Planning Systems said the downtown and Willits commercial centers would compete for the same type of specialty retail shops and restaurants.

"The proposed scale of this type of mixed-use development is larger than what exists in downtown today," the report said. "Although there is likely to be some differentiation between the two business districts, the size and similarity of what is planned at Willits will create significant competition with downtown."

After a review that lasted another 13 months after the report was issued, the Town Council voted 4-0 with one abstention to approve the new commercial core on May 22, 2001. The project adds about 500,000 square feet of mixed commercial and residential space. That doesn't include the square footage for affordable housing. While numbers are flexible and can be adjusted, Willits could add more than 150,000 square feet of retail space.

Current Mayor Jacque Whitsitt was a councilwoman at the time of the Willits vote in 2001. She missed the meeting of the vote but was critical of Willits during deliberations.

Whitsitt said last week she didn't want the project approved at the size proposed. She was concerned that Basalt would experience what "Anytown USA" experiences when a large commercial area is built in the suburbs — a challenge to the downtown's economic viability. "I don't think it's a surprise," she said.

Whitsitt said she doesn't recall the board specifically talking about what it needed to keep the downtown strong after approving Willits.

"The board could have said we don't need this much development during the approval," Whitsitt said. "It's not after the fact that the board could have done something, it was before."

Current Basalt Councilman Rick Stevens was mayor at the time of the Willits review. He also missed the meeting of the vote, but spoke in support of the project during the review.

Stevens regularly reminds the current council that prior boards took several steps to keep downtown vibrant. They approved a river master plan that outlines development and flood mitigation along the Roaring Fork River, worked to keep the library and post office near downtown, took over old Highway 82 and added parking after it was transformed into Two Rivers Road; and acquired property that was later sold to two nonprofits, Rocky Mountain Institute and Roaring Fork Conservancy, for future homes.

When approached by The Aspen Times for an interview about the Willits approval and its affects on downtown, Stevens responded, "Not interested," in an email. He also declined a second request to discuss the relationship of Willits and downtown.

Current Basalt Town Manager Mike Scanlon has been on the job two years, so he wasn't part of the Willits review. However, he has seen the project flourish and he's been instrumental in efforts to revive downtown.

Scanlon said the recession added "a bit of a twist" in the interplay between the two commercial cores. The recession compounded and possibly sped up the effect of enticing some businesses to relocate from downtown to Willits Town Center, he said. Basalt Bike and Ski, Bristlecone Mountain Sports and Midland Clothing have departed downtown for Willits.

Scanlon said downtown property owners haven't been able to respond quickly enough to the changes or they failed to see the magnitude of changes coming.

Scanlon and Whitsitt both said they believe downtown will recover. Whitsitt said the unique feel and historic character of downtown would help restore the vitality.

The Downtown Area Advisory Committee is scheduled to submit recommendations to the Town Council late this year or early 2015.

scondon@aspentimes.com

basalt’s willits timeline

Willits application submitted 1999

Consultant issued warning April 2000

Basalt council approved Willits May 2001

Whole Foods opens August 2012

Downtown revitalization starts 2013