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Boxing in the big boys

Advocates of what is known as “The Small Mart Revolution” took heart from the words of economist Michael Shuman this week.But they also learned they have a lot of work to do before they can hope to achieve their goals.After two days of discussion, Shuman summarized a six-point agenda for providing Carbondale with a measure of economic stability and vitality without relying on the sales taxes to be generated by a “big-box” store.Among the points was the idea of studying existing local entrepreneurial businesses, including what he called “home-based businesses,” to see what is working.In addition, Shuman advised, local activists need to do more study and work with the Economic Road Map Group report. The report came out in 2006 after a year of study by a group made up of citizens with differing viewpoints on how to develop the controversial Crystal River Market Place property on Highway 133. A centerpiece of the CRMP project was inclusion of a “big-box” store as the anchor tenant.Other suggestions were to strengthen the Carbondale Community Chamber of Commerce’s existing “shop locally” campaign; boost local economic education, business mentorship and “new business incubation” programs; examine the idea of reducing the town’s reliance on sales tax revenues by introducing other kinds of taxes, such as a “service tax”; and work up some firm statistics about “leakage” from the town’s economy, a reference to the number of Carbondale residents who do a significant portion of their shopping elsewhere.Shuman, author of “The Small Mart Revolution: How local Businesses are Beating the Global Competition,” gave a talk Thursday evening to 150 people or so at town hall, and met with the town council members Friday morning, just prior to a second gathering with citizens.”I thought it was productive,” said Mayor Michael Hassig about both the Thursday night event and the Friday morning chat. “It was clear he’d done his homework … that he tried to learn some things about this town and the things we’re struggling with.”Hassig said he is “still processing” all he heard from Shuman, but characterized Shuman’s suggestions as “one more set of ideas that I think are going to inform my thinking as we look at what our alternatives are.”Although not eager to talk about specific aspects of Shuman’s presentations, one idea he shot down unequivocally was any possibility the town would buy the CRMP site for use as an economic development tool. Shuman had mentioned it as a possibility.Shuman’s talks were hosted by longtime Carbondale resident Laurie Loeb, a former town council member and one of the founders of a political action group known as the Town Mothers. The Mothers spearheaded a 2003 citizen initiative election that derailed town approvals for a shopping mall at the CRMP site which would have included some sort of big-box store.Talk of a big-box has resurfaced recently during discussions with current CRMP developer Rich Schierburg, of the Peregrine Group Development LLC. Schierburg reported he was unable to find any “junior anchor” chains, with stores smaller and more specialized than the traditional big-boxes, willing to put an outlet in Carbondale.Home Depot, the largest home improvement retail in the U.S., has indicated an interest in building a store at the CRMP site, and a meeting between town officials and Home Depot representatives is scheduled for Feb. 27.Shuman said he was not in town to necessarily denigrate big-boxes, which he said sometimes are the right kind of business for certain towns. And, he said, he is not an advocate of enacting laws, such as caps on building sizes, to keep big-boxes out of town – strategies he said do not work and tend to aggravate existing divisions in a community.”The agenda we’re talking about does not involve government,” he told an audience of perhaps 60 people, including business owners, on Friday morning. “It involves businesses working together … a critical mass of local businesses” determined to maintain Carbondale’s small-business atmosphere and keep big-boxes at bay.”I think he was able to plant some seeds of ideas about new ways to build the local economy,” said Loeb.But, she added, “There clearly needs to be some follow-up.”John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com


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