Carbondale feeling a bit boxed in |

Carbondale feeling a bit boxed in

CARBONDALE ” What’s a small-town chamber of commerce to do?

Faced with the prospect of a big-box retailer coming to town, and a membership split on whether that would be a good thing, the Carbondale Community Chamber of Commerce has a few ideas on how to answer that question.

Chamber director Randi Lowenthal said this week that her organization has already begun a couple of projects in line with suggestions voiced last week by economist Michael Shuman, author of “The Small Mart Revolution.”

Shuman was in town for two days of discussions about Carbondale’s economic future, prompted largely by debate over whether to allow a big-box retailer at the proposed Crystal River Market Place development along Highway 133.

Shuman called small-business owners “the unsung leaders of this country,” and added that “the agenda we’re talking about does not involve government. It involves businesses working together.”

“Well, I don’t know about the country as a whole,” Lowenthal said Monday of the unsung leaders remark, “but I certainly believe it could be the case in Carbondale.”

Shuman was referring to his belief that small business owners, if they work together, can survive the arrival of a big-box despite the fact that large retailers have huge resources behind them.

Lowenthal said she agreed, and pointed a couple of Chamber programs she believes are working along the lines Shuman suggested.

One such effort is the ongoing “Shop Locally” gift certificate program, in which the Chamber sells gift certificates that can be redeemed at participating businesses. The program is promoted through the Chamber’s website, its monthly newsletter and articles in the local news media.

“That’s exactly the kind of thing he’s talking about,” she said, adding that more than 100 local businesses now participate. That is up from years past but still only about a fifth of the Chamber’s total membership.

Lowenthal’s hope is to get more businesses to take part, noting that about 60 percent of the Chamber’s overall membership is from within Carbondale.

The Chamber is also working to create a “new business incubator,” which she said “could be fabulous for the Carbondale community.” It would provide a home for small, start-up businesses at reduced rents, and the Chamber membership could provide “mentorship and education” services to help the business thrive. Lowenthal said the town already is working on acquiring a building she believes could serve this purpose perfectly.

“I’m hoping it will be in the CES village,” she said, referring to the now-vacant Carbondale Elementary School building at the corner of South Third Street and Capitol Avenue. The town has been working with the Roaring Fork School District and the Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities to arrange a land swap involving the old school building and town-owned land farther south, next to Roaring Fork High School, which is under construction.

If the swap occurs, the town has identified a variety of possible uses for the old school building, including space for nonprofit organizations and some business incubator space.

Another plan is a business internship program in concert with the school district and Colorado Mountain College. Aiming for a start date of fall 2007, the program will include an introduction to business course for high school juniors and seniors for credit through Roaring Fork High School and Colorado Mountain College. Lowenthal said the details of the internship program were finalized last week, and that marketing is to begin soon.

In general, Lowenthal said, the Chamber has been working on educational programs with the goal of getting its membership to work together on projects and initiatives more than they have in the past.

“I’m a big believer in small businesses,” she said, adding that the Chamber has no position on a proposal to bring a big-box retailer into Carbondale, since any big-box retailer might well become a member.

But the established local business community has been more active in Chamber meetings and discussions, and showing up in greater numbers at Chamber events.

“I think they’re becoming more involved,” she said, “and they’re talking to each other more than they have in the past.”

Although the Chamber did not sponsor Shuman’s visit, Lowenthal said his presentations were valuable and the Chamber might consider contributing to future events. She said that while the Chamber has budgeted no money for visiting speakers, the Tourism Council has a $10,000 fund for special events and marketing.

“I think economic development is certainly part of marketing Carbondale,” she said.

John Colson’s e-mail address is

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