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Funk vs. Finance

Carbondale’s reputation as a place where hippies, ranchers and other independent-minded folks can live and let live is taking a beating this year.

The entire town seems embroiled in a debate over the Crystal River Marketplace, a proposal that would add 255,000 square feet of retail space to the town, an addition of roughly 80 percent over existing square footage. About half of that new development along Highway 133 would be devoted to a big-box retailer that developer Brian Huster promises he can lure.

The project was approved in February on a 5-2 vote by the Town Council. But citizens collected enough signatures in a petition drive to challenge the decision at the ballot box. A “no” result on election day, July 15, would reverse the Council’s decision. Early voting started July 3.



The campaign has been nasty. Foes suggest Huster is hiding dark, ugly secrets because he won’t disclose what projects he has developed in the past. To avoid giving information, Huster’s team has hinted that their man has been the target of threats from environmental extremists.

Proponents of the project claim the foes have lied to sway the vote. Foes criticize Huster’s hiring of an advertising and marketing expert to orchestrate a slick campaign.




Signs promoting both sides of the fight have been plucked from yards during midnight raids. Letters to the editor on both sides have taken an unusually scornful tone – even for a valley where land-use battles are the bread and butter of local politics.

The debate is a tangle of complicated issues, but the fight really boils down to one simple issue: financial security versus town character.

The Marketplace will succeed (and Carbondale will reap the sales tax benefits) only by drawing thousands of shoppers, many from outside Carbondale.

“That’s going to necessarily change this place,” observed Carbondale Mayor Michael Hassig, who has remained neutral in the campaign. “That’s really where the cleave falls.”

Economic salvation

Proponents of the Marketplace claim the project is necessary to shake Carbondale out of the economic doldrums. Sales tax revenues are down, and the town has been forced to dip into its reserves to balance its budget the last two years.

Regardless of the national economic downturn, commercial development is needed, proponents claim. Carbondale’s population has increased about 75 percent during the last decade due to projects like the Hines organization’s River Valley Ranch golf community. There hasn’t been as much commercial development, so the town government has added services with only modest increases in revenue.

Project proponents like Jennifer Lamont, a teacher at the middle school, fear Carbondale won’t be able to build important civic buildings, such as a recreation center, or add programs without something to generate more money. Lamont is the sister-in-law of the Carbondale attorney representing Huster, Eric Gross. She volunteers time at the “Preview Center” for the project, a Main Street storefront where residents can review plans and drawings of the proposal.

As she looked out at Main Street from the Preview Center, she noted that many businesses are struggling and that Main Street has several vacancies and stores for sale.

“My concern is that we’re going to become a ghost town,” she said. “I’m seeing things dwindling.”

A big-box retailer has the potential to bring in big bucks. A report by a town consultant estimated the project would bring in about $1.6 million in its second year of operation, while costing the town government about $136,000 in additional costs. Sales tax revenues would ultimately climb to nearly $2 million.

That sounds like economic salvation to some Bonedale residents, including members of the pro-Marketplace Committee for Economic Sensibility. Sales tax revenues dropped almost 6 percent in Carbondale for 2002 and were forecast to remain flat this year. Since sales taxes account for 60 percent of the town’s budget, the Town Council had to dip into reserves to balance the general fund.

The centerpiece of the developer’s campaign, outlined in a blitz of full-page ads in all of the valley’s newspapers, is that the Marketplace will bring prosperity to the town.

“It will do a world of good for the fiscal condition of the community,” said Gross, the developer’s attorney.

Faustian proposition

But foes say relying on a big-box retailer to improve the financial picture of the town is a Faustian bargain. As Faust sold his soul to the devil to gain knowledge and power, so would Carbondale sell its soul for the promise of additional revenues, critics contend.

“More than any other project, this one could change the town,” said John Hoffmann, a blacksmith who moved to town 31 years ago.

When he looks at the plan for the Marketplace, he doesn’t see an opportunity to shop at a retail giant. He sees “degradation of ambiance,” “gridlock” and “cultural absorption.”

When asked to explain what he means by cultural absorption, Hoffmann said that building a store that would attract shoppers from around the region would accelerate similar types of mass-market developments, both residential and commercial.

Carbondale would lose its unique character and its humble scale in the shadow of Mount Sopris, he said. It would become like everywhere else. It would be absorbed.

For that reason, Hoffmann sees the election on the Marketplace as a threshold decision for Carbondale. He’s confident residents will chart the right path.

“The town’s been debating its future ever since I got here,” he said. “That’s why I like it.”

An identity crisis

While the town has been debating its future for some time, Wendy Anderson cannot help wondering if it’s suffering an identity crisis. Carbondale can’t quite figure out if it wants to be a regional shopping giant or be more successful at drawing people to support its small, locally owned shops.

The town’s retail base is already split geographically between the historic Main Street district and the strip developments to the west on Highway 133.

Anderson’s outlook falls somewhere between the most outspoken Marketplace allies, who see it as the town’s economic savior, and the dedicated critics, who say it will ruin Carbondale.

Anderson, owner of the Novel Tea Bookshop on Main Street and a member of the town’s Economic Development Council, fears the town has wasted its time on the Marketplace debate. She doubts Huster can actually attract a big retailer, at least one that will take 125,000 square feet in Carbondale.

“We’ve wasted four years of time on something that will never come,” she said.

If the Marketplace approval is upheld by voters, Huster will have three years to sign up tenants or buyers for the spaces. Anderson suspects the uncertainty over whether he can pull that off will discourage other developers and investors from risking their money in Carbondale.

“It’s paralyzing economic development in our town,” she claimed.

Anderson wants a compromise. She wants Huster to scale back his vision by reducing the anchor store from 125,000 to 60,000 square feet – a size more easily filled and less overwhelming to the town, she said.

Anderson said she doesn’t oppose the project from the perspective of a small-business owner downtown. She said her business has been great, despite competition from supermarkets, discount giants and online booksellers. She doesn’t view the big-box as competition that can harm her store directly.

The proposal

Huster and the investors behind him, who he hasn’t identified publicly, bought a 25-acre site outright rather than secure an option contingent on a development approval. The vacant meadow runs along the west side of Highway 133, starting about a half-mile away from the intersection with Highway 82. The site stretches south to West Main Street.

The team’s initial proposal featured what Gross described as a village-oriented concept. It had 317,000 square feet of retail space and a housing component mixed in. There was underground parking, a multiscreen theater complex and mom-and-pop stores on West Main Street. After a huge community outcry, however, the developers withdrew the proposal before the Town Council had a chance to vote.

“We were left feeling like we completely missed what the community wanted,” said Gross.

The development team came back with a plan that reduced the overall retail amount but proposed some larger spaces. The property is zoned for commercial use, and the master plan anticipates a project like the Marketplace at that site, Gross noted.

During hearings held in 2000 to determine the community master plan, it was decided that “infill” development within the town boundaries was preferable to sprawl on property requiring annexation. Gross said the development team is frustrated that the project is now being opposed, even though it fits the bill that citizens defined for the site.

Developers envision the project’s anchor in a sprawling, 125,000-square-foot building along West Main Street, behind the 7-Eleven store.

Separate from that big-box site is a 58,000-square-foot space pegged for a grocery store. Three other retail lots would be connected to the grocery anchor, providing another 45,000 square feet. Two other freestanding buildings would add 23,800 square feet.

The last component of the project is a 12-pump gas station island.

The two major pods – the big box and the group anchored by the grocery store – would be separated by a 12-acre parking lot.

An analysis of the project by the town’s consultant, BBC Research and Consulting, labels it a “super community center” because it is a hybrid between a regional center and a community shopping center. To succeed, the project must pull customers from throughout the Roaring Fork Valley as well as the New Castle and Silt areas.

Gross said the big-box lot was separated from the others because large retail discounters and department stores want to buy their sites rather than rent them. Therefore, Huster needed to subdivide the property so he could sell it.

That subdivision required Town Council approval. Without the need to subdivide, Huster could have proceeded with only minor reviews by the town government. Seeking subdivision approval opened the door for citizens to place the issue on the ballot.

The Town Mothers

Before the Town Council’s vote on the Marketplace, a group of women started getting together to talk about civic issues and decided to call themselves the “Town Mothers.” They were disgusted with some of the decisions made by the town fathers on the male-dominated council.

The Town Mothers are now heading opposition to the Marketplace, with the help of a few men on their steering committee.

Laurie Loeb, one of the organizers of the Mothers, came to Aspen as a Music Festival performer in 1957 and has never left the valley. She fled Aspen for Carbondale in 1969, and has served on both the Town Council and the planning commission.

“I could see what was going to happen and I didn’t want to be there,” she said of Aspen development.

Now she fears the Marketplace will make Carbondale a “generic community” with a mall that could be found anywhere. It will usher in an era of “more hostility and more frenzy” that Carbondale hasn’t really experienced in the past.

Some residents seem to like the Marketplace because it will make shopping easier, but she doesn’t think those people are considering the town’s character.

“This is so much larger than an issue of shopping,” Loeb said. “I’ve lived here for 43 years, and I’ve never felt my quality of life has been compromised by my access to shopping.”

The Town Mothers opened a campaign office on Main Street July 1 to express their point of view. It’s a direct response to the developer’s Preview Center, just across the street.

Campaign squabbles

Loeb and fellow Town Mother Ro Mead claim the pro-Marketplace campaign has been characterized by misinformation and lack of information. They cite the constant hints early in the campaign that Target would likely land in the main space.

“People think, `Oh boy, we’re going to have a Target,’ ” Mead said. She doubts that Carbondale can attract a big box, let alone support one. “We couldn’t even support two hardware stores,” she said.

The development team hasn’t been shy for most of the debate about dropping the name of Target as the possible anchor tenant of the Marketplace. But representatives of the Glenwood Meadows project announced two weeks ago that they have a letter of intent from Target to locate at their site just off Interstate 70 in Glenwood Springs.

Marketplace representatives have since acknowledged that Target officials seem to prefer Glenwood Meadows.

John Tindall, co-owner of a marketing and advertising firm hired by Huster to run the campaign, said Huster remains confident he can find a big-box anchor that fulfills annual sales projections, as promised to the town.

“It’s a huge universe that fits that category,” he said. “If not Target, [Huster’s] preference is to find a retailer that’s in the same category as Target.”

Other squabbles have broken out on issues ranging from sales tax projections to architectural design of the south wall of the big box on West Main Street, which the Mothers have characterized as a solid, 300-foot brick wall.

The developers dispute that description with artists’ renderings showing arbors, towers, indentations and other features that will break up the wall. The Mothers aren’t buying it.

“It you put a Halloween mask on a 300-pound ogre, you’re still not going to hide the form,” said Loeb.

Will Evans, a physician who practices alternative medicine, said he believes Carbondale and its residents have a responsibility to protect Mount Sopris and integrate it with their lives, not block it out.

“People have always recognized mountains as extraordinary and a connection between heaven and earth,” he said.

Endorsement from town board

But the project has plenty of supporters, due to both its architecture and financial implications. The Marketplace earned an endorsement by the Carbondale Economic Development Council, a citizens’ advisory board.

A report to the town by the Economic Development Council said the Marketplace could “recapture the leakage of sales tax revenues to other towns.” Carbondale residents currently make thousands of trips to other cities to buy goods that aren’t available locally.

“These communities do not share their revenue with Carbondale, and we can no longer afford to lose this enormous sales tax base,” the EDC’s letter said. “The reasonable answer is to provide more convenient, local shopping for merchandise not currently found here.”

That’s the view taken by Don Ensign, a Carbondale resident and partner in Design Workshop, an Aspen firm that’s designed resort projects around the continent.

The town is in a tough position because its revenues no longer pay for traditional levels of service as the population grows, he said. “I don’t see how to adjust it in absence of approving some commercial space,” Ensign said.

Commercial space, yes, but not in the form of the Marketplace, say the Mothers and other foes of the project. Mead and Loeb said they support growth, but at a slower rate than what the Marketplace would bring.

Evans claimed Carbondale would be better off promoting its alternative fuels business, led by Solar Energy Institute, and alternative medicine.

He theorized that the town is so divided on the issue because some people are caught up in consumer culture. Shopping and acquiring material goods, particularly ones that stand out, makes them feel more secure, he said.

“If I’m insecure and I don’t know it, I may need something to bolster my identity,” he said.

He is optimistic that most Carbondale residents support an alternative, less materialistic view of life, particularly to save the character of their town. “People don’t mind driving to Glenwood or El Jebel to get what they need,” he said.

Election day approaches

Ballots were mailed starting Monday, June 30, to voters who requested absentee ballots. Early voting is available from July 3-11. Polls will be open Tuesday, July 15.

But the issue may be far from over. Mayor Hassig said if the project is approved, Huster still faces some challenges. He must actually lure a buyer for the big-box retail space – one that can produce the revenues promised to the town. The developer also must provide $2.8 million upfront for improvements to Highway 133, which is already clogged at times.

Hassig also believes the town must keep pursuing other economic development options to spur business downtown and to establish its identity.

“No town has ever established its identity just by offering big-box shopping,” he said.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.


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