Groups debate financial benefits of Village at Crystal River |

Groups debate financial benefits of Village at Crystal River

John ColsonPost Independent Aspen, CO Colorado

CARBONDALE – In the ongoing battle over the Village at Crystal River proposal, a leading argument made by supporters of the project is that the town desperately needs economic stimulation.Carbondale voters will begin voting next week on whether to ratify a Nov. 1 decision by the town’s Board of Trustees approving a zoning and development plan for the project.The VCR proposal is the latest in a string of development plans for a 24-acre pasture north of Main Street and west of Highway 133.In its current form, the approval calls for 140,000 square feet of retail, commercial and office space, anchored by a new 58,000-square-foot City Market grocery store at the north end of the property, and up to 164 residential units and other possible commercial uses, such as a gas station, bank or fast-food restaurant.Later development phases, depending on market demand, could include a hotel, medical facility, senior care facility, school or light manufacturing.Without the financial boost represented by the VCR, according to project supporter Bill Lamont, the town will soon run out of funds to pay for many of the services and programs that local residents depend on and desire.The project is projected to generate as much as $335,000 a year in sales tax revenues, said project spokesman Mark Chain, which would supply a more than 10 percent boost to the town’s current sales tax income of $3 million.Opponents of the project, however, say the town is in relatively good fiscal shape, even with its the lowered sales tax revenues of recent years.The opposition also questions the assumption that the VCR will be a magnet for shoppers who might otherwise not come to Carbondale.”That sounds great, but it’s not realistic,” said Debbie Bruell, an opponent of the VCR. “What’s it going to be a magnet for?”Rather than bring new business to town, she and others fear, the VCR’s strategy will be to lure businesses to move from their current downtown sites to take up new quarters at VCR.”We don’t want to see another abandoned downtown, like you’ve seen in so many communities across this country,” Bruell said.It is no secret that the town’s sales tax revenues, which make up the lion’s share of Carbondale’s income, have been declining over the last several years, largely due to the regional and national recession.According to a recent presentation by Town Manager Jay Harrington to the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce, annual sales tax revenues dropped from more than $3.7 million in 2007, to just over $3 million in 2010.The decline has forced the town to cut costs in a variety of ways to keep its municipal budget balanced.In addition to lowered revenues in recent years, according to Lamont, the town has committed up to $1 million to two future projects.Those commitments, confirmed Harrington, include $500,000 in local matching funds for state-funded improvements to Highway 133, and up to $500,000 for street, sidewalk and other improvements to the corner of Sopris and Third, where a new branch of the Garfield County Library system is to be built.”They do not have the $500,000″ for the library project, said Lamont, a member of the county library board. He said some of that money will have to come from the town’s cash reserves.Opponents of the VCR project argue that the town has a healthy reserve fund of more than $4.3 million.Harrington said the town has been deliberately building that reserve cushion to take care of expenses related to the library project and the highway improvements.Still, Lamont said, given the town’s commitments and its diminished revenues, “The $4.3 million is not really a cash cow that’s sitting there.”Another pro-VCR spokesman, Frank McSwain Jr., noted that in recent meetings of the Carbondale Board of Trustees, Harrington has warned that the town is facing increasingly hard times.However, Harrington told the Post Independent on Tuesday that the town’s fortunes may be improving.He cited his report to the chamber, which shows that for the last three months for which complete numbers are available – September, October and November of 2011 – Carbondale’s sales tax revenues rose appreciably compared to the same months a year earlier.For those months, sales tax revenues increased by 8.66 percent in September, 3 percent in October and nearly 5 percent in November.He said this compares well with the steadily declining sales tax numbers of the previous two years. If the trend continues, he said, “It looks like we’ve leveled off.”He acknowledged that the trustees have planned to use reserves to cover the town’s obligations to the library district and CDOT, but hasn’t and won’t use its reserves for operating costs. “It’s not like we’re going broke overnight,” he said.He said the town’s finances will still be “stretched” and that the town government faces “some long-term financial challenges” before it can make up for the revenues lost since

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