Mayor, challenger clash over growth
Carbondale Mayor Michael Hassig knew the political season had begun when someone stopped him on the street recently and asked when he became a Republican.”Suddenly I’m the big-box guy,” he said.But Hassig, running for re-election against Trustee Russ Criswell, said nothing could be further from the truth.Hassig has been branded as the big-box guy because he refuses to “demonize” developers, he said. As mayor, he said, he tries to be “a servant of the process” and so keeps his opinions to himself.”To be criticized for trying to keep debate open – I think that’s as important to the character and sense of a community as anything else,” he said.And he has been criticized. Criswell said Hassig has lost touch with the majority of Carbondale residents.”Four years ago when Michael ran, he ran on a platform of anti-big-box development and smart growth,” Criswell said.But he said Hassig voted for the controversial Crystal River Marketplace, which would have brought 225,000 square feet of development to Carbondale, including a 125,000-square-foot anchor retail chain store.”And then he voted to not refer it to citizens for a vote,” Criswell said.When it did reach the electorate in 2003, the Marketplace was voted down, 57 to 43 percent.Hassig said the charge that he has changed his stance on growth since being in office is “a gross simplification.” He said he voiced his concerns about the Marketplace and tried to change how developer Brian Huster approached the application.And he believed the community in 2003 was split equally between Marketplace supporters and opponents.”At that point I said, ‘This project is going to pass, and I’d like to move past it,'” Hassig said. “And so I joined the majority in voting to approve that project, not without reservations, but in recognition of certain political realities.”He said he was “surprised and pleased” by residents’ efforts to bring the Marketplace matter to the ballot, which overturned the trustees’ vote.”From my perspective, that was the right outcome,” he said. “I commend those who put this together and accomplished that.”The town’s most pressing issues continue to be growth and development and “reconciling a lot of conflicting forces in that area,” Hassig said.Criswell, who will keep his trustee seat if he loses the mayoral race, said Carbondale residents don’t want a big-box.”And they’re kind of tired of us not working toward getting it done,” he said. “They passed that initiative [rejecting the Marketplace] almost three years ago, and we haven’t dealt with it yet.”He complimented the road map participants for doing a great job and said the group went further than town officials expected.Criswell led the effort to move the proposed building size cap to the town’s planning and zoning commission. The vote bitterly divided the trustees, and the move passed, 4-3.”It doesn’t stop us from still debating it. It just empowers the P&Z to do it, too,” he said.Hassig also supported the road map and said he understood its members’ growing impatience after 18 months.”But I felt we had a responsibility to their process, to see that [the recommendation] was rolled out in a way that was apolitical,” he said.He said he did not support “the ramrodding” of the hard-cap proposal because the Feb. 14 meeting preceded a conference between road map participants and Huster’s representatives.”I felt that it was in essence bad faith,” Hassig said. “It’s always been a tenuous relationship. The Crystal River Marketplace … haven’t helped themselves, but I was willing to try and build trust. And I thought this was entirely the wrong way to do it.”Criswell said he supports the 60,000-square-foot cap because it allows for a modern grocery store.”Our grocery store isn’t as nice as the one in El Jebel or the ones in Glenwood. A lot of people are complaining about that,” he said. “They would like to see [the current store] increase in size.”Overall, the town of Carbondale’s finances are in great shape, Criswell said.”If we wanted to do all the things we’ve dreamed of doing, we would need more money,” he said.
Even with a proposed size cap on new buildings working its way through the town’s planning and zoning process, the questions remain of whether a big-box store will come to Carbondale and how well it would do in the small town.A recommendation of a retail store cap of 60,000 square feet came after 18 months of meetings. The economic road map process involved those who opposed the plan for the 225,000-square-foot Crystal River Marketplace, which died at the polls in 2003, and supporters who feel the town needs the extra sales tax revenue.Corporate chains like Target and Whole Foods don’t like to deviate from their standard blueprint for building size. But they will if they have to, Don Ensign said.The founder and head of Design Workshop, who’s now in semiretirement, was involved with the road map discussions. He said 60,000 square feet isn’t enough space for a typical big-box.”But those big companies are beginning to adapt themselves to town standards like are being imposed here,” Ensign said.He mentioned a Home Depot in New York City limited to five floors. “So those guys can do it, but they’re just reluctant to do it because they have a template that is one thing. And they don’t want to mess with that if they don’t have to,” he said.Carbondale Trustee John Foulkrod, who supports studying the idea of a big-box store in town, also said retailers are negotiating on size and design issues.”They’re starting to realize that they’ve gotten past the easy places to do business and they’re trying to get into some of the harder places to do business,” he said. “I think they’re making accommodations.”Retailers also study whether Carbondale has enough residents to support such a retailer, Ensign added. At issue for others is corporate retailers’ alleged reputation for ruining communities, mistreating employees and spreading blandness. An anti-Wal-Mart film at Carbondale Town Hall in November drew 200 people.These topics have been on the tongues of residents and officials for five years, Ensign said.He said Carbondale is not alone in struggling with development. “Every one” of his resort development projects through the years met with some level of resistance, he said.A commercial landlord who owns property in the valley said the issue boils down to sales tax and Carbondale’s aesthetic.”That’s obviously what they’re fighting about,” said the man, who asked that his name not be used. “One side economic, the other side the soul of the town.”He questioned why there wasn’t more of an effort at compromise on retail proposals, mentioning a Basalt tire store as an example of how Carbondale “has continually shot itself in the foot.””They wouldn’t let Big O Tires go in down there, so where did they go? They went to Basalt. It’s a nice-looking building as far as I can see, very clean,” he said. “[Carbondale] lost a huge amount of tax revenues. I sometimes don’t understand what they’re trying to accomplish.”Mayor Michael Hassig said Carbondale is full of residents who possess strong opinions.”Everybody involved in this debate all care deeply about this place,” he said. “That is the motivation for everybody’s passions. [When] we try to ascribe other motivations to them, we find ourselves falling into the same kinds traps that mark national politics.”I, for one, find that unfortunate.”On the other hand, “I suppose it’s preferable to apathy or resignation,” Hassig said.His challenger in Tuesday’s mayoral election, Trustee Russ Criswell, said the reason for the continuing big-box controversy is simple. It stems from the 2003 election.”The people who supported the Marketplace, which was 43 percent of the town, have not accepted the will of the 57 percent,” he said.The issue will go away “if we just go ahead and make up our minds of what we want. I kind of feel like we’ve been held in an economic blockade, so to speak, by this Marketplace issue,” Criswell said. “Business is not coming to Carbondale because they don’t know what’s going to be there. They don’t know what their competition might be.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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