Willits: Small town vs. `mid-box’
The motto “small-town living” might not work for the Willits project in Basalt after all.
The project’s developers might have to scrap plans for a downtown commercial core reminiscent of small-town America in favor of “mid-box” retailers and a more highway-oriented layout, according to a consultant for the Basalt Town Council.
In a preliminary report on the economic impact of Willits, Dan Guimond of Economic and Planning Systems said there isn’t enough demand in the midvalley for the type of project envisioned.
Developers Michael Lipkin, Clay Crossland and Paul Adams have proposed 202,500 square feet of retail space in modest-sized stores that will be laid out grid-style with a Main Street. Lipkin, in particular, has touted the project as reviving a traditional small-town feel.
But Guimond claimed the concept of building 200,000 square feet of retail space in small stores without a major anchor is “unrealistic.”
“To place this amount in context, there is only 60,000 square feet of this type of retail in downtown [Basalt] today,” Guimond wrote in a report.
The consultant stressed that he wasn’t condemning Willits as a suitable spot for retail development. To the contrary, the site just upvalley from the El Jebel City Market complex could “capture the majority of new retail development supportable in the Basalt area over the next 10 years,” Guimond reported.
But that assessment came with conditions – primarily the need to change the configuration. Guimond said the best market opportunities for the site are:
n Additional highway and convenience retail uses complementary to the existing Orchard Plaza development and clearly not in competition with downtown.
n Stores in the 10,000- to 40,000-square-foot range – but smaller than so-called big boxes like Wal-Mart. He said “middle boxes” like a junior department store, home furnishings and electronics could work well at the site.
Just how much retail can work there is debatable. Guimond’s analysis indicated Basalt and unincorporated Eagle County could absorb only about 115,000 square feet of new stores in the next decade, based on projections of population and personal income growth. But he said the developers’ proposal for 202,500 square feet of retail space might work – if their current proposal is reworked.
Lipkin challenged the advice and defended his plan.
“We have not been flying blind on this,” he said. His consultants have indicated the Main Street-style layout could be successful.
Lipkin also suggested that Guimond made assumptions that were inaccurate. He said not all the spaces in his commercial core are small stores. He’s got plans for a 20,000-square-foot grocery, a 20,000-square-foot junior department store, and a 10,000-square-foot sporting goods store.
In addition, he contended 200,000 square feet of retail space is necessary to create a “critical mass” that will attract shoppers. The neighboring City Market complex, he contended, will serve as the anchor store that pulls people in.
Guimond responded that the City Market is too far away to be an anchor for Willits. It needs its own attraction, he said.
Crossland, Lipkin’s partner, noted that he envisioned Willits’ commercial core as something that would be phased in over time, providing Basalt’s retail growth over the next 20 years rather than 10 years.
A similar debate took place over the Willits proposal for 60,000 square feet of office space. Guimond said it was too much to be absorbed. Lipkin countered that the only factor preventing more professional offices relocating from Aspen is a lack of supply.
The only component of the project they completely agreed upon was the need for a hotel. A 150-room, mid-market hotel is being contemplated. Guimond said there is immediate demand.
Basalt Town Council members debated various points of the information Monday, but their intent wasn’t to use it for a decision yet. They told Guimond what additional information they want, including analysis of specific development scenarios with varying amounts of retail and office development.
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