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A Big Box for Pagosa?

According to a press release jointly unveiled by the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners, the Town of Pagosa Springs and the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation on Tuesday, a large-format retail (Big Box) developer is exploring the possibility of locating a store in the area.

The location being considered for the Big Box — outside of town boundaries on the northwest corner of Vista Boulevard and U.S. 160 — could create anxiety with downtown Pagosa Springs residents, especially in light of the imminent closing of two downtown businesses.

Nonetheless, it was a big week for suggestions that economic development could be charging ahead in the county over the next year or so.

Of the three preliminary economic development announcements made on Tuesday, however, it was the Big Box announcement that was probably the most surprising — and most controversial.

The issue of a Big Box locating in Pagosa Springs has had a long and contentious history among area residents. In 2004, the town formed a task force composed of local residents and government officials to examine the impacts a Big Box might have on the town. To facilitate their investigation, the town hired consultants to assist in looking at the various issues raised by the location of a Big Box retailer in the county.

Those consultants, Economic Planning Systems, determined that, while a Big Box retailer would capture the greatest tax revenue and would help curb retail sales leakage, it would also damage the local retail environment and would negatively alter the socioeconomic fabric of the community.

Furthermore, EPS concluded that one method of maintaining the town’s character would be to enact a permanent ordinance limiting the square footage of a retail store at 55,000 square feet. As such, they suggested that stores between 25,000 and 55,000 square feet require an economic impact report — a finding that led directly to the development of section 2.4.5 in the Land Use a Development Code.

Last August, council passed Ordinance 743 which repealed section 2.4.5 of the LUDC — a section dealing specifically with Big Box development. At that time, Town Manager David Mitchem reported to council that he had been approached by developers interested in putting a Big Box store in Pagosa Springs, but the developer had been reluctant to develop locally due to restrictions in the LUDC.

In December, several area residents circulated a petition to bring the matter of Ordinance 743 to the voters — Referendum A. With the petition certified late last year, council approved the addition of the referendum to the ballot in April.

Town voters defeated Referendum A by over a 60-percent majority.

However, according to Tuesday’s press release, the location being examined is the northwest corner of Vista Boulevard and U.S. 160, just west of town boundaries and not subject to any current or former development restrictions in the LUDC.

While the BoCC, town and CDC stressed that scoping the location for a Big Box development was still preliminary, and that no guarantee that a large retail store would go in there, local officials said that, while alternate locations had been recommended, “an exploratory team led by Karl R. Nyquist of C & A Companies (Littleton, CO) met with officials ... to evaluate the potential of the northwest corner of Vista Boulevard and Highway (U.S.) 160 as a location for a “Big Box” retailer.”

“At this preliminary juncture,” the joint press release went on to say, “the Vista Boulevard and Highway 160 location was selected from many site alternatives.”

CDC Executive Director Steve Vassallo emphasized that, while the announcement was made regarding a formal exploration of Big Box development and a possible location, “It’s in such a preliminary stage at this point, they’re still in the due diligence stage of the process. We don’t even know if this community is even viable for a Big Box retailer.”

As controversial as Big Box development is in Archuleta County (with many residents opposed), the proposed location is likely to stir further dissent, as downtown Pagosa Springs faces the imminent closure of two major businesses.

This Saturday, the downtown City Market closes after over 20 years doing business at that location. So far, Kroger (the parent company of City Market) has not announced any plans for the property and it is assumed the space will sit idle for a number of years.

Last week, First Southwest Bank announced that it would be closing its downtown branch at 643 San Juan St. as of Dec. 1.

With the spectre of a boarded-up and abandoned downtown core appearing to be a real possibility, the potential of a Big Box retailer, located far from historic Pagosa Springs, could provide a chilling prospect for downtown merchants, a concern echoed by Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon when the press release was presented at Tuesday night’s council meeting.

Although Aragon was quoted in the press release saying, “If the Big Box development is successful, the new jobs created will be another step toward vibrant economic growth in Pagosa Springs and Archuleta County,” his comments before council were more guarded in relation to further development of the downtown core.

After Mitchem presented the press release, Aragon said, “Now if we can just start on the in-fill for the Sawmill property, that should be the next project ... we don’t need to go west any more.” The Sawmill property is located on the southeast corner of the intersection of U.S. 160 and 84.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, Vassallo conceded that the CDC, along with local government officials, would be taking a hard look at how to sustain downtown businesses, especially if a Big Box retailer was deemed viable in the area and located west of town.

“We know what we’ve got to do to revitalize downtown,” Vassallo said. “We’ve got to roll up our sleeves and get things done.”

Indeed, a CDC-conducted community assessment in late August revealed that respondents deemed “improving the downtown core of Pagosa Springs” as the third most important priority for the CDC.

However, Vassallo provided a glimpse of hope for the downtown area, reporting that, “We had a grocery prospect in town yesterday.”

Asked if that prospect was a major grocery retailer, Vassallo (unwilling to say what company was visiting) said, “It’s one that would certainly fill the void and I can tell you they were very interested.”

Facing an uncertain future, with high-profile businesses fleeing the downtown area, the CDC and the Town of Pagosa Springs will need more than just good ideas and standard economic development incentives if a westward diaspora of local businesses is to be prevented.

A new grocery store in the downtown area would be a good start (if it is indeed a serious prospect) towards preserving the downtown core. However, much more will need to be done if the downtown core, as a vital merchant district, is to be preserved. Not only does a Big Box retailer appear to be a distinct possibility for Archuleta County, but the increasing location of retailers and population in the uptown corridor is certain to put a dent in the character of downtown Pagosa Springs.

jim@pagosasun.com