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What to do when the gate is open

Tuesday’s announcement that Wal-Mart intends to open a Pagosa store brings some points to mind.

The first point concerns the question of the primacy of the concept of free enterprise and the right to do business.

If one believes in this principle, one should accept the idea that any business that meets pre-existing requirements should be allowed to build and operate.

Can you deny a business if it meets your existing standards? The notion that standards can be changed after applications are filed easily leads to legal problems and certainly has a shady ethical connotation.

If you believe a legal business can be denied, what standard do you use from that point forward? Do you limit the number of lawyers in the community, the number of sporting goods stores, the number of clothing stores? Who makes the decision, and how? The only way to impose limitations is with design guidelines, and those guidelines do not exist in Pagosa Springs.

When voters in Pagosa Springs determined by a nearly 2-1 margin in April 2010 that no size limit would be put on retail establishments, the gate was opened for large-scale retail. Whether the judgment of the voters is in their best interest can be debated, but they made the choice. Wal-Mart has determined the area has potential for its operation. If Wal-Mart made that determination, it is safe to assume other large-scale retailers would make the same decision should Wal-Mart not build here. The gate is open, and those who complain did nothing since the vote to push for new regulations or for design guidelines that limit this kind of growth in our community.

The second point concerns incentives.

While we believe in free enterprise, we take issue with incentives. Government assistance, in the name of economic development, should not be part of the picture.

The Town Council will soon consider a request from staff to extend an incentive program, involving partial waiver of impact fees and planning and building fees. Should such a program be in place, a development the size of the one proposed by Wal-Mart would result in the loss of at least $275,000 in fees — money destined to support operation of the town planning and building department. This is money the town should not lose.

Incentives put into place thus far have been negligibly productive and are not necessary to attract business. In the case of a Wal-Mart, the amount the fee waivers save would not be a deterrent if the assessment of the market is correct.

No fee breaks should be given to any business, of any kind or size. The vast majority of businesses in town had no such help when they began operation; those that do not construct new properties have no access to this kind of assistance. The field must be level.

Another point: Should government negotiate with prospective businesses concerning the products or services business offers? Word has it town staff discussed options with Wal-Mart that omit certain features commonly found in its other stores. Why? And how can one reasonably defend the request that one kind of good or service be omitted and not others? Why should government negotiate with a large retailer, asking that it not offer auto service or tires or paint, while not asking that it omit clothing, sporting goods or outdoor equipment?

The final point: Have guidelines in place, let the market develop within those guidelines and collect the full fees and taxes that come with the privilege of doing business here.

Karl Isberg

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