As the Wal-Mart debate continues, we notice two things.
First, some of the misconceptions and misinformation attached to the conversation. You will find no champion of big box stores here, but you will find respect for well-reasoned and well-founded argument, and some of what is generated in the Wal-Mart debate is neither.
There are sound arguments made in favor and against a big box retailer (of any brand), but they are not based on rumors of payoffs, or the illusion the mayor “invited” Wal-Mart to build here. They are not based on the notion that the arrival of a Wal-Mart will “change” our little town. Those who have lived a lifetime here, or who have lived the large part of a lifetime here, know the change that prompted a big box to consider business here occurred with growth in population during the last decade. Ten or fifteen years ago, the idea of a big box here was laughable. Until population numbers indicated the chance for profit, big box retailers didn’t know Pagosa existed; it is the prospect of profit that brings them here, and only a change in that prospect will cause them to cease their effort.
Also, unsound are arguments that assert opposition to a major retailer is, in all cases, a deliberate snub of a certain segment of the population. While there is a small measure of elitism in some of the opposition, there are genuine concerns regarding the negative economic impact of a big box store — concerns backed by fact.
The second thing we notice: a big box retailer does not spell certain doom for a small-town economy. There are examples of communities in which the small business environment has been preserved and flourishes. We believe this can happen here.
True, there will be casualties: businesses existing on the margin that will not make it — businesses with poor planning, no flexibility. Others will adapt. As an example, consider Salida, a town comparable in many ways to Pagosa . A Wal-Mart sits on the edge of town; the downtown is a haven for small businesses, restaurants, clubs. It is far from dead.
If a big box goes in here, we believe an opportunity opens for downtown Pagosa to be the center of a thriving small business and tourist-related business area.
What will help is creation of a downtown business development district — an idea pushed by council member Shari Pierce.
Similar to the move now underway to create a countywide arts and entertainment district, a business development district can be created with a cooperative effort by a non-profit and town government. Such a district should include participants from throughout the county.
A district opens avenues for grant funding, with money received going to a wide variety of projects. One of these could be improvement of the aesthetic infrastructure in the downtown area, making it more attractive to tourists and local customers. Funds could be made available through a loan program for improvement of store frontage, lighting and signage. Cooperative business education programs involving the district, the Chamber, the Ed Center and the CDC could be created.
Pressure could be brought to bear to fully utilize Lewis Street as the festival and entertainment site proposed when it was rehabilitated, with more events moved to the site and new events created.
Work could take place to introduce business to the Pagosa Plaza and to map long-term strategies to remove the biggest impediment to business development downtown — the school site at 4th and Pagosa streets.
With creation of a district, the door is wide open.
The topic of a district will be reintroduced to council soon. We hope it is received with open minds and a desire to see positive change come to our small business community.