Area residents finally got their chance to be heard regarding a proposed plan to develop a 93,000-square-foot Wal-Mart store in the Aspen Village subdivision when the Town of Pagosa Springs hosted a public forum last Thursday at the Ross Aragon Community Center.
Over 200 people packed into the Senior Center Dining Room to air their views before fellow residents, town officials and Wal-Mart representative Josh Phair. In fact, soon after the meeting started, one attendee asked if chairs could be moved in order to allow attendees standing in the hallway to gain entrance to the meeting.
Prior to opening the floor up to public discussion, the crowd heard from Pagosa Springs Town Council member Stan Holt and town attorney Bob Cole.
Speaking to a 2010 election in which town voters supported a council decision to ease regulations restricting the development of a big box store, Holt said, “The county has no unreasonable restrictions concerning big box development. By removing our overzealous restrictions, we just put the town on the same footing as the county.
“To suggest that 14 percent of the total population (the town) was responsible for making a decision that negatively effects everyone in the county is absurd,” Holt said. “The decision if and when to build a store here rests entirely with Wal-Mart.”
Speaking to the process of determining land use issues, Cole told the audience that, given zoning and state law, there was nothing to indicate that there was anything improper with the proposed Wal-Mart development.
Following Cole’s comments, Phair took the microphone, explaining that he was attending to listen to all points of view and, “How to make this a store of the community.”
Phair also said that he wanted to, “clear up a couple of misperceptions,” claiming that his company had not been offered nor sought any special incentives, adding, “There have been no inappropriate or secret meetings between the company and the town. My first interaction between Mayor Aragon and the council was on January third, when most of you met me, as well.”
While Phair might not have met with town officials prior to Jan. 3, other Wal-Mart representatives have certainly been in discussions with town officials since as early as 2010. In fact, Holt’s statement that opened the meeting alluded to discussions of a property, “In the county on Vista Boulevard” — discussions that were mentioned at a 2010 joint town/county meeting, as well as at a meeting of the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation around that same time.
Furthermore, the town’s website contained a joint press release from the town and the county regarding the Vista Boulevard big box discussions. Those documents were pulled from the town’s website late last week.
Furthermore, as reported in The SUN last December, officials at the Stevens Field airport confirmed that Wal-Mart representatives had landed at the airport last August, staying in town for several hours.
Despite Phair’s claim to the audience that there had not been any “secret meetings” between Wal-Mart representatives and town officials, prior meetings that did take place were never made public, nor were details of those meetings presented to local officials.
Following Phair’s presentation, local residents took the microphone, with about two-thirds speaking out against Wal-Mart.
“There will be a domino effect,” the first speaker said, “massive parking lots, light pollution ... the beautiful Pagosa we all moved to will begin looking like the places we escaped from.”
While Wal-Mart critics addressed a number of issues, including low wages paid by big box retailers (and the stress those wage earners place on social services), the potential negative effect on small businesses, and opposition to Wal-Mart business policies, supporters mainly stuck to the fact that a local store would provide convenience, lower prices and local jobs, while keeping tax dollars in the county.
One Wal-Mart supporter said, “I have two children who are at home and at ten o’clock at night, when I’m out of milk or I don’t have children’s Tylenol or I don’t have diapers, there’s nowhere in Pagosa for me to go, so my children suffer for the night.”
Adding that she works in a place where many customers say they are looking for work, the speaker added that Wal-Mart would provide jobs, “and not live off the system.”
Stating that her family had resided in Archuleta County since the 1700s, June Marquez said, “I challenge my Spanish families, and the people who are here locally, to change your mind about who you are, because we are better than a Wal-Mart. If you have to get a job, create work. Create work with your God-given talent. That is where the prosperity and happiness is. It is not going to be working, cleaning toilets at a Wal-Mart.
“I say to these millionaires and billionaires that live in this county, put your money where your mouth is,” Marquez added. “If we really want to share, if we really want to prosper, then move the money around.”
Also claiming long-standing roots in the area, Eugene Labato said, “I am pro Wal-Mart. I want Wal-Mart in this town. I’ve worked for Wal-Mart in the past and they treated me fine. People are talking about the wages. Well, some of us will work for whatever wages we have to work for. That’s the way I was brought up in this town.”
Labato was the final speaker of a meeting that lasted more than two hours. Following public comment, Phair spoke again, announcing that Wal-Mart would be hosting an open house to present information on the proposed project.
At Tuesday’s Town of Pagosa Springs Planning Commission meeting, Town Planner James Dickhoff said that a Wal-Mart open house was set for, “either the first or second week in March,” but that a final date had not been set. Dickhoff added that a special meeting of the Planning Commission had been slated for 5:15 p.m. on March 20 for the design review process regarding plans submitted following Wal-Mart’s open house.
Also saying that, “Some of the things we heard tonight can be disputed,” Phair suggested that those things would be addressed at the open house. Nonetheless, Phair added, “You all should be very proud of yourselves for a very civil dialogue. I’ve done a lot of these and ... well, you should be very proud.”