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Wal-Mart announces plan for Pagosa store

“If” or “who,” the question is now “when?”

If Wal-Mart is not here yet, Wal-Mart was here Tuesday night at the January meeting of the Pagosa Springs Town Council to announce the company’s intention of locating a 93,000 square-foot store in town — possibly as early as next fall.

Following an introduction by Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon, Josh Phair, Wal-Mart’s director of public affairs and government relations in Colorado, said, “As the mayor mentioned, I’m here to announce, and I suppose at this point to confirm, that Wal-Mart has acquired a parcel of land at (U.S.) 160 and Alpha (Drive), with the intention to develop and build a 93,000 square-foot store offering both full grocery and general merchandise to residents of Pagosa Springs and surrounding communities.”

Phair added that the parcel of property had been under contract for about three weeks.

However, Phair later told council that the company had yet to determine a firm timeline regarding the opening of the store.

Toward the end of the presentation, trustee Don Volger asked Phair, “If things proceed as anticipated from your end, when do you hope to break ground?”

“Well, we’re not sure yet,” Phair responded, telling council that the company would be working with the town on the permitting process (as well as other details), including determining if the design of the store would be, “right for the town.”

In fact, Phair’s presentation implied that locating a Wal-Mart here was not 100-percent certain, saying that the company is, “Making sure that the store is right for the city,” adding, “We also need to make sure that this end of the schedule is right for our surrounding markets.”

Nevertheless, Phair said, “I think we’ll have a more solid determination made later this year ... moving as quickly as possible certainly makes sense for us.”

Addressing a crowd that may have been one of the largest in attendance for a Town Council meeting, Phair was not availed with any dissenting remarks or public input.

While it appeared that the crowd attended the meeting to either support or denounce the delegation, Aragon made it clear that no public comment would be welcome for that part of the meeting.

“We will not entertain public comment,” Aragon told the audience. “We will instead utilize a diplomatic option establishing civil organization and protocol in a public forum setting at the community center. The date will be determined at the mid-month meeting.”

Council’s mid-month meeting takes place at noon, Thursday, Jan. 19, in Town Hall.

Over a decade of contentious dialogue regarding the propriety and effect of a big box retailer in Pagosa Springs appeared to have been settled at Tuesday’s meeting. However, discussions between Wal-Mart representatives and town officials conducted over the past year seem to mirror the mayor’s decision to squelch comment at Tuesday’s meeting — without public input and with minimal dialogue with elected officials.

When the spectre of a big box first arose in the early 2000s, local citizens scrambled to address the possibility, eventually forming the “Big Box Task Force” in 2003. Responding to concerns expressed by that group, the town retained the services of Economic Planning Systems (EPS) in 2004 to conduct a study on the effects a big box would have on the town.

Results from the study were made public May 2005, with EPS representatives Dan Guimond and Andy Knudtsen stating that, while a big box retailer would capture the greatest tax revenue and would help curb leakage, it would come at too high a price.

In fact, in that same study, EPS said a big box retailer would severely damage the local retail environment and would negatively alter the socioeconomic fabric of the community.

Following findings from that study, town staff worked with task force members to draft portions of the town’s Land Use and Development Code (LUDC) that ultimately, in 2006, restricted the ability of big developments exceeding 40,000 square feet to build in town.

However, in 2009, Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem told council that an unnamed big box developer had indicated there would be little to no chance of a big box store locating in Pagosa Springs as long as portions of the town’s LUDC pertaining to those developments were in place (particularly, requirements for environmental and economic impact studies provided prior to permitting).

At that time, Mitchem referred to a 2005 Economic Planning Systems (EPS) study commissioned by the town and Archuleta County. In that study, it was claimed that total retail leakage (sales conducted out of county) for the area was 47-percent or $2,940,491 in potential sales tax revenues (sales tax revenues for the county in 2008 amounted to $3,315,873). Assuming that a large-format retailer would capture 75-percent of that leakage, sales tax revenues in 2008 could have been boosted by an additional $2,205,368.

“These are not my numbers,” Mitchem said then. “They come from the economic development consultant you hired in 2002.”

Council later voted to remove those portions of the LUDC, despite a suggestion by trustee Shari Pierce to refine the codes rather than scrapping them altogether.

Citizens responded with a referendum to overturn council’s decision. Ultimately, that referendum went to a vote and, last year, town voters approved supporting council in scrapping LUDC restrictions.

Since that time, the issue of a big box store in town seemed to drop off the horizon and Mitchem suggested, on numerous occasions, that it seemed unlikely that large chain stores would locate in town, given the county’s small population, as well as little potential support from surrounding communities.

At a Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation (PSCDC) meeting last year, Mitchem said (speaking during a presentation regarding the effect of Wal-Mart on small, rural communities) that market research indicated Pagosa Springs (and Archuleta County) would not have enough residents and tourists to viably sustain a large-format retailer.

Those comments followed on the heels of a visit by consultants who, at the time, determined the best potential site for a big box would be on northeast corner of the Vista Boulevard and U.S. 160 intersection.

Now, it is apparent that local officials had all along been in discussions with Wal-Mart. Mitchem confirmed this in December. Furthermore, it is apparent those representatives were not pleased with the proposed Vista/160 site.

Nevertheless, council was not apprised of plans to locate a Wal-Mart in town — until Tuesday night’s meeting.

In fact, it was not until last month that Mitchem hinted to council that a big box had considered the town as a location and that was only after the presentation of a resolution that would have reauthorized fee abatements for new developments.

That resolution was part of a larger incentive package, first passed in 2009, which included a 25-percent rebate of sales tax for development and hiring.

In early December, local businessman Morgan Murri asked council to waive those abatements for developments over 25,000 square feet. Mitchem responded in mid-December with a resolution that included that size waiver.

At that mid-month meeting, council mostly rejected the waiver, but agreed to table the resolution following a plea by Pierce to further investigate Murri’s claims that a big box would be detrimental for many small businesses in town.

That resolution was noticeably absent from Tuesday night’s agenda. Had that issue appeared on the agenda, discussion would have included public input (as mandated by the town’s Home Rule charter).

It is unknown if that resolution will be on the agenda for the Jan. 19 mid-month meeting.

While the public might not have an opportunity to speak to the issue at the mid-month meeting, promises were made Tuesday night by Aragon and Phair that local residents would be engaged in the process.

“We do and will commit to public discussions,” Phair told the audience Tuesday night. “We do see this just simply as the beginning of a long dialogue with the town of Pagosa Springs and the public at large, public discussions.”

No doubt, Phair will repeat claims he made before council at whatever public forum takes place: that the new store would create between 175-200 jobs; that those jobs would pay $13.08 per hour (based on the Colorado average for full-time Wal-Mart employees, Phair said); that those jobs would include benefits (after six months for full time, 12 months for part time, “The most generous among all big box companies,” Phair said); and that Wal-Mart would be engaged with the community (with Phair stating that Wal-Mart had contributed over $14 million last year, through its stores, to the communities that those stores served).

No doubt, local residents will listen to those claims (at whatever public forum is scheduled, at whatever time and place council decides upon) and, no doubt, those citizens will have many more questions for the town and Phair than were answered at Tuesday night’s meeting — the “if” and “who” (but not the “when”).

jim@pagosasun.com

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