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Doubts placed on Wal-Mart timeline

A search of the Archuleta County Assessor’s website reveals that about 60 properties in the Alpha Subdivision (adjacent to where the proposed Wal-Mart is to be located) were purchased by Wal-Mart in May 2009, months before town officials indicated that a big box store had expressed interest in Pagosa Springs as a location.

That property purchase raises questions regarding the timeline town officials presented during previous discussions surrounding big box development. More than that, with the big box issue being a contentious issue with area residents for almost two decades, those purchases indicate that the town knew of Wal-Mart’s intentions for years, but did nothing to engage public input until well after the company had announced its intentions.

The matter of property purchases in Pagosa Springs is unequivocal: The map on the county assessor’s website shows those properties owned by Aspen Village Investments, LLC since May 2009. An Internet search for the mailing address listed for Aspen Village Investments, LLC returns a result for Chairman of the Board of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. — S. Robson Walton — in Bentonville, Ark.

The timing of that property purchase contradicts previous statements by town officials as to when Wal-Mart first approached the town.

In late summer 2009, Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem alerted the town that a big box retailer had been expressing interest in building a store in Pagosa Springs. In fact, it was during a July 2009 meeting of the Pagosa Springs Town Council that Mitchem first proposed eliminating entire portions of the town’s Land Use and Development Code in order to encourage big box development.

“We will not be in the competition if that (LUDC section 2.4.5) stands in place,” Mitchem said at that time. “I have no intention of knee-jerking this and compromising.”

While Mitchem remained coy in 2009 as to which big box might be looking to the town as a possible location, refusing to say what company had approached the town at that time, citing confidentiality and ongoing negotiations as reason for not revealing the name.

Ultimately, council took Mitchem’s recommendation and passed an ordinance scrapping portions of the LUDC that regulated large-format retail development.

Later that year, a group of town residents pushed for a referendum to overturn council’s decision. However, town voters upheld council’s decision to loosen LUDC regulations during an April 2010 election.

Nevertheless, while council was discussing big box regulations in the LUDC in late summer 2009, officials with the town expressed doubts that a big box would be locating in Pagosa Springs.

“I’m a realist,” Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon said in the July 30, 2009 edition of The SUN. “As we are, right now, with the town and county in financial chaos, why would a large retailer want to come here. We don’t have the density, we don’t have the population base.”

Speaking to council and a standing-room-only crowd in late July 2009, Aragon stated, “You do not have to fear. There will not be big box here in your lifetime or my lifetime.”

For his part, Mitchem pushed forward in 2009 to revise LUDC guidelines that he and other town staff believed inhibited the potential for big box development.

“I believe we should respond effectively to that large format retailer that wants us in the competition for the next store,” Mitchem said in 2009. Hence, the call to repeal the big box regulations.

Following that statement, and when asked who made the inquiry, Mitchem said the representative asked for confidentiality and would not disclose the store or its possible location.

“I think the call is real, the inquiry is real. They wouldn’t waste their time if they weren’t interested,” Mitchem said at that time. “I’m trying to place us to be competitive. I am certain they are looking at a variety of communities throughout Colorado.”

Citing the economy and the extent of “retail leakage” reported for the area, Mitchem asserted that a large-format retailer would bring as many as 200 jobs to the Pagosa Springs area and that the town and county could each grab an additional $2 million in sales tax revenue.

In August 2009, Mitchem boosted that sales tax estimate to $4 million.

As late as 2011, Mitchem continued to play his cards close to the vest, refusing to reveal which large-format retailer was making overtures to the town. In fact, when council discussed policy regarding the reauthorization of a 50-percent abatement of fees for new development in December 2011, Mitchem denied that those discussions were specific to a big box development.

Less than a month later, Wal-Mart made its announcement that it would be locating in Pagosa Springs.

Yesterday, Mitchem was asked if he had included a big box for Pagosa as a selling point when interviewing for the town manager position in late 2008.

“No, not at that time,” Mitchem responded. “I don’t think it was brought up at the time.”

Furthermore, Mitchem claimed he was unaware of the Wal-Mart May 2009 property purchases, stating that the company had not yet closed on property for its current location. When told that the more than 50 properties owned by Wal-Mart are located directly south of the store’s proposed location, Mitchem said, “I have never heard about it ... actually, I’m surprised. That’s a new one on me.”

In a follow-up question, Mitchem was asked when he had first been approached by the retailer.

“I believe it was the spring of 2009,” Mitchem replied. “It may have been as early as January (2009), but I can’t be sure of that.”

However, the May 2009 purchase of properties in the Alpha subdivision — the exact location where the retailer intends to build its store — raises more questions regarding Mitchem’s stated timeline than are answered.

That Wal-Mart would invest around $2 million in properties prior to assurances from the town that LUDC regulations would be relaxed seems curious.

In fact, when asked if Wal-Mart had balked at the town’s LUDC restrictions (as they stood in 2009) with an unwillingness to develop and if Wal-Mart had expressed a stated policy in response to those restrictions, Mitchem responded that representatives for the company had said they expected those regulations to be changed.

“Let’s be clear,” Mitchem said yesterday, “it was a Wal-Mart representative who said that. It was a real estate brokerage firm that made that statement.”

Mitchem added, “We, as staff, concluded that no big box would build here with the rigorous regulations that were in place in the LUDC at that time.”

When asked if he felt that, had the 2010 election gone the other way (regarding LUDC restrictions on big box development), Mitchem said, “I don’t think any big box would have considered Pagosa Springs given the wording (of the LUDC) prior to the vote of the people.”

Nevertheless, it was Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and not a real estate investment firm that scooped up around $2 million worth of Alpha subdivision properties in May 2009 — a time when assessed real estate values were plummeting and promised to continue falling for the next several years.

While no certain conclusions can be drawn as far as the intention of those property purchases, had local residents known in early 2009 that Wal-Mart had grabbed up numerous properties in the Alpha subdivision, assumptions about those intentions would have most likely been made.

Given the nature of various assumptions made during the past several years of this big box debate, awareness of those property purchases in early 2009 would have most likely changed the face and nature of the current conversation.

jim@pagosasun.com

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