The small town of Pagosa Springs, Colorado has a big problem. Just before Christmas, the media began reporting that a 93,000 square foot big box store was coming to town. The store turned out to be Walmart, and that announcement provoked a citizens group to spring up, called Pagosa First. By January 3, 2012, the Walmart project was out in the open, as the retailer made a presentation to the Pagosa Town Council.
The Town of Pagosa Springs describes itself as "a scenic community known for healing waters" because of its natural hot springs. The battle against Walmart is getting as hot as those healing waters. Pagosa is located half an hour west of the Continental Divide—and a major divide has now formed over this sprawling big box project.
Pagosa Springs is surrounded by the San Juan National Forest and Southern Ute Indian lands. The town relies heavily on its eco-tourism attractions, including the San Juan River that flows through the center of town. "With an average of 300 days of sunshine and four definitive seasons," the town's website says, "Pagosa Springs is an extraordinary place to live!"
Walmart apparently also sees Pagosa as an extraordinary place to build a store. The Pagosa Sun newspaper reported on December 21st that the Town Manager had been in discussions with an unnamed big box store regarding an abatement of development fees for projects larger than 25,000 square feet—an invitation to sprawl if there ever was one.
Last year, at the urging of the Town Manager, voters repealed zoning restrictions that placed added requirements on proposed developments exceeding 40,000 square feet—including a requirement for economic impact studies. The Town Manager argued that Pagosa was losing millions in sales tax because Pagosa residents were buying merchandise at stores outside of the town.
But the actual impact study cited by the Manager showed that a big box retailer would "severely damage" local retailers, according to The Sun, and "negatively alter the socio-economic fabric of the community."
The newspaper reported that Walmart officials had flow into town to scout sites in Pagosa since the summer of 2011. In January, residents in Pagosa contacted Sprawl-Busters, reporting that "we are just beginning to fight the good fight. Walmart just purchased the property. We had the first meeting of our stop Walmart group which we are calling 'Pagosa First' last night."
At the end of December, the Pagosa Sun interviewed the director of a Small Business Development Center at Fort Lewis College. “It’s a tough situation for small towns,” the development official warned. “The size of the facility is a consideration. In small communities that have a large tourism base, businesses survive better than small communities with a largely agricultural base. Independent retailers will be affected, no doubt. You can be sure that you’ll take a pretty good hit to the diversity of retail in your town.” Walmart asserts that its new store will create 175 to 200 new jobs—but that is a gross figure, which fails to net out the retail jobs that will be lost elsewhere in the Pagosa trade area.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Walmart is slated to hold an "open house" on their proposal on February 16th. Such events are often a dog-and-pony presentation, with the developer's engineer, architect, and other consultants informally answering questions at different "stations" in the room—an opportunity for Walmart to identify supportive area residents to add to their email list.
At such corporate events, citizens groups have in the past flooded the meeting with opponents, who wear bright nametage identifying their opposition to the plan, and giving Walmart officials a long list of questions to formally address, turning the event into an opportunity for opponents to show their concerns about the plan. Opponents also release a statement summarizing their objections to the project.
One Town Council member told the public on January 3rd: “We will not entertain public comment. We will instead utilize a diplomatic option establishing civil organization and protocol in a public forum setting at the community center." The town is clearly trying to manage the public's involvement by agreeing to Walmart open house format. Walmart said: "We do and will commit to public discussions. We do see this just simply as the beginning of a long dialog with the Town of Pagosa Springs and the public at large, public discussions.”
Readers are urged to email Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon at: firstname.lastname@example.org with the following message:
Dear Mayor Aragon,
Inviting Walmart into Pagosa Springs is like inviting a cannibal to dinner. Most of Walmart's sales will come from existing merchants. The scale and location of this project is inappropriate for a small town which leans heavily on eco-tourism to attract dollars to town.
Walmart's jobs claims are a gross figure—but you need to know the net impact of this project once you minus out the existing retail jobs at area merchants which will be lost.
This project is not an example of economic development, but rather economic displacement. A store the size of two footballs is also excessive, and the company should be urged to shrink its plans dramatically to fit the scale of other merchants in town.
Finally, no financial incentives—or fee breaks—need to be given to this wealthy corporation. This is a form of public welfare, and represents another perk given to large corporations at the expense of smaller merchants who are already at a significant competitive disadvantage to the retail giants.
All you will get out of this project is a shift of market share from existing merchants to Walmart. As Mayor, you should be leading the effort to reject the size and location of this inappropriate land use.