|Read Part One|
In the late summer of 2009, the Pagosa Springs Town Council was facing a couple of interrelated problems as it began to prepare its 2010 annual budget. And we’re not talking about your normal, everyday greed and corruption. We’re talking about a couple of unexpected problems.
Pagosa's Town government runs mainly on sales taxes it collects from retail businesses in Archuleta County — as the result of an agreement with the voters and the Board of County Commissioners that allows the Town government to share all sales taxes 50/50 with the County government. For some time, those sales tax revenues had been rising steadily, year after year, by up to 12 percent per year.
In 2007, at the height of Pagosa’s sales tax boom, the Town had projected its 2008 General Fund budget at $8.7 million. The Town’s General Fund budget for 2009, however, would be set at $5.1 million — far below the 2008 General Fund budget amount.
Hard times had arrived. The Town was no longer living high on the sales tax hog.
The other problem was somewhat related. As America struggled to deal with the global financial crash of 2008, there was one sector of the American economy that was doing pretty darn well: Big Box discount stores. But the community of Pagosa Springs had done a couple of studies concerning Big Box stores back in 2005 and 2006, and had found that, not only did the community generally disapprove of Big Box stores, but that the arrival of a “large format retailer” such as Walmart would probably have an overall negative effect on the “small town character” of Pagosa Springs, and on its overall economy. As a result of those studies, the Town Council had updated its Land Use and Development Code (LUDC) to require any “large format retailer” to jump through some special hoops if they wanted to build within the Town boundaries. (The Board of County Commissioners did nothing to address the Big Box problem, however, so theoretically any large format retailer could locate just outside the Town boundaries and avoid all the Town’s new regulations.)
But in 2009, things had changed, and it appeared that the simplest solution to the Town’s falling sales tax collections might be to encourage a Big Box store — like, say, Walmart. So in the late summer of 2009, Town manager David Mitchem proposed to Town Council a somewhat radical solution, aimed at addressing these two interrelated problems. He proposed the repeal the Big Box regulations in the LUDC and the active pursuit of a Walmart store.
Of course, this solution ran counter to the studies we’d seen concerning the effects a Walmart store might have on a small, struggling, rural town like Pagosa Springs. But maybe sales tax revenue was the most important thing?
Town Council member Don Volger summarized the problem this way on August 20, 2009:
“I know this has been an emotional topic within the community. I wasn’t directly involved in the discussions originally [when the regulations were put in place in 2006] but the sense that I got was, that people didn’t want the character of our community to change. They didn’t want our small town to become — pardon the terms: Aspen, Vail, Telluride — one of those communities people come to, to play, but where they don’t really live.
“As I was contemplating this, I’ve looked at other communities, and there are many other communities that have Big Box stores — that have a Walmart, for example. You can look at a community like Durango. Well, we don’t want to be a Durango — okay, I’ll buy that. But if you look at a place like Cortez; Cortez is a very small, healthy, rural type community — in some ways, very much like what Pagosa Springs once was. They have Big Boxes, folks. It didn’t ruin them.
“I remember hearing people say, ‘If we ever get a stoplight, I’m going to move away.’ Or, ‘If we ever get a McDonald’s, I’m leaving.” Folks, we have those things. We’re still Pagosa Springs. We can maintain our character, we can maintain our quality of life, and we can stop hemorrhaging financially.”
Of course, Mr. Volger knew very well that the arrival of a Walmart was not likely to stop Pagosa’s real estate and construction industries from “hemorrhaging financially”. And it was not likely to help stop our local “Mom and Pop” retailers from “hemorrhaging financially.” Nor was a Walmart likely to do much to enhance our tourist industry.
But it would very likely help the Town with its declining sales tax revenues. First things first, folks.
Some local activists tried to stop the Town from repealing its Big Box regulations, but Town voters approved the repeal in the spring of 2010. The door, it seems, had finally been opened — to allow Walmart into Pagosa Springs. Finally. In the spring of 2010.
But maybe things aren’t exactly what they seem?
If you visit the County Assessor’s website, you can perform a rather basic and preliminary search of properties in Archuleta County, using an interactive map. And if you visit the area we call “Aspen Village subdivision” — the proposed location of our new Walmart store — you can find the seven properties where the Big Box might be built. According to Town planner James Dickhoff, Walmart has not yet closed on the deal to purchase these seven properties.
A corporation named Pagosa Partners I Inc. began developing the Aspen Village subdivision in 2003, as a new "live and work" community — a type of development which would include a pleasing mix of commercial businesses and residential homes. These types of developments were growing in popularity in America, as our nation grew weary of strip commercial developments fed by isolated suburban neighborhoods. The general idea behind the Aspen Village development was to re-invent the "pedestrian friendly" neighborhood structure we once knew here in America — before automobiles ruled the world.
Site of the proposed Walmart store and parking lot, shown in yellow. The pale green shows the rest of the Aspen Village "live/work" subdivision, with the planned "residential" area located along Aspen Village Drive, opposite the Walmart site. Daily Post illustration.
Across the street from the proposed Walmart location, the Aspen Village subdivision had planned to build a sizable number of residential homes. But only a few homes had been built before the economy took its nose-dive in 2008. If Walmart builds the store it presented at last week's Design Review meeting at the Community Center, those few residential homes will look out at the backside of the 93,000-square-foot, concrete box being currently proposed by the Walmart Corporation.
Not at the front of the Walmart store, mind you. These homes, and any future neighboring homes, will look out at the store’s huge, unadorned backside. (More about that little issue tomorrow.)
If you search on the Assessor’s map for the ownership of the planned residential lots facing the backside of the Walmart store, you might notice that more than 50 of those properties are owned by a company called Aspen Village Ventures LLC.
Here is a map of some Aspen Village lots owned by Aspen Village Ventures LLC, shown in pink:
As we can see, nearly all the property located across from the proposed Walmart store is owned by Aspen Village Ventures LLC. It appears Aspen Village Ventures obtained these lots in May, 2009, via a Special Warranty Deed issued by Aspen Village Investments LLC, which in turn obtained the lots in December, 2005.
It appears that nearly all the planned "residential" lots opposite the planned Walmart Store site are owned by Aspen Village Ventures LLC.
According to the County Assessor's website, the address of Aspen Village Ventures LLC is "PO Box 1860, Bentonville, Arkansas."
A quick Internet search suggests that PO Box 1860, Bentonville, Arkansas is also the address of S. Robson Walton. Mr. Walton is chairman of the board, Walmart Stores Inc. and is, according to Forbes.com, the 18th richest person in the world.
Read Part Six...