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The big squeeze on both sides

The Mountain Theatre’s executive director Harry Woods made an interesting point at the Crested Butte Town Council meeting last Monday. He asked the council members to think about how the money they would collect from the local non-profits in rent increases would impact the town compared to how letting those non-profits keep that rent money would impact the organizations.

The town is rightfully in the process of updating the leases it has with its non-residential tenants. That has always been a bone of contention and is never an easy conversation. It seems obvious there were cases in the past when the town felt manipulated, taken advantage of and just plain squeezed by some of its tenants. The fact that the majority of leases weren’t even signed and they varied all over the place between various groups makes the effort legitimate. It’s not just the government being a pain in the butt.

But there are consequences. The rent requirement seems to have been the littlest of straws that pushed the county clerk to close the Crested Butte Department of Motor Vehicles office that has been open once or twice a week in town hall since 1999. I’ve used both the CB and the Gunnison office but having it up here is a convenience for people living in the north end of the valley. Most people, I think, see government as government and not specific jurisdictions or individual departments. So as a taxpayer, I appreciate the government having a convenient place for me to do my government business. It makes sense for me that the town provide a space for the county. Should $1,600 a year be a deciding factor to shutter that space? Probably not, but does the town need $1,600 to keep it open? Probably not. The two sides might chat and see if there is a real issue between them. We are one valley after all!

The same logic applies even more so when it comes to the county health department and a place to provide vaccinations and flu shots and especially for the Crested Butte Library. The library is not something to screw with and if charging them $8,000 a year makes them think twice about having that spot up here, there is risk in making that change.

Which goes to the Woods’ point. As a government entity, the town of Crested Butte is pretty flush. Through diligence and hard work, there are literally millions of dollars in reserves. Strong sales tax is what has padded those accounts and I will agree with the consistent advice of town finance director Lois Rozman who for decades has warned every new council that the economy will not always continue on a constant rosy upward trajectory. And it has taken downturns. There is great value in having those reserves in case of an economic or natural disaster.

But Harry is insinuating that charging the Mountain Theatre $5,000 in rent is a rounding error for the town and puts the squeeze on groups like the theatre. There are so many local non-profit groups in this valley that do so much good work and provide a lot of the character of this community. The town itself does as well. But if the town can afford to donate $1 million to the Center for the Arts expansion plus set aside basically a $750,000 line of credit for the Center but squeezes the Mountain Theatre for $5,000 a year, there seems to be something out of balance.

At the same time, it is not unreasonable for the town to get some money for space it owns. They aren’t asking for top dollar — not even Mississippi Delta top dollar let alone resort town top dollar. And let’s admit that all these groups have been getting the screaming deal of a lifetime with little or no rent.  Every organization should pay at least something or provide a direct benefit to its landlord. That’s just a basic tenet of community responsibility and manners. And I’ve been told by some renters that while not ecstatic about a rent increase they know a deal when they see one and are cool with it.

But we all know that if these little lean non-profits have to pay more rent, then you and me and everyone should expect to shell out an extra dollar for the ticket to a play, or expect to listen to another day of the pledge drive since a higher goal will be needed to cover new costs. Or we’ll deal with another few days of someone in a whacky costume selling raffle tickets to raise money for a nonprofit in front of the post office between 11 and 1. It all trickles down eventually.

So while there is no black and white answer to Harry’s question, it is a question the council should certainly consider now that the rubber is meeting the road with the lease and rent adjustments. What is the squeeze balance? We all like having the convenience of the library and the motor vehicle office. We all appreciate the Mountain Theatre, the land trust, the Paragon Gallery, the CB Avy Center and KBUT. Having the big kahuna of the town subsidize its little partners that all provide something good to the overall community is not a bad thing and that will happen with or without these lease adjustments. No one will be forced out because of unreasonable rent hikes. I just wish both sides weren’t feeling the squeeze…

—Mark Reaman

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