Struggling to find meaningful action…
By Mark Reaman
In a largely symbolic gesture, the Crested Butte town council passed a resolution declaring an official “local distaster emergency” regarding grocery services and restaurant or dining options at its Monday, August 21 meeting. According to the staff report to council, the declaration basically gives the town manager emergency powers to “take immediate steps to alleviate the current food services challenges facing the town.”
While being clear that any changes allowed under the emergency declaration will not modify any life, health and safety regulations, the resolution basically suspends portions of the town code requiring public hearings and town processes that could delay action in coping with the emergency. The town manager now has the authority to make certain decisions that would speed up the approval process for food service outlets as long as the applications are consistent with the requirements of the municipal code in Crested Butte.
It was noted that grocery services and restaurants are the “economic anchor” for Crested Butte, accounting for more than 40% of town tax revenues. The staff report stated that before the pandemic, the town had a restaurant vacancy rate of just 5%. The restaurant vacancies have increased to more than 18% and the hours of operation of many open restaurants have decreased since the pandemic. Added to that is the closing of Clark’s Market, the main grocery store in town, for a four-month renovation project.
It was also noted that the number of independently owned properties with operating restaurants has reduced significantly since the pandemic. “The restricting of the market and increasing costs of commercial real estate limit the opportunity for affordable independently owned businesses, a cornerstone characteristic of Crested Butte,” the staff report points out. The idea of deed restricting some commercial property to keep them affordable to independent owner-operators was brought up and could be discussed further in the future.
While a similar emergency was declared for the local housing crisis, there are far fewer initiatives included in the emergency declaration for restaurants. Council previously approved funds that could be used to help restaurant owners obtain professional and technical help with restaurant-oriented issues, but so far only two businesses have expressed interest in the money.
“We were struggling to find meaningful actions the town could take for this,” town manager Dara MacDonald told the council Monday.
“The capacity of local architects and engineers with the technical expertise for restaurants is an issue,” said community development director Troy Russ.
“Who would this resolution and action help?” asked councilmember Anna Fenerty.
Mayor Ian Billick indicated it represents the symbolism of recognizing an important issue.
“There are no applications pending,” said Russ.
“These were the few things we could come up with under the current situation,” said town attorney Karl Hanlon, referencing four potential actions including removing the limit on and placement of food trucks and carts allowed in CB.
The resolution came about after the owner of Miette, a lunch offshoot of Soupçon, asked council for help earlier this month to continue to be allowed to serve lunch outside. He had started the practice this summer, but his outside service was shut down for not having the proper permits after a neighbor apparently complained. When asked if Miette’s situation might have been helped under the new resolution, Russ said it could have possibly had a small impact if the owner had submitted a completed application for his outdoor lunch business.
“Is there any risk with approving this?” asked councilmember Gabi Prochaska.
“Aside from false expectations,” responded Billick.
“That’s true,” said Russ.
“The loss of small owner-operators is not a good thing for town,” said Billick. “Finding ways to help them might be something to start thinking about for the long term.”
“I am cautious in doing a gesture-based resolution after hearing tonight that it won’t do much” said councilmember Anna Fenerty. But she moved to approve the resolution taking out a section that would have lifted limits on the number of food trucks and food carts in town.
Citizen Karl Zachar questioned the wisdom of passing the emergency declaration.
“It takes away the potential public comment from neighbors,” he said. “Not having the ability to voice an opinion for a gesture? What are we doing? It is a negative to take away the public’s voice and give it to staff. That’s not why we elected you guys.”
“To your point, we felt frustrated we couldn’t help a local business,” said councilmember Mallika Magner. “Had we had this, it could have helped. So hopefully it is not just symbolic. It could come back again. No one comes to public hearings for liquor licenses.”
“It is not purely symbolic. It could have helped a business that was thriving,” added Prochaska.
The council voted unanimously to approve the emergency declaration.
Council asked town staff to return to the council to consider ending the declaration once the restaurant vacancy rate declines to 2020 levels at about 5%.