Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Dead wrong for downtown

The hammer is raised, the stake is aimed and Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall and City Council members Larry Helzel and Curtis Kemp are poised to drive it through the beating heart of the business district.

The dismemberment of the district will not be quick, painless or merciful.

On Monday, the three public officials made it clear that unless one of them has an epiphany, they will vote as a block in early December to throw out 45 years of zoning that has separated warehouse and light-industrial uses from the district in order to accommodate a new "grocery" store.

Even so, the council found it could not agree on the definition of "grocery" store, because these days it can mean anything from a classic corner market to Walmart's new, smaller "neighborhood stores" that sell everything from soup to ski wear.

Helzel faced down a majority of downtown business owners and council members Baird Gourlay and Nina Jonas who opposed the change. He told them that their business strategies have been wrong, that stripping away the protection of zoning from the downtown will set things right and position the city for growth.

He seemed perfectly comfortable with destroying the downtown in order to save it. He was so comfortable he ignored the tearful testimony of the new Roxy's Market owner whose investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the commercial core will be jeopardized by the city's rule change before her doors even open.

If Helzel's illogic had prevailed in the Wood River Valley previously, the Idaho Transportation Department would have punched a freeway through the valley in the late 1970s, split Hailey in half and made the centerpiece of Ketchum's downtown a cloverleaf intersection. It would have been fast and convenient, paid for by someone else—the federal government—and would have created a lot of construction jobs for a while. All are the same arguments used to justify the zoning change.

Helzel said he believes that government shouldn't regulate business and that investors alone should drive development.

If that bit of illogic had prevailed in the valley, the highway would be lined with strip malls, hillsides would be scarred with roads and homes, big box stores would long ago have killed off the valley's small businesses, no homeowner would be safe from noxious industries moving in next door and the Big Wood River would have been dredged from beginning to end.

Helzel claimed that supermarkets couldn't be built without cheap land, a surburban myth that, if true, would mean that New York City, San Francisco or Hong Kong would have no grocery stores.

Helzel's business-at-any-cost, at-any-place beliefs may be wrong, but enacted, they could leave many businesses dead.

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