By Caitlin Switzer
RIDGWAY—(December 18) Gale Ingram knows what it takes to succeed in business—her entrepreneurial career has included stints as the National Sales Director for a prominent educational toy company, as a builder of spec homes, as a property owner and landlord, as a tour company manager in the travel industry—and for the past 18 years, as the owner and operator of Ridgway Office Supply.
She also knows how it feels to watch an industry, and a business, disappear.
“Ridgway Office Supply has survived because of our service, not because of any products that we sell,” Ingram said last week. “There is no way we can sell enough of anything to compete with the big box stores.”
With the economic downturn of 2008, Ingram saw one of the mainstays of her business dwindle—the use of her large-print copy machine, which is used mainly by builders and engineers. And packing and shipping via UPS is no longer as profitable as it once was, in the age of expensive mailing costs and prepaid returns.
“Even in my peak seasons I have never made a living,” laughed Ingram, who owns and rents out part of the building occupied by Ridgway Office Supply, and works as the secretary of several local homeowners’ associations and as the administrator for the Ridgway Area Chamber of Commerce (RACC) to make ends meet. “No more retail after this!”
After all, the office supply business—which Ingram helped to start in Ridgway and purchased shortly after the original owner opted out—is the second industry in which Ingram has worked to disappear.
“As a travel professional, I was trained and very knowledgeable in helping my clients,” she said, noting that thanks to the Internet, travelers are now mostly left to their own devices.
So it is no surprise that, after finally paying for sidewalks and improvements to her own business location in Ridgway’s Trail Town, Ingram is opposed to a possible ballot measure seeking to fund Ridgway’s historic district streetscape improvement plan. The new ballot measure would have asked voters to approve funding in the form of a $3.5 million sales tax increase for improvements to the historic Clinton Street District. The plan, first adopted in 2006, has been placed on hold once again due to concerns among local business owners.
“I am 61 years old, and I have been working 80 hours a week,” Ingram said. “And then this streetscape program comes up. I voted against a sales tax increase in 2005, when they were asking to make capital improvements to the historic Downtown. So far, they have collected $600,000, of which $200,000 was spent on the plan itself and various matching fund requirements.”
Ingram, who would prefer to see voters have the option next April of giving 100 percent of Ridgway’s lodging tax funds to the local Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center as is done in other areas, said there is no reason to raise local sales tax rates. Ridgway’s City sales tax rates are already at 3.6 percent, compared to three percent in the cities of Montrose and Ouray.
“We’re not getting the services,” Ingram said. “We have a volunteer fire department! Besides, I paid for my own landscaping improvements.”
Ingram said she has gone to the recent slate of public meetings concerning the sales tax, and has found most of her fellow business owners also oppose the plan.
Although the plan will not go before voters next April, it has not gone away, noted Ridgway Mayor John Clark, himself a small business owner.
“This would fix our existing drainage problems,” Clark said. “It’s a pretty ambitious project, with curb, gutter and sidewalks throughout the historic district, which is why it would cost so much. People are up in arms over the potential cost increase when they are struggling to survive, and we totally get that.
“But Downtown revitalization must start from the ground up.”
The plan would not only address longtime drainage problems and paving, it would extend around the park and address landscaping in front of local municipal buildings such as the Ridgway Library and Town Hall, he said.
A streetscape committee headed by local business owner Jill Markey and former Texas attorney Paula James has been hosting a series of public meetings, to determine public sentiment for implementation of the streetscape project. The fear expressed by many business owners was the primary reason for the plan being placed on hold, Clark said.
“In Colorado, when you finance something through a tax assessment, businesses are assessed at a much higher rate than residences,” Clark said, “which is something we have struggled with, and the main reason we have been talking about this.”
Clark pointed out the economic downturn has impacted property tax rates to the point where business owners would be unlikely to feel much of an impact from the assessment even if a ballot measure were passed.
“We live in interesting economic times,” Clark said. “We got our numbers from the Assessor, who has told us that everybody’s assessed valuation should be going down, so actually they would not be paying more out of pocket—they will actually be paying less in most cases.
“But I think people are afraid.”
Some business owners who do not live in Ridgway would not have been eligible to vote, but are welcomed to attend public meetings and provide input, Clark said.
“It is the American political system,” Clark said. “You vote where you live. But if you consider Ridgway your home, we encourage you to come to our meetings and get involved.”
The possibility of paying more in taxes is not the only reason some Clinton Street businesses have expressed concern, he noted.
“Some of our more successful businesses actually worry more about the impact of the construction,” Clark said, noting that the streetscape project is by no means dead.
“We have already paid for the plan, and the engineering designs,” he said. “But maybe we can approach the more aesthetic elements incrementally, through a more piecemeal process.
“We are going to hold some more meetings, and will ask some of our more energetic people to get involved,” he said. “We will work through this.”
The need for more public involvement was echoed by Markey, who owns a business located in the heart of the historic district.
“I am in support of this plan,” Markey said. “We keep hearing so much about how our businesses are struggling, but I wish they could see the bigger picture. This project started in 2006, and we have had hundreds of hours of public input—not just from a small group, but from the whole community.”
Responses to a recent online survey generated a number of comments from business owners fearful of a tax increase, she said.
“Mill levies are complicated,” Markey said. “But Paula and I spent hours going over the information and figuring out the property tax impacts. Even if this plan were to go on the ballot and get passed, taxes would not be as high as they are right now.”
One reason to move forward with the plan sooner rather than later is that interest rates are now at a historic low, Markey said.
“Everybody says that our infrastructure needs work,” she said. “This has been the vision of our town for six years; do we keep just keep on barely hanging on? All of the studies I have read show that when the town center does well, the whole community does well. I keep hearing people say, ‘this plan is not going to help me.’ But with a greater vision, you can see the bigger picture. Ridgway has such a great sense of community—just ask anyone who has had a baby here—people really step up to the plate. This is a wonderful place to live. I wish people could see just a little into the future, and realize that this is not just about the businesses in the historic district.
“This is for everybody—our community, our town, our county, and our visitors.”
Markey said that on Noel Night this year, she spent time walking around the historic Clinton Street district.
“I went over to Kevin and Caroline Lescroart’s Old Schoolhouse Emporium (recently relocated from its former Amelia Street location), and I just had this beautiful vision of what could be,” she said. “Clinton Street, all lit up, with people walking all around.
“One thing that has been so positive about all this is that people are finally talking about what needs to happen, and what could be,” Markey said.