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Tayer: Message to Council: Focus on Economic Vitality

March 29, 2024

Originally published by BizWest, March 29, 2024.

You might expect the Boulder Chamber, with the mission of supporting business success and economic vitality, would want our City Council to join us in attending to the strength of our business community. It’s a regular refrain, for sure. That is why, every year around this time, we offer input on business and economic needs prior to the council’s annual planning retreat. This year, though, the message is different: Given the challenges our businesses face, along with the impacts on our economy and community, we’re asking the City Council for a holistic focus on economic vitality.

As stated in the Boulder Chamber’s pre-retreat letter to the City Council, this isn’t a Chicken Little — “The sky is falling” — appeal. We continue to have a relatively robust and resilient economy. However, pressures — such as the dramatic rise in property taxes, regional competition, property crime, and commercial vacancies — are creating a severe drag on local business success. At the same time, our businesses are struggling to absorb costs and operations adjustments associated with a litany of new regulations at the state and local levels, including mandated family leave and employee retirement programs, plastic bans, and city code changes.

It’s against this background that advancing business success and achieving broader economic vitality goals must be a priority for the City Council’s work, with the following list of measures the Boulder Chamber advocates for it to tackle in the coming year:

Fill our empty offices: Boulder’s commercial office vacancies are hovering in the high teens across the community to the 30% range in our downtown. This condition reflects a national shift in remote working conditions but also is the consequence of unrelated but controllable factors from enormously escalating property taxes to the general dilapidated condition of certain public spaces. From the Boulder Chamber’s preliminary discussions with our commercial property stakeholders and business interests, we shared with the City Council a few suggested solutions, but we will be digging deeper into this issue as a means of turning the corner toward filling empty offices.

Development review and permit process improvements: The city’s Planning and Development Services Department has made appreciable strides to reduce development review and permit approval processing times. Still, years of overbearing regulatory standards, unnecessary process steps and clear misfires between community goals and code conditions are restraining our ability to house a wider diversity of residents and address business needs. Untangling this Gordian Knot will take consistent focus, with City Council encouragement and support for the P&DS team to continue its improvement efforts.

Workforce housing: With the passage of Boulder County Issue 1B and available funding through Colorado Proposition 123, there is an unparalleled opportunity for the city of Boulder to maximize its leverage of existing funding toward addressing our housing needs. The Boulder Chamber is committed to partnering with the city in securing our fair share of those funds. At the same time, we’re asking the City Council to reduce the impractically high Inclusionary Housing fee and to end the practice of penalizing building development projects for having fourth or fifth stories.

Homelessness solutions: We recognize homelessness as a human crisis, but we can’t ignore the ramifications for our businesses and economy. The repeated stories of property damage, public harassment, and failed commercial property deals associated with unhoused individuals are intolerable, as are the circumstances that led many to a life on the streets. Our Homelessness Solutions Policy Framework establishes clear guidelines for balanced action in our approach to homelessness and its associated impacts, including housing options, mental health services and effective enforcement measures. The city must take action, but we also support efforts to secure funding investment and programmatic engagement from surrounding municipalities, as well as county, state and federal sources.

Public safety: We cannot accept the criminal behavior that has reared its head in our community. That is why we staunchly supported the Reimagine Policing Plan in 2023 and urge the City Council to ensure there are sufficient public safety personnel hired to implement the plan. We also support measures, many offered by our partners at Downtown Boulder, such as permanent funding for the pilot Downtown Ambassador Program and consistent enforcement of criminal activity and quality-of-life violations.

Yes, now is the time to focus on building a foundation of support for business success through a holistic approach to economic vitality. The measures featured here are just some of the high leverage steps for the City Council to take in that direction. Working together, we can lift our community far beyond the shadow of economic uncertainty.