REI comes to the moun­tains

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Steve Lip­sher

For years now, I have railed against the in­tru­sion of big-box stores and chain out­lets into my moun­tain com­mu­nity.

The pre­dictable as­sort­ment of fast-food “drive-thru” lanes, com­mon-as-crows re­tail out­lets, re­mark­ably bland ca­sual-din­ing restau­rant chains and branded home-im­prove­ment and home­fur­nish­ing stores re­flect a creep­ing sub­ur­ban­iza­tion and a ho­mog­e­niza­tion of our cul­ture: No mat­ter where you go, you’re al­ways in the same place.

With the re­cent an­nounce­ment that out­door-re­tail gi­ant REI is mov­ing into Dil­lon, how­ever, I find my­self con­fronting a dilemma. I love REI. I love the pos­si­bil­ity of ad­ven­ture that un­folds as soon as you pull the ice-ax door han­dles and are sur­rounded by the end­less ar­ray of gear and cloth­ing and guide­books and trail food.

I love the com­pany ethic that closes the stores on Black Fri­day — tra­di­tion­ally the busiest day of the year for re­tail­ers — to en­cour­age its em­ploy­ees and cus­tomers to spend the day out­side.

I love that it ex­hibits an en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial con­scious­ness and of­fers a solid, no-ques­tions-asked re­fund pol­icy if your pur­chase doesn’t meet your ex­pec­ta­tions.

(It used to be a life­time guar­an­tee, which re­cently prompted me to ques­tion jok­ingly whether it would be eth­i­cal to bring back a se­verely loved, 30-year-old REI Half Dome tent with sev­eral tears, two bro­ken poles and a wonky zip­per af­ter sleep­ing in it for hun­dreds of nights in the back­coun­try. In­stead, I bought some re­pair tape and paid to have the poles and zip­per fixed — good for an­other 30 years.)

I joined the REI co-op so long ago that I prac­ti­cally have a sin­gle-digit mem­ber­ship num­ber. I cel­e­brate the re­ceipt of my an­nual div­i­dend as if it’s a hol­i­day. And rou­tinely I plan vis­its to the Den­ver flag­ship store when I know that I’ve got time to kill — and room on my credit card.

So, like the char­ac­ters in Or­well’s “An­i­mal Farm,” I find my­self think­ing that all big boxes are equal — but some are more equal than oth­ers — and I am wrestling with my own sense of val­ues.

On one hand, REI will be mov­ing into a big cav­ity left va­cant by the bank­ruptcy of Sports Au­thor­ity — an­other chain store with sim­i­lar but not iden­ti­cal prod­ucts.

On the other, I worry that REI’s pres­ence will un­der­mine my friend Scott Wescott’s store, Wilder­ness Sports, lo­cated just across U.S. 6. It has been the go-to place in the area for out­door-re­cre­ation gear since it was founded by the fam­ily of an­other friend, Tom Jones, in 1976.

It is such a part of the fab­ric of the com­mu­nity that it an­nu­ally spon­sors a team in the lo­cal moun­tain-bike race se­ries (and lets me com­pete on its be­half, de­spite my lack­lus­ter re­sults), and it’s not un­com­mon to see lo­cals wear­ing fa­mil­iar used cloth­ing sold at its up­stairs con­sign­ment shop by other lo­cals.

For his part, Wescott doesn’t com­plain and takes a philo­soph­i­cal ap­proach to the en­try of an­other com­peti­tor in the mar­ket. “We might have to fo­cus more on cer­tain parts of our busi­ness where we have an ad­van­tage and less on oth­ers where we can’t com­pete,” he said, ac­knowl­edg­ing that he, too, likes REI and is a long­time mem­ber of the co-op.

Like me, he does bris­tle at the no­tion that the town is grant­ing REI a hefty re­bate in sales tax — up to $600,000 over 10 years — that is not avail­able to ex­ist­ing busi­nesses like his.

Along with the abil­ity to pur­chase its mer­chan­dise in such quan­ti­ties that it de­mands hefty bulk dis­counts, the tax break for a na­tional chain like REI tilts the play­ing field away from the small, in­de­pen­dent mer­chants — not just here, but in com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try.

“They get that be­cause it’s an ex­pec­ta­tion, and it’s an ex­pec­ta­tion be­cause it’s given to them,” Wescott said.

Quite frankly, if big com­pa­nies like REI want to tap into these mar­kets, they can af­ford to set up camp un­der the same terms as ev­ery­one else, rather than rel­e­gat­ing the Wilder­ness Sports of the world to the — sorry about this — past tents. Steve Lip­sher (slip­sher@com­cast.net) of Sil­ver­thorne writes a monthly col­umn for The Den­ver Post.

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