REI comes to the mountains
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 (email@example.com) of Silverthorne writes a monthly column for The Denver Post.