After the fire

Even in Cortez, three businesses are not a large fraction of the downtown business district, and the three that burned the morning of Feb. 9 were not big. But in their absence, they loom large.

A gap on one of the prime blocks of Main Street makes Cortez look less prosperous. At a time when small independent businesses struggle to compete in a market dominated by giants, keeping storefronts filled is an uphill challenge, but it is important to a town. The smaller the community, the more important it is.

Yet in business, as in physics, starting is harder than continuing. Chugging along is rarely an optimal business plan (although survival is no small accomplishment), but it is often the path of least resistance. Starting a new business is an entirely different task – one that demands a higher rate of return to balance higher risks.

Restarting a business falls somewhere in between. At best, it is an opportunity to capitalize on lessons learned, to incorporate new ideas that would have been hard to wedge into the former strategy.

But launching a business after a fire is not something that can happen immediately. There is insurance to file, and that may be on hold until the fire is thoroughly investigated. There are decisions about whether, how and where to rebuild because reopening in a vacant building elsewhere is faster than cleaning up and constructing in the same place. For a business, time is money.

A question for the public is how it can support the quick redevelopment of what is now a blackened hole because the entire region benefits from both commerce and appearance.

The trend right now is positive. The Cortez business district is stronger than it has been for many years because of a determined effort to fill storefronts left vacant too long by the poor economy and some poor decisions by their owners. A vibrant restaurant scene and some entertainment have done wonders in revitalizing downtown.

The retail picture is somewhat bleaker, although several bright spots shine through. Overall, supporting downtown retailers requires changing shopping habits back to what they were half a century ago. Will Cortez – or Durango – ever again have a downtown department store that sells socks and bedding, children’s clothes, school shoes, straw hats and winter coats for the whole family?

It could if enough shoppers wanted that, but too often, shopping with any local business is a fourth choice, after the big-box store, the mall in the next town and the vast online universe. Then those same shoppers complain that they cannot get what they want locally. It is a vicious cycle.

Durango faced a similar situation in the 1970s when a fire took almost an entire block of Main Avenue downtown. As such, Durango knows the hard path back to a healthy central business district – and its importance. With that, residents of Durango – and Mancos, Dolores and all of Southwest Colorado – stand ready to support their neighbors and friends in Cortez as they rebuild.

Still, the people of Cortez will get the downtown they want – the one they actually value enough to nurture. Support for private enterprise is extremely strong in Montezuma County and across Southwest Colorado. Here’s how to vote: feet in stores, wallets on counters and a strong commitment to shopping locally, over and over again.

The bottom line: Now is a very good time to patronize local businesses in all of our towns, to help show that they are desirable, viable, profitable and busy.

That is what will attract businesses. In the long run, it is the only thing that will.

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