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December 17, 2012
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Stores face challenges in downtown Basalt

BASALT - The owner of a longtime retail shop in Basalt is closing her doors this winter because she said she doesn't see the prospects of operating a business downtown improving anytime soon.

Linda Hacker is closing the Kitchenstore of Basalt, a shop that has been in business for nearly 25 years at the same location. It was the Kitchen Cupboard before Hacker bought it 71⁄2 years ago. All merchandise is marked down 40 percent in an effort to sell everything during the holidays.

Hacker said she had "three, maybe four good years" before the recession took its toll on Basalt. She believes other factors such as competition from Willits Town Center and lack of effective focus on downtown by the town government and the Basalt Chamber of Commerce helped doom her chances. And downtown landlords aren't being realistic with rents, she claimed.

She was hoping that her store's year-to-year sales would be at least flat last summer, but even that didn't happen.

"I've been basically losing money and paying my landlord," she said.

Hacker acknowledged that some retail shops might be snapping out of the recession. Shoppers seem to be spending money on clothing, for example, because they need to keep updating their wardrobes. But people don't replace their dining sets and pans as often, so her store depends on attracting new tourists and second-home owners. Basalt isn't attracting as many people as it did pre-recession.

"From my perspective, no end in site" to the tough times downtown, Hacker said. "There's going to be a lot of empty space."

Not all downtown retailers share her view. Tracy Bennett is celebrating her 20th year as owner of Midland Shoe on Basalt's main street. The downtown core has been an effective place to do business in the past because of a great mix of restaurants and shops, Bennett said. It's got a charm that attracts people.

The recession and last winter's low amount of snow definitely hurt, but Bennett believes downtown's long-term prospects can be bright. The future, she said, hinges on development of a boutique hotel.

The redevelopment plan for the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park includes a proposal for a 120-room Hyatt Place Hotel. The plan is under review by the Basalt Town Council. Bennett, a former councilwoman and current member of Basalt's Planning and Zoning Commission, said the biggest action the town government can take to help the business community is approve that hotel.

"We just need bodies here," Bennett said.

She is undaunted by the development of Willits Town Center, three miles from downtown. The town approved 500,000 square feet of commercial and residential space in the Willits core. Only a small fraction of it has been developed. It's evolving into a commercial hub with the opening of Whole Foods Market as the anchor tenant in August.

"I would never move over there because my rent would probably double," Bennett said.

The two commercial cores also have a different feel, Bennett said. It's more laid back and more charming downtown. Willits is oriented more around high volumes of traffic.

"Willits is one thing. We're another," she said.

Michelle Lowe has experienced life as a business owner in both Willits Town Center and downtown in recent years. She bought a large space in Willits to open Corky Woods, a green department store featuring environmentally friendly products from clothing to cleaning supplies.

When the development of Whole Foods stalled in 2007, business at her store dried up. She lost the space when she couldn't pay the mortgage. Her store resurfaced this summer at a small but prime downtown Basalt site.

"I am learning the biggest lesson in my life in retail - location, location, location," Lowe said.

She predicts there will be a lot of changes in both downtown and Willits as the areas develop and evolve. Downtown goes through cycles where it thrives and struggles, but it will always have a special appeal, she said.

"Downtown Basalt is always going to be historic downtown Basalt," Lowe said.

Retailing in the Roaring Fork Valley is different from areas where the critical mass is much greater. Retailers must be built to survive offseasons.

"We don't have the bodies here," Lowe said. "We have a smaller amount of wealthier bodies."

The interest in Willits Town Center is understandable with the hype the opening of Whole Foods generated, Lowe added. Still, she wonders how businesses will survive there given the rents the owner charges.

Commercial rents downtown range between $20 and $28 per square foot, while Willits Town Center is seeking as much as $40 per square foot for prime space, according to various sources.

Lowe, an interior designer who got into retail right before the recession, said she is surprised any retail operation can make it in the Roaring Fork Valley given the rents and the seasonal and uncertain nature of tourism.

"Businesses come and go a lot, understandably," she said.

Hacker's concerns about business viability downtown have plenty of fuel. Basalt Bike and Ski moved from its Midland Avenue spot to one on East Valley Road in the heart of Willits Town Center last summer. Owner Joel Mischke said at the time that he needed room to grow, which the downtown site couldn't offer. He also wanted the visibility of the site near Whole Foods Market.

Another popular sporting-goods retailer is following suit. Bristlecone Mountain Sports will move to a prime location in Willits Town Center in February. While it's not currently located downtown, it's in the other hub of Basalt, so that represents another relocation from one side of town to another.

The Riverwalk building on the east end of Midland Avenue is perpetually plagued with vacancies. Closures of other businesses, such as Midland Baking Co., have created vacancies elsewhere.

Hacker's Kitchenstore of Basalt is located about a half block off Midland Avenue on Basalt Center Circle. Hacker said she believes market conditions warrant a rent of $15 per square foot. Instead she pays "in the low $20s" for 1,400 square feet.

The real losers from the exodus of businesses from downtown and the closures are local shoppers, Hacker said.

"The last three or four weeks, it's been a little town meeting in my store," Hacker said. "The people that are coming in are locals. They're heartbroken, really."

She wishes that town government officials were part of the discussion. Hacker said a lot of local residents are still facing tough financial times, which she isn't sure the town government realizes. Sales tax revenues soared 17 percent for Basalt in September compared with the same month last year. For the fiscal year to date, December through September, the town's sales tax revenues are up 6.3 percent.

While sales tax revenue reports paint a big picture, individual businesses could be performing drastically differently. Basalt's overall numbers have grown with the presence of Whole Foods Market, according to reports.

Hacker questions if enough is being done to promote downtown. She applauds the efforts of the Chamber of Commerce but questions how effective the efforts have really been. As for Town Hall, she wonders why more hasn't been done to create a direct entrance to downtown.

"It's been eight years of trying to tell people how to get here," Hacker said. "If they wanted to see the town hidden, they've done a good job."

She wants the town to take its additional tax revenues and invest them in "cute" signs to direct people downtown, advertise to promote the town's business community and recruit businesses to locate in Basalt.

Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said the council is aware of the tough time businesses are facing.

"I think we're doing exactly what we should do," Whitsitt said. Former Town Manager Bill Kane "got the ball rolling" with a couple of major projects, she said, working with the buyer of the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park to coax that deal. He also worked with the Aspen Valley Foundation to find a site in Basalt for a "continuous care" facility. Pan and Fork is under review. The senior housing will soon start review.

New Town Manager Mike Scanlon has some "great ideas" designed for downtown to "make it fun and draw attention to it," Whitsitt said.

The mayor said it is up to individual business owners whether they feel Willits or downtown is best for them. The council cannot promote one area over another.

"You want the businesses to thrive. That's what the bottom line is," Whitsitt said.

Heather Smith, president and CEO of the Basalt Chamber of Commerce, said she doesn't believe the development of Willits has hurt downtown retailers.

"There has been some attrition, but overall I think the Willits development is bringing new people into Basalt as a whole," Smith wrote in an email. "Consumers may be on a destination to Whole Foods, but we've found a lot of people realizing there is more to Basalt and coming into downtown to shop, as well.

"I'd like to think the new highway signage has helped, as well," Smith added. The chamber teamed with the town to install some new directional signs promoting downtown and other parts of Basalt last summer.

Smith also noted that BASH - the Basalt Arts and Social Happenings committee - was formed in 2011 in an effort to stimulate vitality in Basalt.

"I do believe it fulfills that mission and brings people downtown on the second Saturday of each month," she wrote.

"The committee has determined that there will be three events next summer - June, July, August - and I believe the June (event) will be the car show again," Smith continued.

The chamber-sponsored free concerts in Lions Park downtown and Triangle Park in Willits will return next summer.

"I'm not sure the events increase revenue for the retailers and restaurants, but they are a great way to showcase Basalt to people that come into town for them, and hopefully those visitors will remember 'that cute shop in Basalt that sells XXXX' when they're looking for a special gift," Smith wrote.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Dec 17, 2012 06:06AM Published Dec 17, 2012 01:12AM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.