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ACRA, city try to revive merchants association

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A roomful of Aspen retailers gathered on Friday to discuss how they can turn their ideas for economic revitalization into a collective roar.

The Aspen Chamber Resort Association invited the merchants to the table to discuss reorganizing the Aspen Retail Merchants Association, which hasn’t been active in town since its former president stepped down last winter.

The association had some success reinvigorating the local retail scene in the fall and winter – ideas that included group advertising and periodically keeping mall stores open later at night.

ACRA President Hana Pevny told the merchants Friday she’d like to see that kind of enthusiasm again and that ACRA would be happy to lend its support. She said everyone in town has been impacted by the economy’s downturn.

“When you’re a small community, you really feel it, and when your economy depends on tourism, it’s even worse,” she said. “Last year there was a push for a merchant’s association, and then things fizzled. I felt it was important to try and bring everyone together and really understand what’s going on.”

Over 20 representatives from various businesses attended the meeting, and many expressed frustration with their own ongoing efforts to create shopping excitement.

Shae Singer, owner of Sashae Floral Arts and Gifts and Living the Dog’s Life in Aspen, said she often asks the city if she can put balloons or signs out to advertise a special promotion. And she said she gets turned down.

“The city is so bogged down with the rules. [Former Aspen Retail Merchants Association president] Barry Gordon got told ‘No’ a lot, and he burned out because there’s no open dialogue,” Singer said. “I ask the city, ‘What can we change?’ and they say, ‘Nothing.’ And I ask them, ‘Who can we talk to about this?’ and they say, ‘No one.'”

The city and ACRA are working together to hire a downtown manager to make decisions about retail in the city and create cohesiveness among retailers. But store representatives at the meeting said they’re often distrustful of city government because of past trouble they’ve had planning any changes. City Manager Steve Barwick pointed out the city’s rules are set up to prevent sweeping changes, but that the collective voice of the retailers benefits everyone.

Barwick said he and the city staff would appreciate having some merchants help with the search for a downtown manager. Not knowing what local merchants would like to do to revitalize the local economy is problematic, said city planner Chris Bendon.

“We hear all sorts of things, and we have no idea what you want,” Bendon said. “To have a unified group is great … we’re not retail people.”

The merchants at the meeting gave ACRA and city officials specific ideas for getting visitors into Aspen’s shops, such as a roving ambassador on the streets who could help tourists find stores and events; and promoting Aspen shops at the local farmer’s market. But next the group may need a leader or two to step forward to organize meetings and gather support, Pevny said.

Many of the retailers acknowledged it is a time-intensive role, and that it’s hard to look far into the future.

“We’ve been very fragmented for years, and honest I think it’s been that way because there will be so many people at one meeting, and then just nine people at the next,” said Heather Isberian, co-owner of the Isberian Rug Co. “We’ve never looked at more than how many people were at meetings, and we should have more of a purpose. It’s always been very nearsighted, but we can’t seem to reach that point” of long-range planning.

Andy Modell, owner of the Aspen Catalogue, recommended the group hire a facilitator who could walk the merchants through the process of coming up with leaders and a long-range plan. He said The Aspen Catalogue could pay for one-quarter of the facilitator’s fee, with the hopes of helping the group develop a job description for the downtown manager position.

“Retailers and the restaurants are the most powerful group in town, because they provide the city with sales tax revenue,” Modell said. “If you come together, your voice would never be ignored, ever.”

The retailers will meet again with ACRA on June 26. Retailers who would like to be included in upcoming news or meeting notices can e-mail hpevny@aspenchamber.org.

Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com


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