Aspen Highlands Village: desolate or delightful?
On a Friday afternoon in late July, a few people stroll across the bricked mall at Aspen Highlands Village, but the plaza is empty.In most of the stores music plays to drown out the silence, and shop owners appear pleased to see any new faces wandering through.Compared to the summer congestion in downtown Aspen, it would be easy to call this neighborhood desolate. But storekeepers say summer business hasn’t been too rough for the base village just a few miles up Maroon Creek Road. It may even be getting better.”We have a very loyal following in the mornings from employees who work in the village, people who live in the affordable housing and members of the Ritz Carlton Club,” said Olga Tenenbaum, co-owner of the Endeavor Internet Cafe and Bar. “And in the afternoon we get people who are hot and tired, they’ve done their hike at the Maroon Bells, and they want to relax.”Although Highlands is known as the locals’ favorite ski hill in the winter, merchants at the large village have been trying to capture more summer business for the past several years. A slew of special events were planned this summer to attract crowds of locals and tourists, from a farmer’s market on Tuesdays to the Exotic Car Expo on Aug. 13.
The merchants’ association is marketing themselves as the “Gateway to the Maroon Bells.” And many hope that the thousands who buy tickets for the bus up to the famous peaks at Four Mountain Sports in the village will stick around and check out their shops. They’ve hired concierges who greet visitors getting off the bus, and who point out nearby businesses.”For me, that’s made a big difference from last summer – business is less sporadic,” Tenenbaum said of her shop that’s tucked away into a corner of the plaza.At the Aspen Artists Cooperative, owner West Townsend has sold work from 44 local artists, and on Friday sold eight pieces of art to one customer. Sitting along the plaza Friday afternoon, he was considering closing the store for the rest of the day while he chatted with an artist.”Business comes in waves, but I think the only traffic that comes through here is from the Maroon Bells,” he said. “They say about 180,000 people have to buy tickets to the Bells here in the summer. I’ve also done well with Ritz Carlton Club members.”But Townsend said Highlands Village still has a long way to go in terms of attracting crowds in the summer. He’d like to see the area turned into a magnet for the arts community, with more galleries of local work.The shopkeepers aren’t against laughing at themselves – Townsend has created ads for the local newspapers that read “Come visit the dark village,” with “dark” crossed out and the word “art” written above it. It’s a parody of bumper stickers he’s seen around town that say “I ski the dark village.”
“We’re doing as much as we can, it’s just that when we’re only three-quarters full, it’s tough to market the village,” Townsend said.But merchants have a few reasons to be optimistic about empty storefronts being filled soon. The Harvey Meadow Gallery will open in the village on Aug. 8, custom ski boot fitter Jim Lindsey is getting his own shop, and a pilates studio is on the way.At the end of the day, that’s what Aspen Highlands remains – a place for fledgling entrepreneurs to get their start at reasonable rent. Rents are so high in downtown Aspen that Highlands Village created huge opportunities for people wanting to try out a business without losing their shirts, said Seth Hollar, co-owner of The Wine Spot.So any negative publicity about the village in the summer doesn’t help, owners say.”It hurts when people come out and state the obvious about this being a ghost town, or when the Crowns [owners of the Aspen Skiing Co.] call us the Dark Village,” Hollar said. “It hurts the guys out here doing business. It is what it is, but these people are trying to give it a go and deserve some positive reinforcement.”The Wine Spot is about to celebrate three years in business, but Hollar said his customers aren’t the crowd heading up to the Maroon Bells. The wine shop has appeared at the Food & Wine Magazine Classic twice, and has gained out-of-state business as a result, as well as business from local wine connoisseurs and some walk-ins from the Ritz.
The business is growing as a result of the out-of-state customers, Hollar said, and they wouldn’t have stayed afloat without that growth.Customers are regularly flocking to Iguana’s Bar and Grill, said assistant manager Sasha Berg, because of their weekly events. Locals flock for two kegs worth of free beer on “Wobbly Wednesdays,” for half-priced fajitas on Thursdays, and for live music on Fridays.”This year seems busier than any other year,” said Berg, who has worked at the restaurant for four summers. The local crowd is a big one, but the restaurant is also netting tourists by handing out coupons for one free beer at the Maroon Bells bus stop.Summer may not be their busiest season by a long shot, but the shop owners are keeping their heads above water. Winter will bring the new Deep Temerity lift to the area, and possibly a new buzz about the ski hill.”We’re not going to make millions, but I’d still want to be at Highlands anyway,” Tenenbaum said.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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