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Bringing a smile to downtown

Janet Urquhart

Ask Aspen’s downtown merchants what the town needs in the way of a vibrant commercial core and they’d probably universally agree: Lots of people shopping and dining.And more parking.But asking them what government should or shouldn’t do to remake downtown Aspen – recently described as “ossified” by a team of retail consultants – is likely to produce a range of opinions. Sorting them out is Lisa Baker’s job.She is the city of Aspen’s “downtown catalyst.” The job, and the title, evolved during two years’ worth of discussion at City Hall. For a six-month trial that began in April, Baker is the go-between, the liaison between the city and downtown merchants.The retail consultants produced a host of ideas to jump-start downtown Aspen, in part by loosening restrictive rules and improving the space physically. The follow-through is Baker’s assignment.”I’m a catalyst. My job is to determine what needs to be done and then go to the powers that be and make it happen,” Baker said. “It’s been great. I’ve been very busy.”Change is already evident, whether it’s Baker’s work or the City Council charging ahead. In some cases, it’s as simple as music wafting out of a store, from the country tunes at Kemo Sabe to the eclectic offerings of the Zélé Music Café. In the old, stodgy days, a zoning officer would likely have stopped by to say: “Turn it down.”Other signs of the times:• Sandwich board signs outside shops and restaurants in the public right of way – a temporary experiment in the core that won city approval with one council member’s directive: “Keep an eye on the tackiness factor.”• Blooming business. The city launched Color the Core, handing out funding to 15 businesses for flower displays. A contest to recognize money well spent is still to come.• Restaurant lease rates to use the public malls for outdoor dining have been cut by 38 percent. Small, temporary food-vending operations outside a shop’s front door no longer trigger employee-housing requirements and other “mitigation.”• Sixteen tables with chairs and flowerpots appeared last week on the pedestrian malls. Already, one Commercial Core and Lodging Commission member has said, “We need more.” The additional seating, a $16,000 investment, is all about “dwell time” – getting people to hang out downtown.Recently, Baker and other city officials, along with lighting consultant Robert Sardinsky, got together after dark to look at lighting on the malls – everything from lighting up building facades to illuminating the streams at night. “The jury’s still out on that,” she said. Mall merchants have told Baker they don’t want “glitzy lights.””We want to create a better experience on the malls,” she said. “That’s not necessarily more lighting, but different lighting.”Baker has also been busy drafting a request for proposals, or RFP, for a “dwell architect.” That is, someone who will create sort of a master plan for the downtown, rather than taking a piecemeal approach to the consultants’ recommendations – a permanent fire pit, kiosks that show tourists where to find what they’re looking for, that sort of thing.The consultants suggested Aspen offer something to help tourists find their way around. Forty-five percent of the respondents to a survey Baker distributed early on endorsed something along those lines, as well.”We [locals] think Aspen’s pretty small, but people in town for the first time here – they may not know how to find the Wheeler Opera House,” she said.Her survey identified various issues of concern to merchants. Baker considers it her role to address them, but solutions to some of them may be tough to come by.”Parking – that seems to be universally a thorn in people’s side,” she said. “People have accepted paid parking; it’s that there’s not enough – that we need to find a solution.”Perhaps an easier proposal to tackle is coordinated business hours during peak seasons – keeping shop doors open for a more interesting downtown experience during the evening.Baker has scheduled a July 14 meeting for downtown merchants. Coordinated hours will be one order of business.”It’s not something that can necessarily be enforced. It’s clearly voluntary,” she added.Her survey also indicates a willingness among merchants to get involved in citywide promotions during the off-seasons.”People really love special events – overwhelmingly believe special events are good for business,” she said.But in typical Aspen fashion, there is little agreement on what kind of events the city ought to pursue.Scanning the results of her survey, Baker reads: “The ones that worked were X Games, Filmfest. The ones that didn’t work were X Games, Filmfest.”At the end of the day, the city is trying to offer things for all types of businesses,” she said.Whether Baker’s efforts will have an effect may be difficult to judge, she conceded.Aspen is clearly enjoying the results of a rebounding economy – an upswing in tourism that has little to do with extra tables on the malls. Nonetheless, Baker said her efforts have been well-received, even from those in the business community who questioned the need for her position.”I’ve gotten very positive feedback from everyone,” she said.”You know, I can’t bring people to town, but what I can do is make the shopping experience better – try to make life easier for the business owner.”Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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