City eyes ‘downtown catalyst’ |

City eyes ‘downtown catalyst’

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A proposed “downtown catalyst” ” a position to be funded with a surcharge on business license fees ” will be pitched to the Aspen City Council on Monday.

Hiring the catalyst, for lack of a better job title, is among the recommendations from a team of retail consultants who will present their final report to the council Monday.

The consultants have recommended the post to organize downtown merchants and property owners and take the lead on a host of steps the team has suggested to improve the core as a retail center and gathering place.

“Our expectation is that this catalyst will begin kind of ticking off a number of the projects that have been named by the consulting team,” said Julie Ann Woods, the city’s director of community development.

The report also urges the formation of a Business Improvement District ” a push that has to come from property owners within the district, who would face an additional tax or assessment.

The district could eventually pay the salary of the catalyst, but for a one-year trial run, city staff has recommended a $60 surcharge on business license fees to finance the position.

Since businesses just renewed their licenses in December, the council will be asked to front the money, which will be recouped with license renewals a year from now, Woods said.

The surcharge will generate roughly $100,000 ” enough to fund the $65,000 to $75,000 salary for the post with some money left over to help market Highlands Village, whose merchants also pay for a city business license.

The $60 surcharge works out to $5 a month, Woods noted.

“The question to the community is, are you willing to risk five dollars a month on this experiment to see if we can have a healthier downtown core?” she said.

A number of the physical improvements to the core recommended in the consultants’ report, costing up to an estimated $250,000, would be the city’s financial respon-sibility, Woods added.

“If the council’s going to put up a significant amount of cash in terms of public improvements, the business community has to participate,” she said. “We just think everybody need to contribute to this thing.”

The council debated the need to hire a downtown manager last year, but backed off on the plan and decided to hire the consultants ” roughly a $78,000 expenditure ” as a first step.

Consultants Ford Frick of BBC Research and Consulting in Denver and Henry Beer of CommArts, a Boulder-based design firm, spent time in Aspen last fall interviewing various players in city government and the business community, and leading a series of workshops with merchants and others.

Many of the conclusions and recommendations in their published report have already been presented at the workshops.

They suggested a more visible Visitor’s Center ” something the city is already pursuing at a Main Street site ” and recommended bringing the Aspen Art Museum into the core.

Other ideas that emerged in their presentations included kiosks to help visitors find their way around; a wintertime firepit that becomes an outdoor kitchen for community dinners in the summer months; and an “incubator alley” where small startup businesses set up shop against the back walls of buildings, creating a marketlike feel.

The team suggested better use of public spaces for seating and gatherings, loosening up restrictions in the retail core to let property owners improve storefronts and lighting, and to let merchants display items outside their doors.

The consultants accuse the city’s strict controls of contributing to “a forced urban dullness even in the most attractive buildings.”

After a quarter-century of tight controls, “the downtown is growing stale and ossified,” the report notes.

“This is not a plea for unbridled free markets and the elimination of all regulation, but the Aspen downtown desperately needs retail, design and development experimentation with the acknowledgment that not all experimentation will be successful,” the report concludes. “At this point, any change, all of which will ultimately face a self-regulatory market test, will be a breath of fresh air.”

On the sticky issue of offices in prime, ground-floor retail spots in the core, the consultants suggest existing offices be allowed to remain through their current leases, but that the city prohibit additional ones in a designated commercial zone.

More short-term parking in the core is another issue the city must find some way of addressing, according to the consultants.

Additional height on downtown buildings to accommodate more residences in the core is something the community should embrace, as well, the report concludes.

“The downtown, like any urban area downtown, benefits from residents on the streets. Even second-home condominiums are preferable to no additional housing,” the report states.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is]