Despite uncertainty about anchor, Willits retailers upbeat |

Despite uncertainty about anchor, Willits retailers upbeat

Scott CondonThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

BASALT- Business owners at Willits Town Center remain bullish about the Basalt development despite uncertainty about Whole Foods Markets’ future there.From the oldest business to the newest, owners said they have no regrets about locating at Willits, but they also are eager for the developer to enlist Whole Foods or a similar type of anchor tenant to draw customers.The Willits Town Center developer, Chicago-based Joseph Freed & Associates (JFA), defaulted on a contract with Whole Foods on June 1. The developer was supposed to provide the shell of a building; Whole Foods was going to finish the interior of the 44,000-square-foot space and open late this year or early 2010.JFA’s financing disappeared and construction on the space stopped in September. Will Paradise, Whole Foods’ market regional president, said last week the grocer remains interested in locating in Basalt, but in a smaller space at a more favorable rate. The grocer and developer are expected to revive negotiations in the next few weeks.That will require about eight retail shops and restaurants to tough it out for an undetermined time without a large anchor neighbor.The delay is understandable, given the state of the economy, said Jim Polep, owner of Montecito Loft and Home. “The recession is hurting everybody,” he said. “We’ll get through it.”Polep was the first business to open in the core of Willits Town Center when he relocated his interior design store from Aspen 2 1/2 years ago. He said he was intrigued by the vision of original Willits Town Center developer Michael Lipkin, who sold to JFA but remains a partner in the development. Polep said he felt the best business opportunities were emerging in the midvalley. He jumped at the chance to buy his commercial space rather than rent in Aspen.Polep moved into Willits before Whole Foods inked a deal to locate there. He remains confident the deal with the grocer will get done.Whole Foods is in “the catbird’s seat,” Polep said. JFA needs it as an anchor tenant to make the rest of the project attractive to tenants. “They’ll do whatever it takes to get them here,” Polep said. “It’ll happen. There’s no question in my mind.”Kathy Rohlwing saw so much promise at Willits that she signed a lease to open a business there despite the recession. Rohlwing and partner Amy McDonnell plan to open Kitchen Collage by July 1 in a 3,700-square-foot space facing the potential supermarket.”Whole Foods Market is very important to us. It’s a drawing card,” said Rohlwing.She opened a Kitchen Collage in the Eagle Valley town of Edwards 13 1/2 years ago in the Riverwalk project, similar to Willits Town Center. Some people doubted they would be successful, she said, and now some observers cannot believe they are opening another store during a recession. But Rohlwing said she feels the uniqueness of the store, which sells a wide variety of cooking and entertainment goods, combined with its location and service will spell success.”We are going in on a matter of trust and faith that Whole Foods is going in there, or another [store] of that type,” Rohlwing said. While she is confident Kitchen Collage can attract shoppers as a destination, it also is important to have an anchor tenant like Whole Foods. Like Polep, Rohlwing said she understands the economic forces that created the delay and trusts that it will still work out when the economy improves.”When you go into business, you have to be optimistic,” she said.Michelle Lowe was optimistic enough to open Corky Woods, The Green Department store, in November despite the economic challenges that were unfolding and growing uncertainty over Whole Foods. She said Willits Town Center is one of the most viable retail locations in the valley. She felt it was the right site for her store, which sells clothing, furniture and other products from natural or recycled materials.Lowe said she believes Whole Foods would attract the same type of customers she is targeting, and if a deal cannot be arranged with Whole Foods, JFA must sign a similar anchor tenant to make Willits Town Center successful.”A Sunflower Market would be great choice since it would bring more natural and organic products and may be able to support more local produce and sources,” Lowe said. “It is going to take a retailer with some consumer recognition to get more retailers into the development, which is definitely crucial to it’s long term success.”In the short run, she wants more tenants brought in to create a critical mass of shoppers. The development also needs more signs, a sentiment echoed by Polep.The fate of some restaurants at Willits Town Center were sealed without influence from Whole Foods. Crave Kitchen closed late this winter. Its future is uncertain. Just down Willits’ restaurant row, El Korita is booming. Two years after relocating from a smaller space near Movieland, customers are often flowing out the door of the Mexican restaurant even on many weekday nights.”We are doing well. We are doing fine,” owner Beto Gamboa said. Nevertheless, Whole Foods or another anchor would add to his security level. Location and successful neighbors are keys to a successful restaurant.”Business brings business, you know,” he

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