Glenwood conference: Now is time to rebuild downtown areas

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Downtown Glenwood Springs appears to be doing what is necessary to take a “growing” business district and move it toward “maturity.”

Speaking on the last day of the Downtown Colorado Inc. (DCI) conference at the Hotel Colorado on Friday, Brad Segal of Progressive Urban Management Associates described the various life cycles of business districts.

Like small businesses, downtown areas also typically go through periods of “stagnation,” followed by a “growing” cycle before they reach the “mature” stage.

While stagnant downtowns are characterized by high vacancies, under-utilized properties and an uninviting image, a downtown that is in a growth cycle is viewed as “up-and-coming … with a sprinkling of new businesses, pioneering new investments and an image of a district in transition.”

There is “a core group of vested property and business owners that are benefiting from the additional energy created by new entrepreneurs entering the district,” Segal continued.

And local stakeholders are motivated to explore public/private partnership approaches to improve the district, he said.

That definition seems to describe the state of Glenwood Springs’ downtown; a few years ago business owners there worked with the city to establish the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and establish a tax-increment financing (TIF) system to help fund improvements.

This year, the new nonprofit Glenwood Springs Downtown Partnership began working in earnest to coordinate with the city, the DDA and the local chamber of commerce to bring more visibility to the downtown area.

More recently, the various partners teamed up with the Garfield County Public Library District and Colorado Mountain College to have a design team look at options for redeveloping parts of downtown to accomplish several goals.

Among them will be to identify a new site for a larger Glenwood branch library, which could also include new office and classroom space for CMC, plus a downtown parking structure. New commercial and residential uses could also be identified.

DDAs and special business improvement districts are common ways for growing communities to stabilize and manage the business environment, Segal said.

“It’s a time to strengthen your competitive advantage,” he said. “And, a unified downtown will make the area more influential.”

One of the long-term trends that also have proven effective in strengthening downtown areas is to make them more pedestrian-friendly.

“We have found that walkable urban areas have held their value better than the outer fringes of cities and suburbs,” Segal said. “There are also fewer foreclosures.”

The three-day DCI conference focused on the theme, “Essential Community Responses to the New Economic Reality.” It featured a variety of presentations and discussions on ways to improve historic commercial districts, including a Friday mayors’ panel looking at how different communities are improving their historic commercial districts.

“When I was a kid, we had a defined downtown, with a clothing store, a grocery store, a drug store and post office, all in the 100 block of Main Street,” said Minturn Mayor Gordon “Hawkeye” Flaherty, who grew up in the small Eagle River Valley town.

“Now, we have a couple of restaurants, a fly shop and a new music store,” he said, adding that the rest of the town’s businesses are spread out over five blocks.

“We’re in a process of trying to define what that downtown area is now,” he said, and much of that has to do with rezoning for more commercial uses.

The small town of Windsor, located between Fort Collins and Greeley, saw “huge growth” in the 1990s and into the 2000s, said Town Manager Kelly Arnold, who sat on the panel in place of Mayor John Vasquez.

“But, in the process, we abandoned the downtown,” he said. “It was eroding away.”

So when a tornado ripped through the center of town a few years ago, it provided an opportunity to reinvest in the downtown core, he said.

“The result is that we’ve come back to appreciating what it was 50 years ago,” Arnold said.

In Glenwood Springs, the recession actually helped prompt that same kind of reinvestment, said City Councilwoman Shelley Kaup, sitting in for Mayor Bruce Christensen.

“We went into the recession with good reserves,” she said, noting that during the boom years it was hard to get decent bids on public works projects.

“So, the council made a calculated decision going into the downturn to put some money into the local economy,” she said. “All of a sudden we got a lot of infrastructure projects going that we had a hard time doing before.”

That included starting construction on the new $33 million wastewater treatment plant, which will move from its current location at the river confluence near downtown to West Glenwood. That will eventually free up the downtown site for possible redevelopment, Kaup said.

Other Glenwood projects included the pedestrian-bridge upgrade and various road improvements.

Added Telluride Mayor Stuart Fraser, “It’s important to understand who you are during these times, and to build on your strengths. And, whatever your market, you better make sure you fulfill the promise you’re putting out there.”