Highlands base looks for business | AspenTimes.com

Highlands base looks for business

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The merchants at Aspen Highlands have just completed a series of focus groups to find out what might attract more people to the new village.

“The Merchant’s Association does want to stimulate more interest in the village,” said Gary Beach of Beach Resources, which helps manage the village. “They are seeing some vacant retail space out there and would like to see some more neighbors.”

The focus groups were conducted by the Darnauer Group, an Aspen marketing and communications firm hired by the Highlands Merchant’s Association.

“Our charge is to promote the village,” said Jeanette Darnauer of the Darnauer Group. “And we start almost every project we do with research, so we suggested the idea of focus groups.”

So five groups of local residents were gathered together recently and asked what types of things might draw more valley locals to Highlands, with the notion that visitors will ultimately follow locals to the party.

The participants included loyal Highlands skiers, residents of the deed-restricted housing in the village, people who work with visitors to Aspen/Snowmass, city of Aspen employees and a mix of valley residents.

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Darnauer said the point of the focus groups was not to critique the physical village, which will be complete in December, but to look to the future.

“We said, ‘We are not here to ask how it used to be or what you think of the village. We are here to ask about what kind of identity you want Highlands to have and what can work,'” Darnauer said.

The ideas from the groups will be presented to the Merchant’s Association next Wednesday.

The recently formed association is a private organization formed by the three owners of the village’s retail space – Hines, which developed the village, the Ritz-Carlton Club and the Aspen Skiing Co.

The retailers and restaurant operators at Highlands must contribute money to the Merchant’s Association, which in turn is charged with marketing the village and creating events and activities to draw more people up Maroon Creek Road.

Compared to the dire predictions at the beginning of the winter, the Highlands had an OK winter. The Skico is reporting that skier visits at Highlands this season are off about 5 percent from last season, when the ski area saw 140,640 visits, which is 8,000 less than Buttermilk.

This winter, the businesses with their doors open included the Durrance Sports ski shop, the Thunderbowl market and deli, the World Link cafe and bar, the Willow Creek Bistro at the Ritz-Carlton Club, and Pro Mountain Sports inside the Skico’s skier-services building.

The Commonwealth Pub closed in the middle of the ski season, which was a drag for skiers but a boon to the World Link cafe and bar, which quickly began offering live music and buckets of cold beer.

“We’ve had a reasonably solid winter,” said Christian Hedberg of the World Link, which is staying open throughout the off-season.

But the village “mall” is a tad lonely.

“Overall, customers need to see more out here, more retail shops,” Hedberg said.

That may happen by summer.

There are several completed retail spaces at Highlands that are lacking leaseholders, but Hines expects to announce some new tenants in the next few months, including a new operator for the Commonwealth Pub space.

“In the next 60 days, we will be making some strong announcements about the Pub space,” said David Norden of Hines Resort Development.

This summer, the Highlands Village will be the only place to buy bus tickets for the Maroon Bells and parking will be free, which might draw more visitors.

And by next winter, all of the lodging and residential units will be finished. There are about 125 people living in the deed-restricted “community housing” units at Highlands, and when the Ritz-Carlton Club units are complete, there will be room for up to 475 people in those units.

Today, the Ritz has 47 luxury units that are up and running, and 26 more units are scheduled to open in December in the White River Lodge building.

Judd Hawk, the general manager of the Club, said that 70 percent of the first phase of the Ritz project has been sold so far.

And Hines reports that interest is picking up in the 15 luxury townhomes it has been selling. Nine have sold, including a 6,000-square-foot townhome that sold in March for $5.3 million.

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