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Highlands retailers feel momentum

Greg Schreier
Olivia Daane recently opened the Livaspenart gallery at the base of Aspen Highlands. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)
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Critics of the plaza at Aspen Highlands say it doesn’t get enough foot traffic to be a viable commercial center, but shop owners are optimistic it is becoming a place people want to visit.Several stores and restaurants have moved out of the center since it opened about five years ago, including Endeavor Internet cafe, the Thunderbowl restaurant and Durrance Sports.Although the development has its critics – including Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland and a former employee of developer Hines – store owners say they’ll have the clientele to keep going during the offseason. A lack of offseason traffic, especially during the spring and summer, has plagued the shops since they opened.”We feel like the tide has turned, and there is tremendous momentum out there,” said Jeanette Darnauer, who directs marketing for the Aspen Highlands Merchants Association. She added that it took time to figure out the right plan for Highlands but that the current mix of businesses – especially the art galleries – mesh well.Additionally, Darnauer’s marketing firm, Darnauer Group LLC, has coordinated events throughout the summer to bring more visitors to the location – a necessity because Highlands depends heavily on Maroon Bells visitors for summer traffic.But some still aren’t convinced it will work.

“I admire their creativity, but I think it’s a real uphill struggle against basic economic logic,” Ireland said. He said Highlands will have difficulty competing with the booming commercial core in downtown Aspen, which is where most tourists and residents already shop.”It’s hard to get somebody to go somewhere because they have four nice art places if there’s that many on one block in Aspen,” Ireland said.Owner Dave Durrance moved Durrance Sports from Highlands to the Cooper Avenue mall last year. He said the main problem with the location is that it doesn’t have enough variety to make it a viable alternative to downtown.”[There’s] not enough critical mass to make Highlands a destination for shopping and dining,” Durrance wrote in an e-mail. He added that the development should have initially had a high-volume hotel and more retail and restaurant spaces to make it a “legitimate destination.”However, store owners agree that while shops relying on volume from browsing shoppers might not work at Highlands, destination shops – like its four art galleries and specialty shops like BOOTech – can make it a place people will go out of their way for.Alleghany Meadows, co-owner of the Harvey/Meadows Gallery at Highlands, said he and co-owner Sam Harvey have to work to connect with potential buyers – only about 25 percent of their business is walk-in. But they have a unique ceramic art gallery that collectors will go out of their way to buy from.

“The next closest [ceramic gallery] is in Santa Fe,” Meadows said. “So we’re a destination.”BOOTech President Jim Lindsay, who has operated out of the Highlands site since it opened, said the key to success at Highlands is not necessarily relying on passers-by but establishing loyal customers who will return for the product – regardless of location.”We have the good fortune to be pretty well-established,” Lindsay said. “It’s a hard place to establish a business if you don’t have clientele.”Georgia Hanson, who worked in community relations for Hines while the developer was designing and building the plaza, said the original plans were whittled down to make the final version smaller than intended. There isn’t enough commercial space to attract people with variety, she said, so the best bet will be attracting a specialty crowd.”Without a single theme to make this a destination retail resort, this thing will never work,” Hanson said.Despite the challenges, the two new businesses – specialty pizzeria Crust and the Livaspenart gallery – are expecting success. And given the success of Iguana’s restaurant and the other art galleries, it should be attainable.

“I do look at it as a challenge,” said Crust proprietor Graham Frandson. “[But] if we create the goals we’ve set for ourselves, I think this can be a very successful venue.”Frandson has thought out the challenges carefully, as Crust can serve families and large groups to appeal to a broad clientele. Plus, he can keep his overhead low by operating with just three employees.Olivia Daane, who owns Livaspenart and has worked through the Aspen Artists Gallery at the Highlands for several years, said she had no apprehensions about starting her own gallery. She’s lived nearby for many years and watched Highlands evolve “from the ground up.” She is confident she can succeed because she doesn’t rely entirely on walk-in visitors; instead, she develops loyal clientele through special shows and other events. She sees Highlands becoming a hub that can attract art collectors from all over – but it may take a bit more work than it would at other locations.”If there’s going to be energy here,” she said, “we have to create it.”

Market seeks vendors; expo wants vehiclesAspen Highlands is still looking for vendors for its weekly market and a few more cars to show off at its car expo. The weekly market, from 3-7 p.m. Tuesdays, starts next week. The market features vendors offering products from local art and clothing to fresh produce and jewelry. Tuesday also marks the season’s start of the weekly Movies Under the Stars, featuring films starting at dusk.Highlands is also looking for a few more antique, hot rod and luxury cars to show off at the July 1 Exotic Car Expo at the Highlands plaza.Car owners and market vendors interested in participating, as well as anyone with general questions about the season’s events, should call 925-9010.Greg Schreier’s e-mail address is gschreier@aspentimes.com


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