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Local retailer gives up on Aspen

Sarah S. Chung

The climate’s getting chillier in Aspen for the small-business owner, says the proprietor of Aspen’s Mountains and Streams store. He’s moving his wares to a friendlier climate.

After four years of selling upscale outerwear, like Patagonia, to fewer and fewer customers, Tom Olson is closing the doors to Mountains and Streams, located on the Cooper Avenue Mall. He has his theories on why there seems to be less pedestrian traffic downtown, but his main reason for leaving is that the rent is “a killer for small businesses.”

“The bottom line is that people aren’t making a reasonable return on their investment,” Olson said.

His isn’t the only store boasting a going-out-of-business sale. Half-price signs are plastered in the windows of Aspen Domain, an interior furnishings retailer on the corner of Main and Mill streets. Owner Joyce Amico, who opened the store three years ago, says she is closing for personal, rather than economic reasons, however, and plans to continue her interior design business, minus the retail end.

Olson, meanwhile, has done some research as he contemplates his next step. He said he has found a “huge disparity” in commercial rents from resort to resort. In Aspen, Olson contends that the average commercial rent is about $80 a square foot, but can reach as high as $120 per square foot. In contrast, Sun Valley averages $30 and Jackson Hole, $25 to $30 per square foot, he said.

“You just can’t get through the year when you’re only getting three months of good business,” Olson said.

And the three busiest months for Mountains and Streams come not with the ski season, but the summer – June, July and August.

Olson attributes the slacking winters to two main factors – United Airlines’ dominance of the commercial flights into town and the disappearance of Aspen’s small and moderately priced lodges.

“The cost of actually skiing is a very small part of the overall trip. The most expensive aspect is lodging and the numbers are going to keep going down until we get another airline and get some moderate lodging,” Olson said.

Another smaller but critical blow to small-business owners has been the growing presence of chain stores, Olson said. By producing the goods it sells, a chain store can save up to 50 percent over the business that has to use a wholesaler.

“They manufacture their own clothes so they bypass the wholesaler and have a much better opportunity to make a profit,” Olson said.

In addition, sometimes the pressure’s not as keen on an Aspen branch store to generate as much profit as the chain’s counterparts, say, in a mall outside a big city, Olson noted.”The point to some of these stores is just to say they have store in Aspen.”

After his inventory is sold, Olson plans to check out Sun Valley, Jackson Hole and Montana to see if the retail market somewhere else will be kinder to another try at Mountains and Streams.

In the meantime, he has some parting advice for the Aspen City Council. His soon-to-be-empty-store store will join other vacant retail space in the city’s commercial core and Olson wonders if “all the talk about light rail and housing” is the best way for city officials to spend their time.

“I can’t remember one time the council devoted a serious amount of time talking about improving the city’s number one industry – tourism,” Olson said. “They have to be noticing the unusually high number of empty spaces. I mean, I have days when 10 or 15 people will ask me why there are so many empty stores.

It has to be the beginning of an unhealthy economy when there are so many vacancies,” he said. “Can’t someone see it’s a sign of something gone wrong?”


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