One major landlord in Willits defers April rent for nearly 20 business tenants |

One major landlord in Willits defers April rent for nearly 20 business tenants

A Starbucks barista hands a drink order out of the drive-thru window in Willits Town Center on Wednesday. Starbucks reopened its drive-through service last weekend.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The Great Recession of 2008 hit the then-nascent Willits Town Center project hard — construction of Whole Foods Market stalled and left a hole in the ground, more sites were vacant than developed, and a handful of restaurants and retail shops struggled to survive.

A dozen years later, a recession fueled by the coronavirus crisis has hit the country even harder than in 2008. Despite the hardship and uncertainty of when the virus crisis will abate, Willits has a different feel this time around.

Whole Foods is among the busiest businesses in the valley. Four Dogs Wine and Spirits and Basalt Bike and Ski are among business deemed vital that continue to serve the public. Several restaurants are providing take-out orders.

But several businesses deemed non-essential under Colorado’s stay-at-home order have gone dark for an unknown time. That’s created hardships for several mom-and-pop operators.

One of the two primary landlords at Willits deferred April rents to help the stressed businesses. Platform Ventures LLC, on behalf of its subsidiary Willits Town Center LLC, notified nearly 20 tenants on March 19 that it would allow businesses to pay April rent over the next 12 months, interest free.

“Our goal is to ease the burden that COVID-19’s impact is making on your business,” the letter said. “We will continue to monitor the center’s operations and encourage you to communicate with us regarding the status and wellbeing of your business.”

Tim Belinski, a local representative of the landlord, said Platform Ventures approached its tenants as a whole rather than negotiating individually.

“It was a proactive reach-out,” he said. “Those businesses are going to be challenged and we want them to come through this.”

Platform Ventures was formerly known as Mariner Real Estate Management. The Kansas City-area business bought Willits Town Center out of bankruptcy from Joseph Freed and Association during the Great Recession and jumpstarted the stalled project. Now it’s helping many of the businesses that it signed on.

The tenants include businesses located in the buildings where Kitchen Collage and Capitol Creek Brewery are located. It doesn’t include the building where Whole Foods, Bristlecone Sports, Basalt Bike and Ski or Starbucks are located. A company headed by Stanley Kroenke and his firm, The Kroenke Group, bought those buildings in March 2016 for $30.46 million and they are managed separately.

Joel Mischke, owner of Basalt Bike and Ski, said he asked the Kroenke Group for deferral of April rent. Although the request was denied, Mischke credited the landlord for responding to him quickly.

Unlike Willits, downtown Basalt has numerous, small landlords. A check with a handful of businesses and landlords, none of whom wanted to be quoted by name, indicated landlords’ policies with rent deferral are handled on a case-by-case basis.

Platform Ventures, which deferred the April rent at Willits, said in its letter to tenants that it hoped the deferred rent plus aid for businesses from the federal and state governments would help them get through the crisis.

“Your business, along with the others at Willits Town Center, showed its resilience through the Lake Christine Fire of 2018 and we anticipate the center will rebound because we are a fundamentally strong local shopping center,” the letter said.

There also are signs of life with new development at Willits. Aspen Skiing Co. is working on a 43-unit affordable housing project. Affordable housing is among the construction projects exempt from the statewide stay-at-home order.

Construction also is wrapping up on a high-end residential project that a group headed by Belinski is undertaking across Valley Road from Mezzaluna restaurant. Belinski said construction will soon start on an adjacent building of mixed residential and commercial uses.

In addition, The Arts Center At Willits hopes to begin construction of a performing arts center this year adjacent to Skico’s housing project.

Once life returns to something resembling normal, a handful of businesses established in the valley aim to open sites in Willits. They include Jean-Robert’s Gym, Zane’s Tavern and Isberian Rug Co.

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