Merchants give earful on retail |

Merchants give earful on retail

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Everything from courting street performers to commercial rent controls got a mention Tuesday as local business operators brainstormed on ways to improve Aspen’s retail environment.

The session was billed as one of a series of neighborhood meetings the city conducts each fall to seek public input as it begins reviewing next year’s budget. But yesterday’s gathering with the business community quickly turned into a preview of three upcoming meetings the city has arranged so local merchants can voice their ideas to a team of retail consultants. Two of the experts were in the audience Tuesday.

Starting next month, they’ll be running the show at a series of breakfast gatherings in which the team seeks input before making recommendations on how Aspen might bolster its retail climate.

“It’s my perception that we do have a retail problem in town,” said Ute Mountaineer owner Bob Wade, quickly delving into the issue.

“The Hyman Avenue mall might be the best example of that,” he said, noting the influx of real estate offices that have replaced retail establishments there.

“I think it has hurt the vitality of that area of town,” Wade said.

“I think we have experienced a real degradation of our retail mix of stores, especially in the downtown core,” agreed Walnut House owner Rick Newton.

Before merchants spend time working with the consultants, Newton wanted to know how serious the City Council is about taking action.

“Do you folks believe that we have a significant retail problem here? How aggressive are you willing to go to do something about it?” he asked.

“I am prepared to be very aggressive,” said Councilman Terry Paulson, though he quickly qualified that allowing taller downtown buildings is not something he’d support.

Mayor Helen Klanderud said she’d like to see the consultants produce a list of options that run the gamut and suggested one aggressive move might be increasing Aspen’s lodging tax, or instituting a broader tax, to boost the city’s marketing funds.

Councilwoman Rachel Richards said she’d support eliminating future business offices from the ground level in the commercial core. A proliferation of offices selling timeshare and fractional-ownership projects have alarmed some segments of the business community.

Those timeshare sales offices are temporary, and the projects they’re selling will bring a steady stream of new visitors to town, countered Lorrie Winnerman, a real estate broker.

Those offices will become retail spaces again, she predicted, but others see greater problems with Aspen’s shopping experience.

“One of the things Aspen has lost is its uniqueness, in my opinion,” said Stanley Hoffberger, owner of Iguana’s and the Thunderbowl Market and Cafe at Aspen Highlands, lamenting the decline in locally owned, one-of-a-kind shops. “We’ve priced those things that were unique to Aspen out of the market. I don’t know how to bring them back.”

His remark drew a sharp rebuke from Heidi Semrau, owner of Distractions, an upscale boutique.

“Independent, successful shops do exist,” she said. “Whoever is marketing the town has to dispel that illusion.”

The high cost of commercial space in Aspen, however, turned the discussion invariably toward local landlords and the role they play in the resort’s fortunes.

“Do we have any landlords here?” Wade asked. “We need to draw them into our community. We need to get them to participate in making this a better town.

“Somehow, we’ve become polarized,” he continued. “They’re the recipients of all our vented anger when retailers complain, `We can’t make it in town.'”

Landlords need to be part of the discussion, agreed City Manager Steve Barwick, noting the city is hoping for their participation as the consultants do their work. There is already evidence that they are acknowledging tougher economic times in their dealings with new tenants, he said.

“This might be an ideal time to bring them in and start talking about collaborative actions,” Barwick said.

Rents weren’t a problem when Aspen was drawing more people, noted Karen Setterfield, a real estate broker and co-owner of Aspen Luggage Co., spurring a host of observations – sometimes conflicting – from other merchants: airline access is a problem; Aspen needs to draw a wider array of visitors; or Aspen needs to accept its high-end reputation and focus its attention on those who can afford to shop here.

“We’re all right when we say, `Gee, we don’t have enough people here,’ but how do we get them here?” mused Warren Klug, who runs the Aspen Square Hotel.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is]

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