Popping up in Aspen: New life in the commercial core
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – The new businesses that have popped up around Aspen this winter may represent the ultimate economic irony. A nationwide recession has brought about what the city government never quite figured out how to achieve through legislation – a diverse retail mix that offers visitors a unique shopping experience.
Young entrepreneurs, shut out of the resort’s retail arena during an era dominated by high rents and high-end boutiques, have found a foothold alongside Prada and Louis Vuitton in the town’s ever-evolving retail scene. A slew of empty storefronts have suddenly filled in and deals for others are in the works, according to a couple of local commercial real estate brokers. Combined with a flurry of moves to new locales by existing businesses and the opening of a variety of new restaurants and cafes, the retail landscape in downtown Aspen looks significantly different than it did just six months ago.
“The young and the strong and the brave have stepped up and found a place,” said broker Ruth Kruger. “It’s a beautiful thing when the market brings a balance to the community.”
The one-of-a-kind “mom-and-pop shops” of Aspen in the ’70s, albeit in 21st century form, are making a comeback, fueled by a recession-driven drop in commercial rents and, in some cases, a new concept that first gained steam last year – the pop-up. Some landlords are signing short-term leases – some only a few months long – and giving newcomers in the retail and restaurant landscape a shot at success.
“It’s truly a trial period,” Kruger said.
The resulting ventures have popped up all over town.
Those who are doing well say they intend to sign a longer-term lease. Count Giselle Leal, owner of VonFreytag Vintage in the Ute City Building among them. Her shop, specializing in vintage clothing she finds in Europe, popped up last summer, closed for the offseason and is back for the winter.
“The summer was awesome, but the winter has been even better,” said Leal, who left the New York fashion industry to set up shop in Aspen, where she sells vintage clothing and dresses that she reworks herself to create truly one-of-a-kind items.
“I love it. I’m staying,” she vowed.
Off the same Ute City Building atrium space, Alyssa Lipsky opened her own pop-up in December, Aspen Denim Exchange, featuring new and consignment designer jeans, and promising to take the intimidation factor out of shopping for jeans. Her mom, she said, operated a shop in Aspen in the ’70s, selling Navajo rugs and turquoise jewelry.
“It’s cool that creative young people are able to try new things in Aspen again,” she said. “A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do this.”
Aspen native Kate Linehan completes the triumvirate of pop-ups in the atrium, operating an organic juice bar after gaining a following at the Aspen Saturday Market last summer.
“I’ve been trying for eight months to pop up,” she said. The process meant securing a temporary vendor permit from the city and a lease for the free-standing juice bar, which occupies part of the common space within the atrium.
Linehan said she felt the time was right to start her first business venture, dubbed The Honeybee.
“It felt like there was potential again for people at the bottom,” she said.
Incubating businesses like The Honeybee has, at times, been the focus of lengthy debate at City Hall, where hand-wringing about the state of the commercial core is as cyclical as Aspen’s ever-changing retail makeup.
In the wake of the economic downturn that followed Sept. 11, 2001, city government engaged architects who came up with proposals to make the commercial core more inviting, hoping to lure visitors to linger and shop. A proposal to allow start-up businesses in tiny alleyway spaces, where rent would be cheaper, emerged but never gained traction. Subsidized business spaces to aid start-ups was even discussed, though not in earnest.
The City Council did adopt a ban on new street-level offices in the commercial core, where real estate sales offices were supplanting the restaurants and retailers that some in the community considered more desirable from a tourism perspective.
Now, some of those real estate offices are retail spaces again.
Courage. b, featuring its own line of women’s clothing and accessories, opened early this winter at the corner of Mill and Hopkins, where a timeshare sales office for the Hyatt Grand Aspen opened in 2002 in a corner that had previously been occupied by Eddie Bauer. Based in New York, the family-run Courage. b now has seven stores.
The conversion of the Eddie Bauer space caused an uproar at the time, as did the opening of an Intrawest sales office at the former Aspen Drug location at the corner of Hyman and Galena. The latter space is now home to the first Moncler boutique in the States. It opened in late 2008, featuring the Italian luxury outerwear brand of the same name.
On the same corner, Swiss company Jet Set opened its first store in the U.S. in late December. The skiwear line has been available in Aspen for years, but the company chose the resort for its flagship U.S. store to boost its local presence, according to manager and Aspen native John Gates. It has a long-term arrangement for the space, he said.
Those sorts of prime locations don’t stay vacant for long, even when the “for lease” signs are prevalent around town, noted commercial real estate broker Karen Setterfield.
Lease rates, she said, have stabilized after dropping roughly 30 to 40 percent from what they were three years ago. When the economy was booming, rents were higher, vacancies were rare and landlords more likely to go with an established enterprise when a space did become available, Setterfield said.
“Before, we had almost zero vacancy,” she said. “It was very difficult for start-ups.”
Last month, Kruger said spaces that might have ranged from $90 to $240 per square foot before the recession are fetching from $45 to $125 per square foot now, though some prices are probably higher and prices vary widely depending on location.
Nonetheless, there is now opportunity for a place like Koto to open in a street-level space on the Hyman Avenue Mall. Austin Nagel signed a seasonal lease for the space (it expires in April), but said he hopes to stay for a longer term. The store features an eclectic assortment of unique home and personal accessories, finding a niche with items that range in price from $4 to the $10,000 Triumph motorcycle in the window.
“I think I have a rare opportunity – there’s not a lot of modern in Aspen,” Nagel said in reference to his contemporary merchandise. “We’re doing well because we’re not a dumb trinket shop.”
Other entrepreneurs who’ve opened new shops aren’t new to business in Aspen.
Olivia Daane Reische opened LivAspenArt on Feb. 20 on the Cooper Avenue Mall with a two-month lease. With a gallery/studio of the same name, as well as a separate retail shop, Pop, at Aspen Highlands Village, Daane Reische took a short-term shot at the downtown space and found a landlord open to the idea.
“I was walking by and I saw these spaces and they intrigued me,” she said of the side-by-side vacancies (the other will be reportedly filled, as well). “I’ve been wondering if being in town will correlate to more traffic, more business.
“I didn’t really need another space, but nothing ventured, nothing gained,” reasoned Daane Reische, who said she has no intention of abandoning Highlands, but admits: “It’s exciting to be in the core.”
The gallery offers the work of up-and-coming, contemporary artists, many of whom are area residents (including Daane Reische herself), and gives the public a shot at reasonably priced art, she said.
Native Aspenite Lou Lou Goss ran Gallery Biss, featuring the works of late Aspen artist Earl Biss, in 1996-’97. The two were married. She recently opened Unique Modern Art on Galena Street, featuring the works of Biss and other modern masters.
“Aspen has some really great galleries, but we really need an infusion of unique, modern works,” said Goss, who found an opportunity to open in a prime spot that likely wouldn’t have been within reach during headier times.
“We’re here as long as the community supports the idea,” she said.
Joy West has operated the ultimate pop-up business, using the “trunk show” concept to sell jewelry on a short-term basis in Aspen and other resort areas.
“I just did so well that I decided to open up a storefront,” she said.
Joy West Collection has opened on Durant Avenue, specializing in what the part-time Aspenite calls “designer-inspired” jewelry. The concept – “faux jewelry,” says the sign out front – has thrived during the current economy, and West said the shop is here to stay.
Lease rates have stabilized for the time being, largely at a new, lower price point, according to Kruger and Setterfield, but Aspen’s retail mix seems destined for another shakeup when the pop-up leases expire, unless business owners follow through on their resolve to arrange for a longer stay.
Stores that come and go are hardly a new phenomenon in Aspen, though, leaving locals and visitors alike wondering what will pop up next in an empty storefront. Most assuredly, something will.
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