Whole different picture in Basalt | AspenTimes.com

Whole different picture in Basalt

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times
Scot Condon/scondon@aspentimes.c

In the year since Whole Foods Market opened in Basalt, it’s almost singlehandedly reshaped the midvalley retail scene.

The grocery store revived Basalt’s sluggish sales tax revenues. It helped fill vacancies and spur additional development at Willits Town Center. It rattled the nerves of some downtown merchants and it’s made numerous businesses in the Basalt-El Jebel area re-examine their business plans. Whole Foods’ entry into the market also forced City Market to improve its game, according to shoppers.

“In my mind, it’s all positives,” Bennett Bramson said of the effects of Whole Foods. Bramson is a former president of the Basalt Chamber of Commerce board of directors and one of Basalt’s most enthusiastic promoters.

The people who try to make Basalt’s situation out to be “downtown versus Willits” are “losing sight that we’re all one Basalt,” he said.

That’s definitely the case when it comes to the town’s sales tax coffers. The entire town is reaping the rewards of a hefty haul since Whole Foods opened.

For the first six months of sales tax collections of the year, reflecting sales from December through May, revenue is up 21 percent in Basalt, according to the town Finance Department. The town has collected $1.9 million this year compared to $1.57 million for the first half of 2012.

Perhaps the biggest sign of success is that sales tax revenues now are pacing ahead of 2008 — before the recession sank the numbers. In the first half of 2008, the town collected $1.83 million in revenue.

While the town sales tax report doesn’t list contributions from specific businesses, it shows retail food stores are leading the resurgence. The category includes Basalt’s three grocery stores.

Retail food sales are up 34.2 percent this year over last year. Grocery stores alone have contributed $921,435 in sales tax revenue this year.

The sales tax report also suggests that Whole Foods is benefiting some other businesses. Two of Basalt’s primary sporting-oods stores, Basalt Bike and Ski and Bristlecone Mountain Sports, relocated from longtime homes in or near downtown to Willits Town Center since last fall. Sporting-goods retail shops as a whole are experiencing their best year since at least 2008, according to the sales tax report. Sales in that category are up 16 percent this year.

But it’s not all roses. Epicurious, which offered specialty meats and cheeses, closed earlier this year. The owner declined to talk about his shop’s demise.

Some restaurant owners privately say they are feeling the pinch of direct competition from Whole Foods’ prepared-foods section.

On the other hand, Jamie Theriot, owner of Smoke Modern BBQ, said the opening of Whole Foods and the increased vitality of Willits Town Center overall has helped his business.

Smoke was among the first businesses to open in Willits, 61/2 years ago. Theriot built a “good foundation” of loyal customers — then the recession struck and created a tough few years. His following was strong enough to carry through.

The most important factor is always offering a good product,” he said.

Now he’s gaining new customers, which he attributes to the critical mass created by Whole Foods and the mixture of shops and restaurants at Willits.

Jim Polep, owner of Montecito Loft and Home, also is reaping the rewards of an early investment into Willits. The store is celebrating its 20th year in business and its seventh in Willits.

“I was the first living, breathing anything here,” he said.

Polep purchased a space in the Triangle Park Lofts building. It’s somewhat removed from Whole Foods, but Polep said the entire development benefits from the grocery store’s opening. There are more people investigating what Willits has to offer.

Polep said 2007 was a strong year for him, the store’s biggest ever. He had built such a strong customer base that people sought him out after he moved to Basalt in November 2006. It didn’t matter that his was the only shop open at the time.

The recession set him back. He said 2008 through 2011 was tough. That’s turned around in 2012 and 2013.

Willits “is finally coming to fruition,” he said. He believes the development, with its central location, is “the envy of the Roaring Fork Valley.”

Basalt town officials are catching some flak for creating a commercial powerhouse that has made tough competition for the downtown core. The town is facing pressure from the business community to speed redevelopment of the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park, just west of downtown. Some downtown merchants see a hotel on the site as the core’s salvation.

Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said the town has to be careful not to alter the downtown core’s special character too much in its effort to improve the economy. She wants a project that increases access to the Roaring Fork River, open space and appropriate density without overbuilding.

“Willits is the urban alternative it was designed to be,” she said. “Downtown really doesn’t want to be like Willits.”

Whitsitt said she doesn’t believe downtown is fundamentally flawed in any way that won’t allow it to recover from the recession.

“It is the epitome of cuteness and quaintness,” she said. “Hopefully it won’t be drastically changed, but it’s going to be changed some.”

Several properties in and near the core have changed hands recently, and others are on the market. At least two parties are looking at downtown redevelopments, not including the Pan and Fork owners.

Meanwhile, Willits Town Center barely has scratched the surface of what it will be. Six buildings in the high-density core have been built, and one is under construction. There are nine buildings of differing sizes to go along with a space designated for a performing-arts center.

So while Willits Town Center is already “big” by Roaring Fork Valley standards, it’s less than 50 percent built-out. The Market Street Crossings building south of Whole Foods will feature offices on the upper two floors and retail on the bottom. A national retailer is being courted for the prime ground-floor space, said Tim Belinski, a local liaison and leasing agent for the development’s owner, Mariner Real Estate Management.

Whole Foods has been an effective anchor tenant, according to Belinski.

“It’s a good start,” he said. “It’s really been an awakening here in the last year with the opening of Whole Foods.”

Mariner is looking to complete the project with a mix of retail, office and residential development. A hotel always has been a planned part of the mxi, but there has been no formal announcement. Archdiocesan Housing Inc., a branch of Catholic Charities, has announced plans for a 166-unit affordable-housing project just off Willits Lane. Belinski said the residential free market in the midvalley isn’t strong enough to pursue that aspect of development, which is somewhat concerning.

Belinski has been active in chamber of commerce activities and believes both the chamber and town government have taken actions to benefit all business. They started Second Saturdays, a monthly summer event to attract people to the core. Wednesday-night concerts alternate between downtown and Willits. The Sunday Farmers Market is citizen-driven but gets support from the town.

Like Bramson, Belinski believes the different neighborhoods of Basalt can complement rather than compete with one another.

“The pie is getting bigger. You see that with the sales tax dollars,” he said.

Some town officials have expressed concern over how Willits will absorb the additional traffic and parking pressures.

“It’s a little more traffic-y than I thought it would be,” Whitsitt said.

Belinski expressed the confidence that’s standard for development teams. The completion of the Parkside Building and the activity it is generating have helped calm traffic on East Valley Road, he said. The team’s engineers have looked extensively at the parking and traffic-flow issues into the future. A parking garage with 104 spaces beneath Whole Foods is, thus far, unused.

“It’s all been planned well,” Belinski said.

Other observers, including those in the town government that approved the development, need convincing.