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Creating vibrant downtowns

JANE STEBBINS
Summit Daily/Reid Williams
ALL |

Colorado resort town officials are starting to believe their towns are in the sunsets of their years – and something must be done to reverse the aging trend. They hear it from the tourists – and they see it in their coffers. Tourists complain that everything looks the same, that nothing’s changed over the years, that things aren’t as vibrant as they used to be. And all those real estate shops.This four-part series of stories will address the challenges the towns each face, how they are going about reversing the trends and the successes they’ve had so far.Although they face similar challenges, they all got their starts in different ways.Aspen, formerly a silver mining town, was built on Walter Paepcke’s vision in 1945 as a cultural center that would eventually attract everyone from international artists, world-class ski racers, famed writers, movie stars and other moguls.Over the years, it won the hearts of the rich and famous, with its steep, powder skiing in the winter and festivals in the summer.But it’s allure faded over the years. People surveyed complain that Aspen is losing its soul, that its downtown is no longer vibrant, too many remaining stores cater to the rich, and a lack of a nightlife are to blame, as well.Many locals no longer can afford to live in a town where $1 million homes are considered “affordable.” Years of catering to the ultra-rich led to ultra-expensive commercial space lease rates – up to $140 a square foot. Storefronts sit vacant, but lease rates are still high. Thus, for three straight years retail sales have declined, much like those in other resort towns.

Throw in the national economic slump in the past two years, improvements made at other resorts, an aging marketplace and a loss of market share and it could spell disaster for those not willing to change with the times.Consultant Ford Frick said the destination market – Aspen’s prime audience – has been hit hard in recent years, and other skiers are hitting the slopes closer to home, notably ski areas east of Glitter Gulch.Consultant Henry Beer said last fall that Aspen needs places where people can just “be,” whether it’s hanging out and watching other people and – going against the common thoughts – building more density to concentrate people in its core.Other High Country resort towns share the same challenges.Breckenridge started as a mining town that dried up and faded away until the advent of skiing. Unlike its tony sisters to the west – Vail and Aspen – it didn’t cater to upscale visitors, preferring to identify itself as a “real” town.Officials there also are trying to give the town a feeling of vitality, both for the visitors who crave it and the businesses that need it.”We’re not doing this because the town is dated,” said Breckenridge town manager Tim Gagen. “It (improvements) make the town work so much better. People like to hang out and do things. Pedestrian-friendly, storefront things, landscaping – it all lends itself well to keeping you ahead of the game.”It is about competition. But it’s also about broadening the appeal of town.

“We need to give them a vacation they’ll remember, one they’ll return for,” Gagen said. “In our case, it’s a lot more about looking toward our future demographics, their needs and interests.”Vail is also undergoing a Renaissance of sorts.Those returning from the European theater in World War II built the town with a Bavarian feel – and to attract European skiers. That market, however, has faded, and today, the town is undergoing massive renovations and trying to rethink everything from downtown vitality to retail products.”Vail needs a little freshening up,” said Stan Zelmer, town manager. “We need to bring it into the current times. We have a window of opportunity, and we’re going to jump through that window.”With little land left on which to build, two hotels, the Village streetscape and Lionshead are all under redevelopment. Retailers are also looking at their retail mix – the microcosm of the bigger challenge.”People like different things,” Zelmer said. “Not everybody skis or hikes. Some come for a restaurant, some come to have a cup of coffee and sit out on the plaza We have a tremendous amounts of opportunity. We just have to keep trying to bring those things together.”The same thing Vail is struggling to find – more square footage – is what Snowmass is filling to excel.Carey Shanks, the economic resources director for the town, said the town must be “critically massed with a vital and vibrant commercial core” to be successful.

“We don’t have a critical mass,” he said. “What people are looking for doesn’t exist in Snowmass. There hasn’t been a lot of redevelopment over the years. People want to be there, but they want to see something new and fresh.”Again, competition is what’s driving a lot of it.”When there are external forces, you need to respond,” said John Francis, owner of the Gateway Building in Snowmass. “We’ve got aging properties, dated architecture – it’s typical in the mountains now. Everything that came out of the ground in the 1960s is shorter and darker; there is economic vitality in new things. Las Vegas, they do it there on an hourly basis.”Glenwood Springs, down-valley from Snowmass and Aspen, is experiencing growing pains of a different sort. It was borne a hot springs resort for people who suffered from numerous ailments, but has grown to accommodate Aspen’s worker bees. And today, with hundreds of thousands of skiers trying to get there, its tiny main street is too small to accommodate traffic without destroying downtown business.”That’s our No. 1 concern,” said Andrew McGregor, community development director. “Glenwood Springs has talked for (years) about the pros and cons of relocating Highway 82. It has those funny geometrics of getting off the interstate, doing the candy cane loop back to the south and most of the roads weren’t designed for the volumes we have today.”The ultimate goal is to make the downtown core a more pedestrian-friendly environment.”Crossing Grand Avenue is not always a pleasant experience when you have five lanes of traffic coming at you in two directions and three in the other two directions,” McGregor said. “Maintaining that historic feel in the modern vehicular obsession is kind of a conundrum.”City leaders also face the challenge of balancing retail with residential in the downtown core – particularly as yet another commercial subdivision anchored by Lowes and Target gets under way a mile from downtown.”Do we still look fresh?” Breckenridge’s Gagen said. “I think it does look fresh. The only thing nicer would be if a ton of retail people came knocking at our door, saying, ‘I want to be in; this is the place to be.'”


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