Aspen Businesses Battle High Rent, Slow Off-Seasons To Operate Downtown

Apr 14, 2014

The corner of Galena Street and East Cooper Ave. in downtown Aspen is one of the hottest places for businesses to be.
Credit Marci Krivonen

All this week, we’re taking a look at the challenges of working and living in Aspen. To some it appears that Aspen is steadily pricing out middle class residents and would be future residents.  In our first report we go to the downtown core where businesses face rising rents and increasingly slow off-seasons.  To survive many retailers must cater almost exclusively to high-dollar customers. For some stores, the struggle is worth it. Others have all but given up. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen has our story.

Pat Newkam rings up his first customer of the day at his t-shirt shop near Aspen’s ski gondola. The store, Attic Fantasies, has been in business for 45 years. Along with the $20 t-shirts for sale, customers find friendly conversation and tales about Aspen’s history. There have been many customers over the decades but, at the end of this ski season the store will close for good.  Newkam says recently he’s barely been scraping by.

"It just seems like you’re treading water a lot. And, when you’re in retail you’ve got to be aggressive and make a profit. If you’re not making a profit, there’s no reason to stay in it," he says.

There are other reasons too, for the closure. Newkam’s business partner and older brother recently passed away, property taxes are a challenge and rent prices keep climbing.

Pat Newkam stands in front of his wall of t-shirts. His family's store Attic Fantasies will close this month after 45 years of business.
Credit Marci Krivonen

"The landlords are biting the bit, they want to go above $100 a square foot. God bless em, it’s their place, but there are going to be a lot of empty spaces here."

In fact, rents are going up downtown. Still, vacant spots go quickly.

"There’s a huge demand for downtown retail spaces, there’s very little vacancy," says Karen Setterfield.  She operates the real estate firm Setterfield and Bright. She’s brokered downtown commercial deals since the 1980’s. Since an economic low in 2009, she says the market has more than bounced back.

"From my perspective Aspen’s economy is very strong because I’m seeing that in the supply and demand, the retail, the office demand and the new buildings coming in."

She says the perception that local businesses are being pushed out by national and international retailers is wrong. She lists off several local stores.

"Nuages, Boogies...these are all non-national, non-international retailers that are mostly locally owned right here in Aspen and right here in one of the best blocks in town."

And yet, rents can range from $60 a square foot to as much as 200 dollars a square foot in prime areas. That price is out of reach for some retailers, especially independent stores.

Intricate earrings and necklaces are on display at Harmony Scott Jewelry Design. The shop moved recently from its storefront of 10 years on the nearby walking mall. Claire De L’arbre is the shop’s marketing manager.

"Our lease ran out and couldn’t afford the new price and so we had to move," she says.

She says it was challenging, finding a new spot.

"There are plenty of places available but what’s a good place, what’s affordable, where can people find you, how long can your lease be, can you have a sandwich board there or not - it can be a make it or break it for a location."

Today, the store’s tucked between several other local businesses in the Mill Street Plaza. De L’arbre says ultimately the move was good because it prompted improvements at the store.

"You know, it was tough for awhile. We didn’t quite know what direction we wanted to move, but we’ve got a lot of amazing changes coming along and we’re very excited about it."

"Certainly for our downtown businesses it can be rent, it can be weather dependent and it also can be regulatory in nature," says Debbie Braun.

She has heard many stories about how hard it can be to make it in Aspen. She’s president of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. She says it’s easy to make a buck when snow is plentiful. When a sparse snow year comes along, though, it’s tough and navigating government rules can be a challenge.

"Over the last few years the City’s been a little bit more open to let’s say, outdoor dining, shopping with your doors open so you can bring a rack outside. Sometimes the regulatory nature of doing business downtown can be difficult as well," she says.

It’s unclear whether local shops will be able to weather rising rents and seasonal business. One store owner who didn’t want to speak on record was clearly pessimistic, saying he thinks local businesses with affordable products will be all but gone in 10 years. For those continuing to operate, business is good, at least for now, and apparently worth the challenge.