The apparent early success of Whole Foods Market in Basalt is drawing new attention to the Willits development. Already some businesses have relocated to Willits from downtown Basalt as the foot traffic there grows. For some this presents a challenge to downtown where merchants are brainstorming ways to attract more visitors their way. Aspen Public Radio’s Roger Adams explains.
Amy Forsey is sitting behind a workbench in the backroom of her store, Express Yourself, on a sunny day last week. It is a beautiful space with large windows overlooking the Frying Pan River. Forsey sells stationary and gifts.
“So, we have retail gifts and then I also do custom invitations, save the dates, a lot of wedding items, corporate gifts and then I also have what’s called the Hello Tote which is welcome bags for weddings and large groups.”
Forsey’s store is now in its tenth year in Basalt. She loves the character of the downtown; and her view of the river. Now, Forsey is chair of the Basalt Chamber of Commerce and for the past several months she has helped coordinate meetings of local merchants. The group is trying to figure out how to get more people to shop and eat in Basalt.
“I think the main issue right now would be getting bodies into Basalt. That’s really the main issue.”
Merchants battered by the economic downturn were ready to swap ideas.
“I think with the economy its been a long time coming”
And, says Forsey, after Basalt’s election last year the time seemed right.
“With a new town manager and a new mayor we kind of have some new blood that wants to see some change. So, we’re all just trying to figure out what the next steps are to get the economy going again in downtown and all of Basalt.”
It is a big undertaking with many stairs to climb. A major challenge has been and continues to be geography. There are really three centers of commerce in Basalt; downtown, Basalt Business Center also called south side and now Willits. Add to that the location of Highway 82. To a visitor only Willits is visible from the road and many of them may not know the others exist. A couple years ago the city put up signs on 82 beckoning drivers to visit the historic downtown. Judi Tippetts is Basalt’s Finance Director.
“There’s not a lot you can do when its laid out that way that it is but that’s not really a new obstacle either. So, I think the signs went a long way to helping.”
But then, last year Whole Foods opened its door in the Willits development and in a short time the area became a draw. Sales taxes coming in to the city show a marked increase from the months prior to Whole Foods opening and it is clear Willits is getting traffic. Two Basalt businesses moved from their downtown locations to Willits and with that came concerns that Willits will become a competitor to downtown. Architect Glenn Rappaport sits on the Basalt Town Council. He says Willits should not be blamed for siphoning visitors from downtown. The development has characteristics proven to boost retail sales.
“Willits is doing better because of some very obvious reasons. There’s more compaction, there’s more density there and its visible from the highway. In this valley most of us don’t really like the idea that that generates business. That is the reality of why Willits is drawing people.”
Tracy Bennett chooses to stay put downtown.
“Its got its own energy and its own dynamic and yeah Whole Foods is a great draw but that just brings people down here to the mid valley.”
Bennett's shoe store, Midland Shoe has been open for twenty years. People should not, says Bennett, see Willits and downtown as an either or proposition.
“It’s a different dynamic, its not a walking main street where you can shop and hit a restaurant and hit another shop and another restaurant. It doesn’t have that walking up and down a main street feel. I’m very happy to be where I’m at I like the feel and the dynamic of a downtown.”
Bennett says the larger issue is the economy. There is a feeling that Basalt was the last in to the economic downturn and will be one of the last out. Once people generally are again in the mood to spend money the foot traffic will find its way to Basalt’s downtown shops and restaurants. Bennett says there are two big ideass that could help the town take off. One is a proposed hotel development along the river downtown the second is what might replace the aging Clark’s market which is rumored to be preparing to close in a year. An anchor tenant there along with a big lodge would make downtown a destination. Both are uncertain and years away from reality
For now the merchants are meeting to suggest smaller ideas in the meantime. Among them are a free shuttle bus that would take people around to all of Basalt’s businesses. Another is to make downtown a free WiFi hotspot. More immediately says Chamber of Commerce chair Amy Forsey is a new marketing campaign.
“But I don’t think we’ve defined exactly if its going to be a brochure, if its going to be television or if its going to be print. So, we’re just kind of figuring out what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.”
Efforts to get businesses from each of Basalt’s three commerce centers to work together will continue with many merchants hoping the meetings will become a regular part of doing business in the mid-valley.