Michaela Carpenter-Olson returned home to Aspen earlier this month. This weekend she will open the doors to her downtown business Maker and Place.
She hopes the company will cultivate craft and community. She’s moving into the old Hub bike shop - just down the street from Aspen’s iconic fountain and popcorn stand.
Maker and Place is sort of retail store/art studio. A trained weaver herself, Carpenter-Olson wants a place where creatives in Aspen can afford to work and sell their goods. She will curate the handmade items that make up the retail space and offer the studios to local artists.
She and a bare-bones crew of friends are measuring, sawing and gluing the store together custom building each aspect for the unique Aspen building.
It’s not the easiest place to open a business, but Carpenter-Olson is a local and is self-proclaimed “obsessed” with the town.
“Aspen has a very, very interesting community and it attracts really cool people. It attracts an international audience. It attracts incredible creative minds. It attracts people with affluence,” she said.
Maker and Place came together under a unique set of factors that Carpenter-Olson hopes will allow it to becomes the jumping-off point for other local businesses and artisans. First of all, the current landlords just recently bought the building. They don’t know what they want to do with it yet, so they were willing to sign a short-term lease, something that is hard to come by in the commercial landscape of downtown Aspen.
“Signing a five-year lease it’s just not feasible anymore,” said Carpenter-Olson. “I can’t tell you what’s gonna happen in five years from now, no one can. Now, that being said I would love a long-term space here. I think, as attractive as the retail side of it is to tourists, the holistic community aspect of it is really for the locals.”
Another factor that has boosted Carpenter-Olson is her partnership with the nonprofit group Aspen Entrepreneurs or “AE”. The group offers mentorship programs, community events and classes on starting and owning a business. Carpenter-Olson was member of its introductory 'co-hort' group. Now she acts as its landlord by offering some space for the group in the back of her shop.
Inside the remodel, AE creative director Skippy Mesirow pointed out where a long handmade desk will serve as a drop-in co-working space. When completely built out, there will also be a kitchen, community lounge area and more permanent workspaces for the current cohort of Aspen Entrepreneur’s prodigy. It’s a list of business that may in themselves become the employers that keep young professionals in Aspen.
Mesirow ran an unsuccessful bid for City Council this past spring, but earned more than 30 percent of the vote. He said Aspen Entrepreneurs is really a band-aid that is working to heal a bigger problem.
“Even though we are called Aspen Entrepreneurs, we don't view ourselves as an entrepreneur organization. We view ourselves as a community organization. A few years ago we identified a problem: Aspen is losing young people,” Mesirow said.
It’s not just a feeling - Aspen really is losing young people. Mick Ireland has studied Aspen’s census data for decades.
“It's very definite. There was a time when Aspen had an above average proportion of people under 40 compared to the rest of the state, and now we are actually at or below average in that group,” said Ireland.
He attributes high housing costs as one of the biggest influences of what he calls the “vanishing generation.” Ireland said buying a house in Aspen was always expensive, but now it’s next to impossible for year-round residents. And even renting living space is unattainable for most people in their early careers in Aspen.
He said, at some point, the generation drain will have a toll on the community.
“Everybody always talks about sustainability, but the essence of sustainability is that you have a succor generation, and right now Aspen has relatively few young children,” said Ireland.
And even those kids who do grow up here, like Michaela Carpenter-Olson, have a tough choice to make when deciding where to settle down.
“They can either work in hospitality or retail or they move away. Now if you're in the hospitality industry, people tend to feel very stuck, and then people who move away generally can't move back until after their retired. Until they've earned enough to earn their place back in Aspen.”
Carpenter-Olson said neither one of those paths looked good to her. She wanted to stay in Aspen but to also grow professionally. And so, at least for this summer, a handful of artisans will have a storefront retail space on Hyman Avenue. Under the same roof, a handful of startups will have an office to work out of and perhaps a reason to stay in town.
“This was my solution. And I hope that the platform that I am building and the platform that AE are building can help give us a third pathway. Where people can stay in Aspen and contribute to the community and be part of the community and be a part of something that is engaging them and nourishing them and rooting for them,” Carpenter-Olson said.