20 Jan Empty storefronts filling up
Nearly two dozen businesses opened downtown in 2016; a dozen more on wayBY RICH LADEN
Downtown Colorado Springs’ commercial real estate market always has its ups and downs, typically rising and falling with the economy.
But these days, it’s flying higher than it has in several years.
The area’s retail vacancy rate in the third quarter of last year fell to 3 percent, down from an estimated 5 percent at the end of 2012, says the Downtown Partnership advocacy group. Tenants now occupy a few storefronts that had stood vacant for extended periods, while more businesses are poised to fill empty spaces over the next several months.
Nearly two dozen businesses — including restaurants, bars, traditional retailers and service-sector ventures — joined downtown’s ranks in 2016, the Downtown Partnership estimates. In 2017, at least a dozen more are expected to follow.
“There’s been some great new additions, not only in the restaurant part of things, but unusual kinds of businesses that make (downtown) Colorado Springs seem very eclectic,” said Richard Skorman, the longtime downtown businessman who operates Poor Richard’s restaurant and bookstore.
That might be the first time “eclectic” has been used to describe downtown.
The roster of businesses that came to the area last year or are expected to open in 2017 includes a bookstore, an art supply business, a pet-sitting service, a custom furniture designer/manufacturer and a spin studio. They join restaurants, bars and other more traditional businesses for which downtown is known.
“We see downtown Colorado Springs as really being the epicenter of local small business, so we’re seeing a lot of growth there,” said Sarah Humbargar, the Downtown Partnership’s business development and economic vitality director.
In fact, many of the new businesses are independently owned, which Skorman and other downtown advocates say is a plus.
“There’s still not many national chains,” Skorman said. “You don’t see Banana Republic and Cheesecake Factory and Old Navy taking over downtown Colorado Springs like you do the Boulder, Pearl Street Mall or the 16th Street Mall in Denver. I think that makes us even more special.”
Among the reasons cited by the Downtown Partnership and others for a flurry of downtown activity:
• Improvement of the local and national economies, which means stronger consumer confidence, an expansion of existing businesses and the launch of startups.
• A desire on the part of young people and even empty nesters to live in an urban core, where they can walk or bike to bars, restaurants and other businesses. In turn, retailers, restaurants and the like want to be near them.
• Efforts by the Downtown Partnership to market the area on behalf of its businesses. The group worked with at least two-thirds of the new businesses that arrived in 2016 to help prepare them for their launch, Humbargar said.
• A follow-the-leader effect, in which some new businesses — already attracted to downtown because of its character and urban feel — want to mimic the success of longtime retailers and restaurants. That list of downtown mainstays includes Poor Richard’s, Jose Muldoon’s restaurant and retailers Sparrow Hawk Gourmet Cookware, the Terra Verde clothing, jewelry and accessories store and the Mountain Chalet outdoor gear and clothing shop.
“We’re hearing from a lot of businesses,” Humbargar said. “They’ve seen the success of their peers downtown, and so they’re following that trend.”
In October, Kesha and Ryan Leets opened Cycology Studio, a boutique cycling center for fitness buffs, at 117 E. Bijou St., near Bijou and Nevada Avenue.
The Leets eyed retail space in Briargate on the north side and the University Village Colorado retail center in the north central part of town, Kesha Leet said. But the couple didn’t seriously consider them; the Leets live downtown, eat downtown and are adamant about spending time in the area, she said.
So when it came time to open, they wanted to put their money where their mouth was and support downtown, Kesha said.
“We really want Colorado residents to be able to come downtown to live, work and play,” she said. “That really hasn’t been something that was accessible in the past years. So just bringing that walkable community to our residents was really important to us.”
Michelle Marx and her daughter, Turu, brought their Coquette’s Bistro & Bakery to 321-325 N. Tejon St. in 2014, after launching it more than five years earlier in Manitou Springs.
Now, as they seek more functional space for their growing business, they’re moving Coquette’s to a former eye clinic building they’re remodeling at 616 S. Tejon St. They’ll continue operating on North Tejon until April 1, then close for two weeks and reopen on South Tejon in mid-April, Michelle Marx said.
The new building — which will allow Coquette’s to expand restaurant and baking operations — will have a dining area and bar, separated by a fireplace; a retail area for the bakery, with cafe seating and space for kids to play; an outdoor patio; a new kitchen; and an indoor party room for meetings, wedding receptions and other events — something customers frequently ask about, Michelle Marx said.
In considering a new location, the Marxes could have gone elsewhere — even to Denver, Michelle Marx said. However, downtown is where they want to be, and relocating to South Tejon will help boost the area’s development.
“There’s something about a downtown that feels intimate, it feels older, like there’s some history to it,” Michelle Marx said. “The buildings are different … I’m just a lover of downtowns. They have just a more interesting architecture and diversity.”
As the Marxes move out of their North Tejon space, Mark Henry, a local chef, will move in.
In mid-May, he plans to open Rooster’s House of Ramen at 323-325 N. Tejon. The affordably priced, fast-casual Asian-American noodle house — a concept Henry said has worked well in larger cities — will be open for lunch and dinner. With the restaurant’s North Tejon location, Henry expects it will appeal to Colorado College students, families and downtown visitors.
“We want it to be a place where you can come and enjoy yourself and have some food that brings you back to your heyday, something you can afford to do a couple of times a week, or a couple times a month as opposed to a couple times a year,” he said.
Henry also envisions the restaurant as a community gathering spot. Not everyone drives from home to work and back again; some people ride buses and like to stop at coffee shops or other places where they can meet new people, he said.
Downtown — with its public transportation, shoppers, visitors and a growing number of residences — is a perfect location for that kind of gathering place, he said.
“One of the things that restaurants thrive on is curb appeal,” Henry said. “And there’s a lot of foot traffic downtown.One of the biggest draws for us is absolutely all the lofts and the apartment buildings and things of that nature that are being built downtown.”
In fact, downtown development is part of the appeal for new businesses.
Among new apartment projects, the 33-unit Blue Dot Place opened a year ago on South Nevada Avenue and a 169-unit building is under construction at Wahsatch and Colorado avenues. Meanwhile, nine lofts are being added to the newly constructed second story of the building at 117 E. Bijou, where the Leets have their ground-floor cycling studio.
Beyond residences, a Colorado Springs group plans to construct a 10-story, 165-room Hilton Garden Inn at Cascade Avenue and Bijou Street. And downtown supporters expect that the U.S. Olympic Museum, planned for southwest downtown, will be a catalyst for more development.
Skorman, Henry and others lauded the Downtown Partnership for its marketing efforts. In the past, the DowntownPartnership spent too much time promoting parades and other special events as a way to draw people to the area, Skorman said.
Now, he said, the group works more directly with existing businesses and newcomers. It also promotes attractions and activities that set downtown apart from other areas, such as the Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum, sidewalk and music art and the skating rink and Uncle Wilber Fountain at Acacia Park, Skorman said.
Downtown, of course, still has its issues.
Transients — a turn-off for some visitors — gravitate to the area because it’s home to the Marian House Soup Kitchen and other services.
Some shoppers and restaurantgoers, meanwhile, believe the area lacks parking or that spaces are too far from the businesses they want to patronize — although many are willing to walk from sprawling parking lots to reach suburban shopping centers and malls.
The cost of doing business downtown also has a price.
Tiffany Colvert, a commercial broker with NAI Highland in Colorado Springs, said leasing retail space in downtown’saging buildings generally costs a couple of dollars more per square foot than in other parts of the city where buildings also are older.
But some businesses are willing to pay it because downtown’s pedestrians, employees and motorists provide a steady stream of customers.
“You definitely pay a premium for downtown,” Colvert said.
Even as downtown’s storefronts are filling up, and new development is taking place, the area still has a ways to go.
Nearly 500 new residences are planned to come available over the next four years, Colvert said, citing DowntownPartnership figures. And yet, hundreds of additional residences — or more — will be needed if downtown hopes to attract a grocery, a pharmacy or other sorely needed businesses.
“It takes a bit out of the numbers we need to get to,” Colvert said of current housing plans. “But we have a little ways to go before we land a grocery downtown.”
And while Skorman and others like the idea that locally owned and operated businesses dominate downtown,Humbargar said there’s room for some regional and national chains — especially as the area grows and adds more housing.
Oskar Blues, the popular Longmont-based restaurant, craft beer brewer and music venue, will take over the former Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom space on Tejon Street this year — an announcement many people welcomed. While Oskar Blues is a regional chain, its atmosphere will fit downtown, Humbargar said.
“We want to maintain true to our brand, that downtown Colorado Springs is local,” Humbargar said. “It’s always a balance. We don’t see Tejon Street turning into the Shops at Briargate.”
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“We want it to be a place where you can come and enjoy yourself and have some food that brings you back to your heyday, something you can afford to do a couple of times a week, or a couple times a month as opposed to a couple times a year.”
Mark Henry, a local chef