As coronavirus safety measures forced many shops and restaurants to temporarily close in March, a private Facebook group popped up to connect business owners specifically in downtown Colorado Springs.
There, they traded resources and information, discussed what each was doing to survive and talked about how the city could help local restaurants and retailers, like speeding up the permitting process to allow for sidewalk dining. Owners shared what they financially needed and soon learned that $650,000 in grants were made available to downtown shops and restaurants. The group’s creators? The Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs.
“Their ability to bring everybody into a conversation together in multiple ways blew me away,” said Morgan Calderini, co-owner of Ladyfingers Letterpress, a stationary and gift store on East Bijou Street. “I have business owner friends in other towns and no one had this support we saw from the Downtown Partnership.”
The rallying efforts of the nonprofit downtown agency is one of many factors credited with getting Colorado Springs business owners through the worst of the coronavirus disruptions. It’s a sentiment echoed in other downtowns around the state where similar partnerships spent the stay-at-home period organizing virtual events and gift-card purchases, while promoting the spirit of buying local. A promotion offering a $10 gift card to shoppers who spent $25 (now at $50) at downtown businesses in Grand Junction helped spur $70,000 in spending, according to Grand Junction downtown officials.
Of course, it’s not over yet. And it didn’t work for everyone. Some, like Iron Bird Brewing Co. in Colorado Springs, called it quits in early May. In downtown Denver, some shops remain boarded up, waiting on office workers and other customers to feel safe enough to return. Hotels continue to keep staff furloughed. Surviving the coronavirus disruption may be the most challenging experience any downtown organization will face because of its suddenness and effect on all commerce, not like past financial downturns affecting core industries.
Officials in other Colorado downtowns shared reasons for their optimism and why their urban center will make it through. Denver officials pointed to the strong momentum going into the pandemic with high employment, an influx of new companies moving to the city. In Grand Junction, director Brandon Stam said his town is in a more remote area and has attracted people from larger cities seeking a less crowded, more affordable place to live.
“Most of the big capital projects are still underway and they’re still going on,” Stam said. “In a weird way I think we’re pretty well set up to recover.”
Colorado Springs fits in between those two, entering the pandemic with a slew of construction projects that continued to progress in the past two months. In downtown there are two sports stadiums, about a dozen apartment buildings and three hotels under construction. The new U.S. Olympic Museum is still expected to open this summer, or maybe fall.
“None of them are finished or were scheduled to be finished. All of them are funded already,” said Mike Juran, CEO of automotive tech company Altia, which moved its headquarters to downtown in the past year. “And nobody’s pulling funding back, and all of the construction has been considered essential business. We’ve got cranes down here, more cranes than we’ve ever had. They’re not slowing down. And the hope is, when they open, people will start traveling again.”
The financial appeal of downtowns
As downtowns in Colorado reported their annual updates in May, COVID addendums were added at the last minute. For Denver, the Downtown Partnership cautioned that tourism, which accounts for $800 million in annual visitor spending, had ground to a halt. Permits for new projects had dropped 11% this year as of April, compared to the same period of last year. And the value of projects had fallen 32%.
But before the pandemic hit full force, the city had 23 major projects under construction, added 11,000 new residents in the past year and grew retail sales and sales-tax collection by 8.2% — “the largest annual increase since 2014.”
“We had record levels of employment, record levels of visitors, record levels of residential population is really virtually every economic indicator you can imagine in downtown, we were setting records. If there was a way to go into sort of an economic recession, caused by the pandemic, we were fit, we were strong, we were as well prepared as humanly possible,” said Randy Thelen, senior vice president for economic development at the Downtown Denver Partnership.
Besides cleaning crews power washing surfaces regularly and cleaning touchable surfaces every other hour, Thelen said the downtown agency is rethinking events. Canceled are massive ones, like “A Taste of Colorado” over Labor Day weekend. But smaller, more dispersed activities to “give people a moment of joy at multiple places around the core of our city” are being planned, he said.
Financial research firm Moody’s Analytics ranked Denver among the nation’s top 10 “best positioned to recover” from COVID.
“Just (Tuesday night), I walked through Larimer Square, which is a great retail street in downtown Denver, and just eyeballing it, the outdoor cafe spaces looked to be about 80-90% occupied,” he said. “People want to get back to their favorite restaurants, they want to get back into downtown but they want to do so safely.”
The story’s a little different in Colorado Springs, which also touted 2019 as one of its best years ever in its annual report. But it had taken the city a long time to get downtown to this point, said Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Downtown Partnership.
“In the recession of 2008, what we were lacking then is something we’ve lacked for a long time that we’re changing, and that’s lots of people living downtown,” Edmondson said. “That was one of the big things that held back our downtown recovery. We know it’s so important for our shops and restaurants, they need people living near them.”
Nine multifamily projects have been announced for downtown that will add 1,250 new places to live within three years. That will have a dramatic impact on downtown residents, which number around 2,000, a 14% increase since 2010.
Juran, who lives downtown and now bikes to Altia’s downtown office, said he expects office workers to return soon. About 40 employees who usually work at the downtown office are still working at their homes. But folks are anxious to return, he said.
“We started a couple of new employees last week, we had a new intern team start a couple of weeks ago and they’re not getting the benefit of the face-to-face experience,” he said. “The existing relationships with all of our employees have been really good so we have this level of trust, we’ve been able to use meetings like Zoom and GoTo. It’s been OK for now, but we’re going to definitely go back.”
More changes expected
More than a week after police brutality protests occurred in cities nationwide including in Colorado Springs, the Downtown Partnership in Colorado Springs posted a statement this week on its homepage that systemic racism must end. It pledged to channel efforts “toward sustained progress for true justice and equity for all.”
“Downtown is the front porch to the city, which is where we come to speak, if you will, in the public square and call for changes to society,” said Edmondson, with the Downtown Partnership. “We respect those who do it peacefully and we absolutely believe this can be done peacefully and these voices need to be heard.”
She said that the conversations must continue, plus a plan of action. She said many of the downtown businesses want to figure this out together.
“I’ve been really gratified that many of our businesses have really leaned into this as well and whether it was providing water for demonstrators, or just making clear that there’s a safe space that they’re welcome to come,” she said. “Our businesses knew this is an important conversation to have.”
Over at Wild Goose Meeting House, a coffee and casual food cafe on North Tejon Street, the changes are welcome, said Russ Ware, who started the neighborhood hangout with business partner Yemi Mobolade.
“The cultural upheaval that’s happening which, thank God I’m 100% for it, this is the most important thing that’s probably going to happen in my lifetime,” Ware said. “I thought it was going to be getting through this virus. And now I’ve figured out, oh no it’s not. We might actually finally turn a major corner with racial justice in this country.”
Ware’s used to change. The meeting house started in 2013 as a coffeeshop that sold some food. It quickly evolved into a restaurant that sold coffee and offered live entertainment on some nights. As coronavirus shut the place down in March, Ware focused on sister restaurant, Good Neighbors Meeting House, located in a more residential neighborhood in the northern outskirts of downtown. He turned it into a food market where you can still buy a 1-pound block of Muenster cheese for $5.
Wild Goose reopened four weeks later and added its own food market and to-go orders, which it had never offered before. As restaurants were allowed to partially reopen to in-person dining in late May, Ware tried something new: Wild Goose began taking prepaid reservations for people who just wanted to bring their laptop in and work outside of their home.
“As things ramped up, that’s kind of the biggest shift we did there and we’re only a couple weeks into it, but it’s going really well,” said Ware, who hopes to adopt prepaid reservations when they can start hosting jazz nights again. “You know, we’ve never even taken reservations here, much less this novel idea of prepaid reservations. What coffee shop even has reservations? So, it’s kind of crazy.”
Wild Goose is lucky to have its own outdoor patio with 11 tables. But Ware is also supportive of blocking the streets from vehicle traffic to allow other restaurants without patios to expand their outdoor space.
“Maybe we can create zones where different restaurants and bars share areas where they can carry beer out into the middle of Tejon Street,” Ware said. “Maybe they got something from Jose Muldoon’s and they’re sitting next to somebody that got something from Mood Tapas bar or whatever. A kind of glorified outdoor food court.”
It’s that sort of local support that seems woven into this downtown community, a sentiment you don’t usually find in shopping centers filled with national retailers and chain restaurants. Even online, business neighbors support one another. Earlier this week, a Wild Goose post on Facebook encouraged its fans to head over to Ladyfingers Letterpress to buy Black Lives Matter posters.
Calderini, who owns and operates the Ladyfingers Letterpress store with wife and designer/illustrator Arley-Rose Torsone, said the couple put the mortgage on their house on hold and on forbearance and paused every single bill they could. They weren’t eligible for one of the forgivable federal Paycheck Protection loans because the company had an existing loan from the Small Business Administration. They did get a $15,000 grant from the downtown Small Business Relief Fund, which was funded by a downtown tax program and donations from several private businesses. It doled out $650,000 to 95 downtown businesses
“I feel like it’s hopefully brought a greater awareness to people that where you’re shopping is what you’re supporting,” Calderini said. “For us, what we have been so grateful for is that the community here came out and continued to come out. They may not need a candle but they are buying one and they’re supporting us because they want us in the community.”