Main Ave. struggles to stay viable
Downtown business faces sagging sales and box-retailer trend

A pedestrian passes a “for rent” sign in an empty storefront on Main Avenue on Tuesday. As retail sales slump and big-box chain stores open on the edge of
town, downtown business leaders are devising ways to keep Main Avenue and Durango’s central business district healthy./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Slumping retail sales, lower sales tax revenues and the opening of new national chain stores south of town have business leaders and city officials starting to scheme ideas to pump new blood into Durango’s central business district.

Business leaders aren’t painting a gloomy picture – one that depicts Main Avenue as a tourist town gone dry – but they are beginning to recognize trends that may constrain the vitality of Durango’s most important attraction. Longtime Main Avenue businesses, such as Do It Best hardware, are closing shop, sending locals to South Durango for everyday sundries. And, increasingly, stores that once drew locals are being replaced with chic boutiques better suited for tourists.

“It’s an evolution that’s been going on for some time,” says Bobby Lieb, executive director of La Plata Economic Dev-elopment Action Partnership.

As this summer tourist season kicks off, there are, according to real estate listings, at least 10 businesses for sale within the central business district. There also are empty storefronts up and down Main.

“The fact that there are vacancies now this early in the summer is an indication of a troubled economy,” Lieb says.

Cuatro Bernard, owner of Durango Fly Goods, is selling his fly shop because he’s moving to Australia. Bernard says his business was down 30 percent last year due to the Missionary Ridge Fire, but he still has a profitable company. He admits that if he’d attempted to sell his shop two years ago, he would have more prospective buyers, but he recognizes the changing local and national economy and its impact on small-business owners is beyond control.

A year ago, Antoinette Carr bought the former San Juan Room and turned it into the Wild Horse Saloon. Now, she’s selling the business because of health reasons. She says that last year’s fire negatively impacted her revenue, though she, too, still has a profitable company that she believes will flourish.

“I expect a busy summer, and to even do better this year,” Carr says. “People still are coming downtown. It’s still alive.”

But in spite of profits, business and city leaders say they can’t overlook important signs that the business district is developing – for good or bad – a new face. And the future will require more than trying to retain businesses that draw tourists.

“The central business district can’t go head to head with South Durango just by changing the types of stores,” Lieb says.

The key, many say, is appealing to locals and ensuring that they make Main Avenue a frequent destination for all sorts of reasons. To respond to the changes, LEAD, the city and other business organizations are working to implement policies to encourage growth downtown. Lieb says that one way to keep this area alive is to combine commercial and residential growth. The city should allow for residential units above street-level businesses, which helps keep residents downtown. This would mean, however, possibly changing the city’s parking requirements.

Currently, the city requires developers to provide one parking space for about every 300 square feet of additional space. If space isn’t available, developers must pay the city an in-lieu fee of $6,000 for each space.

“In my opinion, this is hindering downtown development,” Lieb says.

A view of a slow day for the Durango Central Business District from the intersection of Main and
College./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

This adds to the existing parking woes Durangoans have faced for years. City officials routinely hear complaints from locals that there is a lack of parking availability, says Durango Mayor Virginia Castro. She says she shares their concerns and believes the city needs to address them immediately to maintain the business district’s vitality. Castro says that the City Council has asked city staffers to determine the cost of returning to providing free trolley service. The question is, she says, if people will use it.

“Since these days you can buy almost everything on the Internet, it is now more important than ever that we do whatever we can to encourage people to shop downtown,” she says.

Castro says the city is also continuing its search for an events coordinator. Earlier this year the city started looking for a person to promote and organize events downtown and to be a liaison between the city and downtown businesses. The initial search fell dead, but Assistant City Manager Greg Caton says the city is moving forward with a new proposal.

“We’re taking a fresh look at how to accomplish those duties and responsibilities,” says Caton. Instead of a contracted position, Caton says the coordinator may be a city employee – on the city payroll with benefits.

Meanwhile, the city continues to work with LEAD and others to outline additional options. Among their top concerns is that La Plata County conduct a feasibility study to move its courts and legal offices to a new building in Bodo Park. Wayne Bedor, La Plata County finance director, says the idea is “strictly a plan” that may not come to fruition. He adds that it’s necessary for the county to explore the new justice center because the County Courthouse is overcrowded, with many of employees now working from offices in the Old Main Post Office building.

But because the county is one of Durango’s largest employers, many fear that moving these offices out of downtown seriously threatens its viability. Lieb says that lawyers and title companies may follow suit, because they routinely use the court offices.

“These are symbiotically connected businesses, and they may move to be closer to the courts,” he explains.

Patty Burkholder, president of Wells Fargo Bank, agrees that it’s imperative to keep county offices downtown. Twelve years ago, Burkholder was living in Greeley when the town’s central business district suffered tremendous losses. After the city closed off streets to create a pedestrian mall, many locals stopped shopping at stores because parking spaces were sparse or too far away. Additionally, businesses lacked visibility to passersby. Locals began shopping at a new mall built on the edge of town, and many businesses ended up moving there as well.

Burkholder said that the mainstays in downtown Greeley were county offices. Although she doesn’t see glaring similarities between Greeley and Durango, she knows firsthand how important it is for cities to make wise choices to retain local traffic on Main Avenues. So far, she says, she still sees people in Durango head downtown during lunch hours to do errands or eat. But she says she also realizes that as the central business district evolves and businesses pop up on the outskirts of town, city and business leaders face significant challenges to stave off stagnancy.

“It’s a lot easier to keep what you’ve got than to have to build it back,” Burkholder says.

Lieb agrees, but adds that there’s no sense of urgency yet. He says he wants to reserve a complete reaction for the end of this summer, when retail sales and tax revenues will provide a clearer picture. Until then, LEAD advocates that the city continue to study density and parking issues while downtown is still alive and kicking.

“It’s a place people still go. It hasn’t been abandoned,” Lieb says. “But we can’t rest on our laurels that it will always remain viable if we don’t do anything.”








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