MONTROSE – That old adage – when one door closes, another door opens – has certainly been true on East Main Street in Montrose, where stores and restaurants have been both closing and opening lately, but with several “for rent” signs still dotting the first block of the street.
A stroll up and down both sides of East Main Street between Townsend and Uncompahgre avenues gives not only a look at both emerging and long-term downtown merchants; it reflects a wide range of attitudes and notions about just how well downtown Montrose is doing, as well.
Voters in a new downtown district agreed last April to create a Downtown Development Authority, which is just now getting established. But some downtown merchants are already rolling up their sleeves to get things going to help the new DDA, said Amy Harmsen of the Canyon Gallery, which specializes in Colorado photographers and opened last year at 300 East Main Street, on the southeast corner at Townsend Ave.
That’s where we begin our tour, heading east.
Harmsen and her husband Wil bought the building and opened shop in May, taking the place of the long-term tenant, Miz Kitty’s Emporium. They remodeled, and added space for a smaller shop next door.
Harmsen said she is helping to organize a group of fellow downtown merchants to help the new DDA with near-term projects like special events.
“We’re looking at calling it the Downtown Community Association,” she said, and planning it to function as “somewhat of an arm of DDA.”
DCA will consider how to help events like the not-for-profit Main in Motion, the weekly Thursday summer-afternoon downtown festival featuring live music and entertainment, food vendors, activities for kids and grownups, as well as specials offered by many downtown merchants, to continue; Main in Motion lost its city funding last year. Although Main in Motion brings in welcome additional revenues, Harmsen observed, the city charges organizers $500 to close off streets for it and other special events.
Harmsen hopes to see six more events in downtown Montrose, in addition to Main in Motion, added every year.
The City of Montrose has succeeded in getting the State of Colorado to divert a portion of U.S. Highway 50, from Main Street to San Juan Ave., effecting a closure along East Main Street from Townsend Ave. on the west end eastward to Park Ave., and possibly delivering that portion of Main Street, from San Juan Ave. to the west, to a future reconfiguring of the street.
But back to our downtown walk, just east of the photo studio, now home to the Harmsens’ tenant, Mitchell’s Unique Gifts, where Jessica Mitchell opened shop in November.
Two small bronze cowboy sculptures by Frederic Remington sit atop mahogany antiques in the store’s window; like much of the Mitchell’s eclectic inventory, they come from estate sales. Standing nearby, in a small lower section, is a vintage pinball machine with life-sized cardboard figures of Star Trek’s Dr. Spock and Captain Kirk.
Business has been “a little slow,” Mitchell said, but since she’s been open only a short time, she is optimistic that things will pick up soon.
A consignment clothing shop next to Mitchell recently closed shop, but at 308 East Main St., Creative Photography owner Rhonda Hodges has been in business for 21 years, and says she’s seen it all, but is hoping things will get better.
“I’ve seen many cycles where stores have been empty and refilled,” she said, “but we’re here to stay.”
Things are all right at Ouray Silversmith at 312 East Main St., which opened four years ago, said employee Jilian Keenan.
“Business has been good and we’ve been busy,” she said.
A vacant storefront separates Ouray Silversmith and long-time downtown merchant Mike Simpson, owner of Simpson Gallery, whose outlook isn’t quite so rosy.
“It keeps getting worse,” said Simpson, who laid off all his employees last year. “I used to say if it doesn’t get worse we’ll be OK, but it’s worse, significantly,” he said.
Then he smiled, his blue eyes twinkling. “But by nature we’re always hopeful, and I’m sure that ultimately it will get better.”
Business had gotten better – and worse – for downtown restaurants, which demonstrate the most recent examples of doors opening and closing.
The newly remodeled Simmer Food and Wine, at 320 East Main St., opened for business Monday night, replacing Cazwella’s, which closed several weeks before; Simmer is operated by Cazwella’s original owners, Keithley and Donn Wagner.
Meanwhile, across the street at 309 East Main St., Belly Restaurant closed its doors about a week ago, while in November, the R&R Sports Bar opened two blocks away at the corner of North First St. and Uncompahgre Ave., taking with it several Belly employees, including bar manager Adrian Sandoval.
Some people said Belly closed because the recent owners lacked experience in the restaurant business, but that’s not stopping Lanham and Laura Rattan and their friends Sinny and James Richardson from opening the R&R, or Steve Wood from opening Big Head Barbecue, still being remodeled, just west of the Great Harvest Bakery. “I wanted someplace where older people could go, where people could bring their kids,” Rattan said of the sports bar with two 110-inch screens among the dozen monitors along the walls, and games of foosball, pool and shuffleboard.
Wood, who has done catering but never owned a restaurant before, said he’ll be delivering the best barbecue for miles around, all mesquite-smoked, with specialties like beef brisket, baby back ribs and pulled pork, with even the baked beans staying on the cooker for five hours.
“We’ll have two- and three-meat plates, with a couple of sides, but also sandwiches and chips for $6 or $7,” said Wood, who plans to open in mid-February.
But back to the tour on the south side of East Main Street, where the SheShe Boutique, next to Simpson’s Gallery, had a pretty good winter, said employee Ruthie Rich. Even though it’s been a little slow lately, Rich said she is excited about the future of downtown.
Just west of the boutique, at the Creative Corner at 344 East Main St., volunteers Luther and Wanda McCracken and Kay Cliff talked about the success of the artisans’ coop, which opened in November of 2009.
“We’re doing pretty good, and have lots of people in the store right now,” Cliff said. “We’ve done very well, and are both pleased and surprised.”
From January to March is always slow at the shop, where artists like Cliff and the McCrackens volunteer their time, along with about thirty other artisans whose creations are sold, Cliff said.
“It’s all handcrafted and all local and a lot of fun.”
But next door at the Daily Bread, at the corner of East Main and Uncompahgre Ave., where a handful of customers were eating lunch on Monday, owner Margaret Johnson said things are slow, and that losing the highway traffic from U.S. Highway 50 has hurt business.
“It is really slow and we would like to make things happen, but it doesn’t seem to be coming back,” she said.
Johnson has been on her corner for many years, and only recently got competition from the Great Harvest Bread Co., which opened at 347 East Main St., on the north side of the street, in June of last year. Great Harvest employee Lynn Fyffe said business has been steady, but the lunch business has had “slow moments” lately.
There were few customers in the Great Harvest Monday afternoon, one of them Region 10 Director Paul Gray, who talked about economic development in general after finishing his club sandwich.
The key to getting successful businesses to locate downtown, or anywhere, for that matter, is to study what will work, Gray said. He said a “comprehensive economic development strategy” is needed for the six counties in the Seventh Judicial District, and should include areas like downtown Montrose.
“We truly are without this kind of objective evaluation, and our economic development efforts are shooting in the dark,” he said. “To be efficient and effective, we need a business background strategy.”
It could be that downtown needs niche-market stores, as some have proposed, but it’s all guesswork until a valid study is done, Gray said.
To that end, Region 10 has recently applied to the Internal Revenue Service to change its status from 501(c)4 to 501(c)3, he said, to make donations to the agency tax deductible, potentially increasing its revenue stream. More money for the agency could help fund an updated economic development strategy study and open up many other ways for the agency to be proactive in helping with economic development, Gray said. He said he will hear from the IRS within a few months.
Back to our walk, out into the sunlight and moving west to the shop next door, hope is in the air as work continues at Wood’s new barbecue joint, but the large storefront next door at 337 East Main, which once was a big clothing store, is for rent, as are two smaller adjoining storefronts with for rent signs in the windows.
But business is picking up at DeVinny Jewelers, another longtime downtown business, and owner Dave DeVinny chuckled at his old friend Mike Simpson’s dire outlook.
“That’s just Mike,” he said.
Business has actually slowly picked up since last June for the jewelry store, DeVinny said, and he’s “cautiously optimistic” for 2011, even though unemployment is still high here and he’s buying a lot of gold from customers. But he said he’s encouraged because of new businesses opening.
A step back onto the sidewalk, and a large sign on the door at Cimarron Creek, next to DeVinny’s at 317 East Main, tells the sad side of the effects of the economic downturn on a long-established downtown businesses.
“We are closed forever,” it reads. “Thanks for your friendship and business over these last 20 years.”
Next is Belly, closed at least for now, then Top of the Peak at 305 East Main St., and which opened a couple of years ago, offering boxing and kickboxing classes.
Another empty storefront with a for rent sign in its window brings us to the end our walking tour at the northwest corner of East Main and Townsend Ave.
Some merchants joke that with all the closed businesses, “now there’s plenty of parking on Main Street,” but it’s no joke to Bob McMullen, manager of Mesa Music, which he said owner John Crouch reopened a couple of years ago, just around the corner from Main Street at 7 South Townsend. With improvements to the median on Townsend Ave., the handful of parking spaces were done away with for a right-turn lane, McMullen said.
“They took away all our parking away,” he said. “That’s the hardest part.”