The road to something better
While some Vail storefronts sit empty and many Vailites wait for sweeping, even systematic changes in the Vail retail scene, a few Vail merchants and landlords are taking matters into their own hands to enliven the village’s shopping experience.From individual endeavors to impressive grassroots efforts, even though they may not be solving all of Vail Village’s retail woes, a creative few are making a big difference, observers say.And while many fingers have been pointed at a few Vail landlords for creating a glut of vacant retail space in Vail (the sluggish U.S. economy and stock market share some blame, too), there are some landlords who are not only taking a realistic approach to rents, but also reaching out in creative, cooperative ways to retail tenants.Bob and Helen Fritch are a perfect example. True, they were disappointed when their star tenant, the Polo Ralph Lauren shop, left Vail after several years in their Gore Creek Circle location. And they were hoping for a similar big-name tenant to replace the store."Originally, I had hoped we could get some high-end retailer in that would take the whole space. We were unable to do that," explains Bob Fritch.But the landlords soon realized bringing in another high-profile tenant like Polo was unlikely right now, and current tenants told the couple only major stores like The Gap or the Banana Republic would take on all 3,800 square feet of space."I told him no one is going to rent it. A private person would have to bring in $800,000 to $1 million in inventory to make $3 million," says Luca Bruno.Instead, the Fritches, who have been in Vail for 29 years, settled on the unusual remedy of subdividing the space and offering it to three tenants. Even more daring, they agreed to take a chance on three relatively unknown (to Vail) entrepreneurs."We still tried to get high-end retailers in who would enhance the shopping experience in Vail," Fritch says. "I didn’t want a T-shirt shop."Today, the fun, unusual women’s clothing of Carla Lewis Charm School Boutique, the Italian men and women’s clothing of Luca Bruno and the high-end art of Kim Eckenroth of the Eckenroth Gallery occupy the old Polo space. And the Fritches seem to like the arrangement."I think these stores will be another asset along Gore Creek Circle," Fritch says. "I’m enthusiastic about the prospects of them being successful."Carla Lewis is a relative newcomer to Vail. She has operated a successful store in Glenwood Springs for eight years, but only brought the Charm School Boutique to Vail last winter for five months on a trial basis.Customers seemed to love her eclectic blend of unusual clothing, from elegant evening wear to sexy night club pieces and vintage style frocks to funky, casual everyday wear and the latest in hot young designer clothing. But the space she was renting at the top of Bridge Street from Ron Riley was only temporary, until the permanent tenant moved in May.Afterward, Lewis found it impossible, at first, to find anything else she could afford and not have to charge customers a fortune for her clothes. Rents, she found, were going for up to $180 per square foot, plus $35 CAM (common area maintenance) fees. Lewis says if it had not been for the "great rates" the Fritches offered her she would not have been able to continue in Vail. Rent at the old Polo store is $58 per square foot, plus an annual $575 common costs fee."It gives new, young entrepreneurs a chance," says Lewis.Next door, Luca Bruno also says he would not have been able to remain in Vail if it were not for the Fritches and their reasonable rents. Luca Bruno, Italy is another unusual new store to come to Vail, offering upscale Italian clothing, with fine Italian fabrics.The boutique features Luca Bruno’s private collection of Italian designs as well. While the store is new to Vail, Bruno is not. Originally from Italy, he was the assistant manager at the Polo Shop for several years before it shut down in 2001."I looked at the Covered Bridge area, but the rents were crazy, nuts," Bruno says. "I was going to have to leave Vail if I had not worked out an arrangement with the Fritches. I really love Vail. There is talk about landlords and all these stores empty, but the landlords sometimes are actually pretty good."Fritch doesn’t believe he did anything out of the ordinary for a landlord. "I think I’m getting a reasonable return on my investment," he says. He does admit that his rents are probably the lowest for this area of Vail. "I think it’s important that Vail encourages good retail space to improve our image and the enjoyment of our guests."So far, his gamble has paid off. Both Lewis and Bruno report November the first month they were open was profitable."We’ve developed a loyal clientele already," Lewis says. "We are really affordable for locals right in the heart of Vail.""It was successful for me," Bruno says. "I have a good product, that doesn’t cost a million dollars."While the Fritches and their tenants are a single inspiring example of what one or two individuals can accomplish alone, the landlords and shop owners along Meadow Drive in Vail Village are a sterling example of how a little cooperation can go a long, long way.Realizing that most foot traffic goes up and down Bridge Street from the parking structure toward the ski mountain, and that many people have no idea there are many wonderful shops and businesses along Meadow Drive, the merchants and landlords banded together last year to change that perception. Each business chipped in $200 and many landlords anted up $5,000 apiece. With that minimal amount, and a lot of ingenuity, the group has been able to accomplish a great deal, including creating its own logo: Meadow Drive, Vail’s Main Street.Surprised themselves at how many merchants are on Meadow Drive (80 in all), the group first created a map for shoppers detailing all the businesses and wherethey are located. Secondly, the group created the Farmer’s Market in Vail this past summer, which featured local merchandise and quality Colorado farm products, and was a reported success. The Town of Vail helped out by scheduling buses to and from the event along Meadow Drive, and the fire department was accommodating as well."The idea behind it is to establish Meadow Drive as ashopping district," explains Jonathon Staufer, who is co-organizing the Farmer’s Market with Rick Scapella. "Obviously, we are a part of Vail Village, but Bridge Street gets a lot of the traffic. We wanted to do our share."Additionally, the group started the Meadow Drive Artwalk, free evenings exploring a couple of Meadow Drives fine art galleries, culminating in a gathering at a restaurant or bar to discuss the art and to chat.On Sept. 7-8, the Meadow Drive group put on the Italian Festival, featuring all things Italian. To draw people in, they offered a drawing for a four-night stay, including airfare, in Tuscany.Although Staufer admits the group made mistakes, he says the Italian Festival would be back, bigger and better than ever next year.This winter, the Meadow Drive group has created the10-day Holiday Fair and Market, which kicked off over Thanksgiving weekend. Combining the Sonnenalp’s German Family Christmas fair of a couple of years ago with the Farmer’s Market idea, the Holiday Fair offers carriage rides and visits from Santa, wine makers dinners and artwalks, holiday music and children’s stories told around the fireside. The events include four holiday tree lightings, and the Holiday Market incorporates some 25 outdoor tents along Meadow Drive, featuring some fine festive goods for holiday shopping, as well as warm drinks and terrific food.The Holiday Fair continues from 1-6 p.m., Dec. 21-24 and Dec. 27-30."We are trying to create an ambiance of excitement forpeople to come back to Vail," says co-creator Scapella. "We had a good start. There were a number of visitors who came around. Normally, the saying is that there is not much going on this time of year. We are very encouraged by how it went."These efforts have not only helped the merchants along Meadow Drive, they have helped the entire Town of Vail. Many of the people who stopped by to check out what was happening on Meadow Drive, stayed to check out the rest of the village core, says Stauffer.These efforts won’t solve all Vail’s retail woes.Fritch still contends the Town of Vail needs more property tax revenue to do things like improve Vail Village’s streetscape, and Bruno argues the town needs to confront landlords who are asking too much rent."We look like a third class resort and we need to look like a first class, world class resort," Bruno says.But these groups have proven small efforts can be effective if everybody gets involved."We’re building multi-million buildings on this piece of land or on that piece," Staufer says. "But my memory goes back far enough that I remember we didn’t always have a lot of money in Vail and to their credit, those early (Vailites) found better and cheaper ways of doing things and still managed to become a world class resort."
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