Chain law in effect: How the retail market shapes Aspen

Jan 15, 2017

A visitor poses outside Ralph Lauren in Aspen
Credit Arabella Gardiner/Instagram

The offerings along Aspen’s shopping strips aren’t exactly what you would find on the weekend chore list; a new Tesla showroom on the Cooper Avenue Mall comes to mind.


Longtime local leaders think this is a problem, and in an effort to save Aspen’s “unique character,” they are  proposing restrictions on chain stores in the downtown core.  

Last spring, city council passed an emergency ordinance freezing all downtown development, while it overhauls the land use code to fit in with community values. As part of that, Stirling, his mayoral successor John Bennett and local businessman Jerry Murdock, presented Aspen City Council with the idea for an ordinance that would make it harder for chain stores to move into the downtown.


“The question of the character of the downtown came up, and whether there was a threat to our sort of small town flavor,” said Stirling. “The threat that we might become so homogeneous as to become unrecognizable as a unique brand.”

Former Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling is part of a group of local leaders hosting a community forum on chain stores this week.
Credit Alycin Bektesh / Aspen Public Radio News

The proposal is that, from now on, if a chain store (defined as having 11 or more retail locations) wants to set up shop in Aspen, it would first need approval from city council. All current chain stores would be grandfathered in, and if a chain store left the landlord would be allowed to replace it with another chain store. Similar “conditional use” ordinances exists in other resort towns, but detractors warn of unforeseen consequences.

“I think the town and the residents really need to think about what they are doing with the chain store regulation and really think it through because it could have some serious consequences and I’m not sure its the consequences we are looking for,” said Lex Tarumianz, president of Pyramid Properties. Tarumianz’s clients are prominent landlords of downtown Aspen.

He said the ordinance could potentially crowd out the very vitality it’s claiming to preserve. Lugano Diamonds, for instance, is not a chain, but adding it to the Hyman Avenue walking mall wouldn’t be a draw for locals. Those stores with salespeople standing in the doorway thrusting moisturizer samples at passersby are also not chains, but are they really the Aspen character that we are talking about?


The idea is that we need community hubs. Stirling says the retail offerings in town are becoming so inaccessible to locals that we have have turned online for our sundries and are losing out on Aspen’s small town way of life.


“So you go to a place that’s community oriented like the Sundeck, like the Jerome Bar, like the post office, like Explore Booksellers,” said Stirling. “These kinds of places you invariably run into someone you know and instead of calling them up or emailing them you say ‘Hey let’s ski tomorrow.’ And those are the kind of things that make a community rich.”

Aspen's iconic walking malls are also known for the high-end retail, furs, jewelry, and art galleries with products priced out of reach for many locals.
Credit Alycin Bektesh / Aspen Public Radio News

Social hubs are part of what builds a community, and community is what people refer to when they speak about Aspen’s uniqueness. But is it that chain stores that are ruining that community? Locals joke that they can’t go to City Market if they are short on time because it’s a guarantee you’re going to run into someone you know. City Market is arguably the social hub of Aspen. It has served as the literal ground zero for grassroots petitions and social engagement.

City Market is a chain -  owned by the national Kroger company.

In this discussion, the term “chain stores” seems to actually be a euphemism for high-end luxury retail stores. Tarumianz said calling out these types of stores specifically is an oversimplification of the issue. "After all," he said, "a rising tide lifts all boats and we all benefit from the cultivation of high-end tastes in town."

“All of this is essentially subsidized, we get to enjoy the Aspen Music Festival, Jazz Aspen Blind Passes,” said Tarumianz, name checking some of the local’s deal available at Aspen’s world-renowned events. “All of these things are because we are able to serve a high level, high paying, guest that comes to town.”


He said market forces will work their magic, Fendi, for example, closed its Aspen store because the seasonal retail market wasn’t good for the company’s bottom line..Burberry is rumored to be leaving as well. Tarumianz supports an incubator-type effort to help the area’s local businesses and young entrepreneurs, very few of whom, he said, are entering into retail. And how helpful is it to add more locally-owned coffee shops and bookstores if they are in direct competition with the existing mom and pops?

Local leaders will come together this week to try and draft a mutually acceptable chain store policy. Joining proponents of retail restrictions are other interested parties: landlords, the Aspen Skiing Company, city staff and representatives of other communities that have successfully passed similar legislation.

The public is invited too, though there is no specific time allotted for public comment during the day-long forum. The event begins at 9 a.m. at the Koch Building on the Aspen Institute Campus. The results of the discussion will be presented to city council later this winter.