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High Rent, Heavy Regulation Pose Challenges For Young Entrepreneurs In Aspen

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This month, we’ve been examining what it takes to live and work in Aspen, and whether the middle class is being priced out. Today we focus on young entrepreneurs and the barriers they face when opening a business in Aspen. For some the high rents and seasonal business is worth it, while others were forced to move Downvalley to make it work, financially. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

Bo Gallagher, 24, switches on a large dryer in his silk-screening store, ZapazooInkworks. Unlike a clothes dryer, this machine has a wide conveyer belt.

"So, everything you print, until you put it through, it’s wet ink. You’ve got to get it to 325-degrees. This is the final process, things fall in and then you fold them up and everything’s done."

Most of Gallagher’s clients are in Aspen - customers like  Radio Boardshop and the restaurant Cantina. But, Gallagher operates out of El Jebel.

Credit Marci Krivonen
Bo Gallagher owns Zapazoo Inkworks in El Jebel. Initially he tried to open in Aspen but couldn't find an affordable rental.

"Aspen would have been great. It’s pricey, to have a shop up there. It was almost four times more than what we’re paying here," he says.

While he considered opening in Aspen, he’s happy to have a business even though its 20 miles away.

"This spot really worked out well, weird enough, you know. It was either this or some weird looking warehouse in Rifle or Carbondale because of financial restraints. And, everything seemed to fit."

He credits his success so far, on hard work, few competitors and aggressive networking.

"Being in Aspen, I don’t think would have changed how much work we’ve gotten, maybe a little. But, this business is word of mouth."

For David Cook, 36, the decision to start a business in Aspen was easy.  

"Is Aspen a difficult place to start up a business as a young entrepreneur, my answer is honestly, no. I know that probably flies in the face of what you’ve heard from other start-up’s," he says.

Being in Aspen is what makes his company thrive. He co-owns Aspen 82, a live television and media production company.

"We do 90 percent of our broadcasting outside. Every TV organization in the country strives to create what we have. Obviously, Aspen’s such a sunny place, so the backdrop is truly the landscape of Aspen."

Headquartered at the Aspen Airport Business Center, Aspen 82 operates a media lab in Snowmass Village. Cook admits it’s a challenge at times to move a broadcast signal from Aspen Mountain to a TV set. Opening a business in Aspen, though, was relatively easy.

"It was great, it was a wonderful experience in the support we received, not only from the viewership standpoint, but also, advertisers’ support," Cook says.

Skippy Mesirow takes a keen interest in the stories of young entrepreneurs like Cook and Gallagher. He chairs the Next Generation commission, a group that advises the Aspen City Council on how policy decisions affect young people.

"There are a lot of difficulties to starting and having a business here and I think that there is an interest in having more diversity in the economy, more vibrancy in the town," he says.

Recently the group surveyed 18 to 40 year old’s who either live or work in Aspen. What they heard is it’s difficult for young people to start or operate a business in the resort. The survey also found concerns about low wages.

"So there’s a lot of areas, I think, where we have an incredibly bright and educated base of people here, both young and old, but because of economic circumstances it’s often very difficult for them to keep that intellectual capital and keep those ideas in Aspen, and I think there’s a desire to see that change."

Aspen’s City Council shares that desire. Last year, the council made one of its top goals to simplify the process of opening and sustaining a new business. Chris Bendon is the City’s Community Development Director.

"It’s a complex situation, opening up a business. Certainly, understanding whether your business is allowed in that zone district, obtaining a business license, many times there are improvements you need to make to the property, and you need a building permit," Bendon says.

Bendon deals with entrepreneurs seeking City permits all the time. Navigating this web of regulation is tough, he says, so his department created a new website. The so-called “business navigator” is a one stop shop.

"The business navigator is the one place where all those regulations exist and you can sort of walk yourself through, ok, what are the other things I need to know. So, it has this really great resource center and frequently asked questions that will help you identify all the things you need to know in order to open your business."

Despite the challenges, City officials see a steady stream, year-round, of people wanting to set up shop in Aspen.

At ZapazooInkworks in El Jebel, owner Bo Gallagher says he would have moved from the Valley had his business not worked out.

"It was a big risk to go after this and we knew that we could survive, but you want to thrive as well, so finally now we’re cruising."

He says there are no plans to try and get into the Aspen market. He’s doing well Downvalley. He just signed a five-year lease.

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