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Aspen’s Economic Challenges: Part #2 - Small Business

Part 2 of a 3 part series.

It’s tough to open and run a business in Aspen these days. New business owners must navigate a web of regulations and fees. And, stores already in operation are battling a tough economy nationally, and within the resort itself. Retail sales are a good indicator of a resort’s economic health. And, while sales data show Aspen has largely recovered from the recession, the retail sector has seen no real sales growth for six years.  Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.

Nick Russo gestures toward an elaborate bar inside his retail store, Testosterone. The shop specializes in “all things men”. A short walk from Aspen’s iconic gondola, the business has also seen its up’s and down’s.

"There was a time in the 90’s, where you could open your doors and hire five or six people and make a killing, but those days are gone," says Russo.

He says, like other business owners, his store has had its fair share of challenges: high-priced rent, a shorter shopping season and a narrower group of consumers.

"We still have the top tier wealthy clients in Aspen, but I think what we’ve lost due to the economy, is the upper middle class segment."

In 2002, a sustainability report on the resort town found Aspen’s high commercial rents undermined the vitality and diversity of the city’s retail offerings. An updated report says some of vitality was revived through efforts such as increased marketing. But, according to Russo, the problem is still there.

It’s not the only difficulty businesses in Aspen are facing. Those looking to start a business are running into a web of government regulations. That’s what happened to Jim Pomeroy who owned Aspen Brownie Works.

"We had gone through the whole business plan and dealing with the building department, and they were actually very helpful, but then we found out about other fees having to do with the sanitation department and water tap fees that we hadn’t planned or knew about," he says.

Pomeroy’s business didn’t work out because of reasons unrelated to the fees. But, he’s familiar with the frustrations. Now he’s working to help other businesses as the Code Enforcement Officer for the City.

"There’s a lot of challenges to opening a new business in Aspen and I don’t know that City Hall can fix them all, I think the biggest thing we can do is get out of the way, not put up more roadblocks."

To minimize frustrations, the City of Aspen plans to update its website, create a welcome committee for new businesses and change outdated zoning regulations.

It’s an effort Chris Bendon is undertaking. He’s Community Development Director for the City. Different kinds of business require different fees, licenses and permits. The problem is many business owners aren’t aware of what’s required until it’s too late, says Bendon.

"They find out that they need to get such and such improvement to their building to be able to open up a restaurant, and it’s a major expense that they didn’t plan on."

Bendon says the improved website will be a one-stop shop where building permits, business licenses and even information on how to join the chamber can all be had. He says he hopes the new site will replace the multiple trips business owners often take to City Hall to fulfill their regulatory obligations.

One of the areas in town with the highest vacancy rates is near the post office. Zoning from the 1970’s limits the kinds of businesses that can operate there. This so-called SCI district will be updated by the City in an effort to fill empty storefronts with new businesses.

City Council member Derek Johnson says the new efforts should help revitalise business in Aspen.

"We’re still coming out of this thing (the recession). We do have some vacant storefronts and they’re filling back up. But, we want a vital community, we want shops and restaurants and office space."

At Testosterone in downtown Aspen, owner Nick Russo says he’s less worried about lifting government regulations and more concerned about the business climate in general. He’s not sure a few changes in City government can improve the amount of money coming over the counter at his store and others.

"There’s some not so great trends going on right now, and you just gotta survive through it," he says.

The City of Aspen’s initiatives could roll out as soon as this summer.

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