Facing an increase in rent, Harmony Scott Jewelry Design closed up shop in downtown Aspen this week after being on the Hyman Avenue mall for nine years.
And with hardly any vacant retail spaces in the downtown core, Scott, the proprietor of the store that sells handmade jewelry, found herself with little option other than to close up shop.
“I’m not bitter about it, it’s just a note of reality,” she said. “We had a good run.”
Scott will continue to sell her moderately priced jewelry at her Carbondale location, as well as online, at trunk shows and possibly partner with area nonprofits that she’s worked with in the past.
Scott had a two-year option to renew the lease but was facing a 30 percent rent increase; she was paying $87 a square foot for her store on the mall. After shopping around for new space, Scott said she decided to give up on trying to make it work in Aspen.
“When things weren’t working out, I realized it’s time to move on,” she said. “I don’t see myself as a casualty but it’s not worth it to me.”
Business was good this past summer but as the off-seasons continue to grow longer, it’s been a struggle to cover rent year-round based on high-volume sales in four or five months, Scott noted.
“It was just nerve racking ... it’s a big rock to push up a mountain every off-season,” she said of covering costs in the slow months. “It’s always been a stress. ... I don’t have a trust fund or an investor.”
And high-end retailers that can absorb the loss by paying inflated rent just to have a presence in Aspen don’t help the mom-and-pop shops’ ability to sustain, Scott theorized. Landlords are able to command higher rents as a result.
“It continues to get worse,” she said. “The brick and mortar of Aspen is so different now.”
Commercial broker Ruth Kruger confirmed that landlords of retail spaces are able to now command higher rent prices, after the market contracted during the height of the recession.
“Rents are back to pre-recession rates,” she said, adding that in highly visible retail spaces landlords are asking, and getting, over $150 a square foot. Less visible spots are going for between $65 and $80.
The recession also resulted in as much as a 9 percent vacancy rate in the downtown core as retail stores began closing. Now, Kruger estimates the vacancy rate to be between 2 and 4 percent with about a half-dozen empty storefronts.
“It seems like everything is leased up,” she said. “There is very little inventory left.”
Kruger said in a down economy, Aspen historically has been the last to suffer the effects and one of the first to bounce back.
“It’s a very healthy retail market and that’s a good sign of how the economy is,” she said.
Karen Setterfield, another commercial broker, said she predicts that by the end of the year, there will be no vacancies in downtown Aspen for retailers.
“By December, I don’t think there will be a single street-level retail space,” she said, adding that she believes the current vacancy rate is less than 2 percent.
As for the annual retail off-season shuffle in which various retailers move locales, leave the marketplace and new ones come in, there is movement afoot.
“I’m doing a lot of leases,” Setterfield said.
She also noted that she is getting calls from national retailers who want to lease what’s known as “pop up” stores, which are smaller spaces that are leased on a short-term basis during the season. While there was a demand for that during the recession in an attempt to fill the vacancy gap, those days are gone, Setterfield said.
She did note, however, that the owner of the Aspen Grove building on Cooper Avenue is renovating the second floor and creating six separate spaces that will be between 400 and 600 square feet. They are planned to be available for the upcoming winter season.
Kruger said the old fur store on the corner of Mill Street and the Hyman Avenue mall will remain vacant so the owner can remodel the space. However, the restaurant space in the lower level of that building is available for a tenant, although there is no vent hood for a full restaurant operation.
As for Scott, she’s not sure if there will be a place for her in the Aspen market in the future.
“I’m just going to wait it out,” she said. “At the end of the day, I just don’t know if I could come back to Aspen.”