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Out With the Old, In With the New


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The thing that makes a suburb stick out from the bland is its identity. In this region, that identity is tied very closely with the historic old towns at the center of many of the North Metro communities.

Old Town Louisville is thriving with dozens of shops, businesses and offices filling its Main Street. Longmont has perhaps the busiest main strip, with block after block of unique offerings and heavy car traffic through the center. Niwot is nothing without its quintessential quaint three-block drag.

Then there is the town of Erie, which is situated on a near Aurora-sized plot of land. With only 14,000 or so residents, its Old Town has always been small. But the collection of businesses from the coffee shop to the café, steak house to the flower shop on Briggs Street give Erie its own identity. One that helps it from getting lost in a sea of sprawling rooftops.

Now the town is focusing its energy on building up its central core with all sorts of new development—only problem is it’s a good half-mile from the business corridor of Briggs Street, separated by a mix of double wides and nice two-story homes, and it could end up sealing its demise.

“It’ll kill us,” says Kevin Cali of Uptown Erie Café.

It may be too early to buy into the glass is nearly empty outlook. But the chance of seeing Old Town suffer is a serious issue that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Sitting inside Old Town Coffee, an intimate gathering place with local artists’ work dotting the wall, fresh coffee in the pot and kitschy décor that makes you feel at home, is to understand why a thriving historic center is so vital.

A cadre of regulars swing in each morning to temper caffeine addictions. Owner Cheryl Sommers knows pretty much every frequent customer by name.

It takes a little longer to get your cup of coffee than if you’d swung into the Starbucks drive-thru.

That’s the point; you are encouraged to linger and perhaps strike up a conversation with a stranger.

When poised with the question of sustainability, Michael Xinos, a three-year Erie resident, couldn’t help but to chime in while sipping on his afternoon roast.

“Old Town will be the place to hang out,” he says when comparing the soon-to-open new commercial development from the historic center. “You have such a quaint little area to go to.”

Xinos is a bit biased—he later admits to being a little old fashioned and not driven by convenience.

But he is correct in talking about the charm of Old Town. That’s why Colorado Coal Company, Uptown Erie Café and Café Zupa have decided to open shop here—to be a part of the romance of a small-town community.

Yet it’s not easy doing business in an old town.

Just three months after the recreation center opened south of the historic district, Sommers says she’s already seen a dip in business—many of her morning regulars go directly to the new facility and never make it the few blocks further to her coffee shop.

It’ll likely get worse once the first pieces of commercial near the rec center open in the next few months—though the rest of the massive center is still a few years away.

That’s the trick about operating business in a suburban old town, convincing its own residents that is where they need to spend their hard earned dollars. It becomes difficult to compete with a Starbucks on every corner or a big name chain restaurant. Or in this case, a brand new commercial district that will be popular because of its central location.

“The people have to put their money where their mouth is,” says Greg McCallum, an Erie real estate agent with Old Town interests. “I hear over and over, ‘Oh we like Erie because it’s a little small town, and it’s a nice town’—I never see them in a restaurant down here.”

Convenience wins more often than not, but it is not impossible to overcome.

One needs only to look at Louisville’s historic downtown to see a picture of what is right in the suburbs. There, you don’t even need to head into Boulder or Denver for entertainment, food, coffee or shopping. It’s its own town—one featured in prominent national publications as a great place to live.
Sheer size may make that kind of thriving historic center for Erie a long way off, but the charm that the hundred-some-odd year old buildings offer is essential in making this suburb inviting.

“It gets to the part of who we are,” says Mayor Andrew Moore, who just won reelection after running unopposed. “It’s important to have that support.”

The town’s support can only go so far, however.

Erie officials have laid the groundwork for the historic district that offers approximately 66,500 square feet of commercial and office space. In planning over the years, it made possible the Briggs Street extension that connects the old and the new.

Two years ago, it rezoned the residential strip on Briggs between Old Town and the new development so homes on that strip can be turned into offices and businesses. It has focused much of the new commercial development into one, central location, even if it’s a few blocks away from the hidden, older center.

That leaves the rest up to those who believe in Old Town.

The first thing on the agenda must be some type of Old Town business district, hardly a new idea but never more important. Various efforts to centralize marketing and resources have started in the past for a few months before faltering.

Results were always expected immediately, with little eye toward the long run.

“It’s been fits and starts in the past,” McCallum says. “The problem in the past (was) it all revolved around the energy of one person. Everybody has to understand their business and livelihood is at stake.”

Raising money to post signage, improve storefronts and advertise are all avenues that could come from a central business group and help keep residents streaming into Old Town.

Convincing all those involved that it’s worth the effort is another problem.

“I just don’t see the people, unfortunately, in Old Town working together,” Sommers says. Money is an issue. She even wonders if pouring cash into her business is something worthwhile or even feasible.

The picture is bleak if downtown businesses don’t work together. Virtually every other surrounding old town (Lafayette, Niwot, Louisville) have downtown associations—some with taxing capability.

So perhaps this new project and competition just down the road can serve as a wake up call for Old Town Erie to catch up with its neighbors.

Mayor Moore is far from predicting the demise of Old Town—he just wants the discussions on how to stay competitive to begin now, not when “Closed” signs start popping up.

He thinks the Briggs Street extension and keeping the post office in Old Town will keep people coming to the core. The Bridgewater sub division, with its 2,800 homes will provide an influx of residents with direct access to Old Town, but that won’t be finished for nearly 10 years.

Moore is always an optimist. The pessimist sees that it’s going to be an uphill fight for Old Town.

It needs to stave off the new commercial development that will have 32,000 square feet of commercial opportunity open in the next month or so with the prospect of 355,000 square feet being available in the coming years. That’s six times larger than Old Town.

The new development already has a bank, rec center and library, and will soon offer food, a day spa, live music, a grocery store and perhaps much, much more. It could leave Old Town as an afterthought.

But the Erie Commons center will never have the charm that’s been built up over the decades as the once thriving mining community morphed into a bedroom community before turning into the fast-growing suburban environment that it
is today.

The businesses just need to make sure everybody else knows that.

“I hope it stays,” Xinos says. “You can’t get anymore hometown than this.”

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