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A Downtown Upgrade

Like many cities, Colorado Springs’ downtown has languished a bit in recent

Downtown Colorado Springs has become home to new retail and restaurants.

Downtown Colorado Springs has become home to new retail and restaurants.

Like many cities, Colorado Springs’ downtown has languished a bit in recent years. Progress made during the 1990s stagnated when the economic downturn of the early 2000s brought growth to a halt. 

Some landmark businesses remain – places like the Poor Richard’s complex, Rutledge’s, Sparrowhawk, Terra Verde and Zeezo’s. Some have disappeared. But in the past year or so, downtown has taken a distinct upturn. 

Michelle’s and Old Chicago may be gone, but several new restaurants have opened this past year. Those include Red Gravy (at the former Olive Branch) and Bonny & Read, owned by Joe Campana, who also operates The Rabbit Hole and Supernova. 

There are coffee shops on every corner and even in Acacia Park, where an outdoor community ice-skating rink has opened the past few winters.

The Antlers hotel has joined the movement. It is reopening the Antlers Grille with a Colorado-centric menu and a huge wine, beer and spirits selection.

Co-owner Perry Sanders says the remodeling and improvements in the hotel will be “world class,” with a bright, elegant new lobby, an impressive lobby bar that seats 30 patrons, and other additions, including a Starbucks.  

All these should be open this month.  

Retail shops are thriving, too.

For example, Hooked on Books opened an upscale version of the long-lived used bookstore out on Academy Boulevard. It has been “an immediate success,” say owners Mary and Jim Ciletti, who have added book signings, poetry readings and writing workshops to the venture. 

About 48 percent of stores that were empty just a few years ago have now been occupied by new ventures, says Susan Edmondson, President and CEO of Downtown Colorado Springs. “In 2016 alone, 22 new street-level businesses have opened, totaling 50,000 square feet of retail space.”

A very visible addition to downtown will be the new Hilton Garden Inn, a 10-story hotel on the corner of Cascade Avenue and Bijou Street. The hotel reportedly will have 165 rooms, with about 20 suites, retail shops on the ground floor, a restaurant and about 5,000 square feet of meeting space. 

But even more exciting for downtown businesses is the arrival of significant new residential space. 

“Our goal is to have 500 new residential units in the downtown area by 2018,” Edmondson says. “We’re well on our way to reaching and maybe exceeding that goal.”

A project called Blue Dot Place has opened 33 units on South Nevada Avenue. They are the first new-built rentals in the downtown core in five decades, she says. Two more projects, at Wahsatch and Colorado and at Cascade and Rio Grande, will be open (or be under construction) for a combined 350 units within the next two years.  

Other projects are adding living spaces to existing buildings, sometimes “popping the top” to add a story that will accommodate lofts or apartments.

Downtown still needs a lot of amenities, Edmondson says.

“We need a grocery store and a pharmacy,” she says. She’d also love to see a pet-oriented store, a grab-and-go deli and a wine bar, as well as a clothing store skewed to younger buyers.

And downtown stores need to extend their business hours. 

“If people who work downtown get off work at 5 o’clock and you close your doors at the same time, you’ve just lost customers. Not everybody can shop on his or her lunch hour. Staying open another hour or two might make a big difference,” Edmondson says. 

That was the idea behind the First Fridays Downtown program – to get people downtown at night for more than a drink and a movie. It also may get stores to see the benefit of staying open later.

On First Fridays, at least 25 art galleries and other venues stay open until 8 p.m. or later for art receptions and special activities. These gala evenings attract hundreds of people to downtown each month.

Convincing businesses to be open Sundays and longer hours has been a bit of a struggle, she admits, “but those things will follow once we have a larger resident population.”

Edmondson envisions a vibrant, walkable city that attracts young residents. And although the Springs isn’t the size of, say, Denver, she adds, “You don’t have to be a big city to feel urban.”