Trying to track the economic outlook for 285 Corridor businesses can be tricky.
With only anecdotal data available, it’s difficult to determine how well businesses have fared during the economic downturn that started nationally in 2008 and has seen some improvement this year.
The 285 Corridor has seen several locally run businesses close, including Raven’s Tavern, Route 285 Sports Bar & Grill, Coal Mine Dragon, Hutchison Lumber, Snap Fitness and the gift shop portion of Bailey Garden & Gifts.
Yet a couple of chain operations have moved in such as ALCO and Big R Ranch and Supply.
The Conifer Area Chamber of Commerce says that membership and involvement have increased, a good sign for the economy.
Owners of small, locally operated businesses says it’s a constant struggle to stay competitive with chain stores and to entice foothills residents to buy locally rather than going down the hill. They survive by being tenacious, relying on basic business principles and fostering a community atmosphere.
A lack of statistics
Tracking business trends in Conifer can be difficult, said Denise Stephens, executive director of the Jefferson County Business Resource. Since Conifer is not an incorporated city, no city sales or use taxes are reported.
Jefferson County doesn’t require most businesses to register, so it doesn’t have a clear picture either. And the many small Conifer businesses that are based in homes and have no employees don’t have to report or pay state and federal unemployment taxes.
Even the Conifer Area Chamber of Commerce doesn’t have an accurate depiction of business trends, executive director Dawn Smith said.
Smith was hired 20 months ago as the organization’s first full-time staffer in several years. The chamber had about 240 members, and most of the recruiting efforts had fallen on the shoulders of its board, she said.
Smith — an ardent local-business cheerleader — took over recruitment. The chamber now has 270 members. While Smith would like to see faster growth, she said involvement overall has increased.
The chamber’s monthly membership breakfast meeting once hosted about 30 people. Now, more than 70 people show up, Smith said.
“We’ve stayed steady and grown, but what I am seeing is more active membership,” Smith said.
Diversification, publicity key to survival
No contacted owners of closed businesses wanted to talk about their experiences. But those whose doors are still open have a few things to say about economic survival in the mountains.
Robert Holmes owns and operates the Meadow Creek Mountain Lodge and Events Center in Pine.
“When we bought it … their slogan was, ‘The mountains’ best-kept secret,’ ” Holmes said. “I said, ‘I can’t afford to be anyone’s best-kept secret.’ … It was a matter of maintaining the existing clientele and building upon that.”
Holmes started using social media and expanding his advertising. It helped. But the real key to surviving is diversification, Holmes said.
When Holmes took over, construction had just wrapped up on an event center. The venue is a main breadwinner, and now regularly hosts weddings and corporate events. Not only has he diversified his offerings, Holmes also is focused on diversifying the customers.
When the economy started to lag in 2008, getaway locations started seeing a different clientele. Instead of Texas residents flocking to the Rockies, Denverites and other Coloradoans started looking for fun a little closer to home.
“Out-of-towners were replaced by other folks … looking for a quick one-night getaway,” Holmes said.
Holmes still depends largely on these nearby customers and markets accordingly. So for the first few years, his lodge didn’t see the hits other small businesses were suffering. However, four years later, he’s begun to feel the crunch.
John and Christi Patrick own Cabin Creek Smokehouse Barbeque in Aspen Park, and they agree with Holmes that diversification can keep a business alive. The couple have owned the business 15 years, and they know winters are always slow in the restaurant industry, so they don’t rely on them.
“Our catering is what kept us open,” John Patrick said, explaining that the restaurant doubles as an event food provider, often for summertime weddings. “But in the winter months, it’s hard to break even. … It’s just been really tough.”
The last couple of years have been even tougher than usual, Patrick said. This year, for the first time, he cut back restaurant hours from six days per week to four days per week, and shut the whole place down entirely for 10 days after New Year’s.
“The days were just so slow, it cost me more money to keep the doors open than it would to close them,” Patrick said.
Knowing your market, and your limitations
Mountain retail rent is no small matter. Nor are the gasoline prices, living expenses or utility rates for the foothills.
Businesses opening along the 285 Corridor should make sure they don’t overextend their cash reserves, Patrick said.
“They have to really do their homework, and they better have some money backing them up,” he said. Business owners should figure out how much they need to start their business, then double or triple it.
Barbie Graham-Meier, owner of Aloha Marketplace on Conifer Road, agreed.
“It does take a long time for a business to turn profitable,” Graham-Meier said. “They cant’ get in too deep. … If they’re in a shopping center, can they afford their rent?”
After owning her business in Conifer since 2008, Graham-Meier is packing it up and moving down the hill in July. She said her problem wasn’t the rent — she actually had a reasonable unit. It was the location and her market.
Her shop — a hybrid of a general store, Hawaiian gift shop, dance apparel and equipment supplier — just didn’t bring in enough customers. Her booths, when she went to festivals, were always popular, but that wasn’t enough.
“We have a good product, and people are very interested in it, but we needed to be more centrally located,” said Graham-Meier, a Conifer native. “I tried for 4½ years. … I was really hoping to bring this to my community, but we just didn’t have the customer base we needed.”
Growing a more cohesive community
Whether it’s cash reserves, diversification, location or a unique product, there’s no shortage of challenges facing mountain business owners. There’s the everlasting struggle of getting neighbors to shop locally and the national economy in general.
Some stories of local business owners are painful, some encouraging. Smith said she hears about positive signs all the time. The challenge for mountain business owners is to make that spark heat up local sales.
“It’s really interesting, because I have chamber members telling me the economy is changing, and it’s for the good,” Smith said.
“(But) I think one of the biggest challenges that this chamber has is how to connect a transitioning community to the local business.”
The chamber often works with the other active community organizations — the Conifer Area Council, the Conifer Historical Society, the Rotary Club of Conifer and several others. The 285 Corridor has no lack of organizations.
Rampant enthusiasm is part of what makes Conifer unique. But Smith said she hopes to see more networking, and sharing of volunteer and community resources.
“Is there a way for us to collaborate? Is there a way for us to have a community calendar, so we can be more in touch with each others’ events?” Smith said. “I … see a lot of individual organizations and companies each wanting to do their own thing and therefore burning out the volunteers in the area.”
And in a decentralized community with at least some business growth, Smith battles for ways to connect.
“We just don’t have billboards. We don’t have a downtown or a town center,” Smith said, adding that social media, local news media and two banners per event are all the chamber has to work with.
“It’s a real challenge,” Smith said, “and I’m trying to figure that out as well.”
Conifer: by the numbers
Few records are available to track Conifer businesses. Some statistics were available through reports from the Jefferson County Business Resource Center, although director Denise Stephens cautioned that they might not be completely encompassing.
The center has recorded:
• Conifer houses at least 406 businesses and 1,598 employees.
• Services — legal, health, education and entertainment, as well as hospitality — employ the most workers, with 622 employees in Conifer.
• The highest reported revenues in 2010 came from six motor vehicle and parts dealers, which collectively sold about $27 million in services.