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Feed the Birds 

The bird man of Palmer Park faces cutthroat competition in the Colorado Springs wild birdseed industry

Peace and quiet. That's what Katie Veen was looking for when she came from France, by way of New York City, to a little house on the prairie, well beyond the fringes of Colorado Springs. She settled in a desolate farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Veen was the ultimate independent woman, living alone from the time she first bought the place in 1935 until she finally sold it, nine years ago, at age 91.

Today, that little house on the prairie is hanging on amidst the city's constant expansion. And what was once the eastern edge of the map is now the center of a residential neighborhood on Palmer Park Boulevard between Union and Circle.

The farm at 2318 Palmer Park Blvd. once served as a sanctuary for Veen, who traveled the world and hung in Hollywood circles when she wasn't teaching French and Native American jewelry making. Today, the land it sits on serves as an unofficial sanctuary to dozens of species of birds, called to the one-and-a-half acre lot by the tempting mixes of current owner Ron Perry's birdseed recipes.

Ron Perry is a gentle, easy-going folksy man, his hair pulled back in a ponytail and his mouth breaking into a smile from behind his beard. When he started selling birdseed out of the barn in 1995, he was willing to take a chance. He had taken a chance as a small family farmer earlier in his life, and he had taken a chance as a musician and band manager some 30 years past in what may have seemed a different life altogether. With an old ranch property ideally suited for living, working and raising a family, things were falling pleasantly into place for Perry.

But as surely as small-town familiarity and old-time attitudes are being paved over in the ongoing citification of the Springs, Perry's little birdseed business, This Place is For the Birds, has been threatened with extinction by a string of actions initiated by the local owners of a national franchise in the wild birdseed business.

"It's America," Perry marvels as he muses over his troubles. "You're supposed to be able to do business in competition, right? But this couple, they're the most ruthless business people I've ever encountered in my life. They've used every government agency they can send in here to try to find something to nail me on."


The bird man of Palmer Park

Ron Perry was born and raised in Frankfort, Indiana. He spent much of his early years as a musician, playing in and managing the Wright Brothers Overland Stage Company, a concept band with the musicians dressed as pioneers and trappers.

Perry later tried his hand at farming. "I wanted my children to experience a rural environment," Perry said. "I thought, well, it's just such a passive life compared to the city life."

But fluctuating prices and the escalating challenges of maintaining a family farm outweighed the peace of mind of being able to leave his doors unlocked. Perry stepped away from the crapshoot of farming, moved to Arizona and, ultimately, 17 years ago, to Colorado, where he started studying the birding business.

In 1991, he found Katie Veen and her little house on the now suburban prairie. At age 91, Katie was ready to move to an apartment, turning over her beloved property to Perry for a price well below market value because, as she said, "I want that young man to have it."

Perry's family became like a second family to Katie until her death in 1998. She was renowned for standing up to the city in defense of her shrinking island in a sea of suburbia. She would have been 100 years old last Saturday, and there's no doubt in anyone's mind she would have been raising hell in defense of the land she loved.


Tuppence a bag

The birdseed business may be small potatoes compared to some of Colorado's more prominent revenue-generating industries, but there is a small fortune in sunflower seeds. "In 1995, people spent more money on birding than on all movie tickets combined," said Frank Dodge, who owns and operates Wild Bird Center on the north end of town at Woodmen and Academy. "People spent more money birding than on all pro sports tickets combined."

"This hobby is the second most popular hobby in the United States after gardening," said Eric Breier, owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited franchise on Academy. His figures reinforce what the other two seed sellers report, painting a picture of a hobby enjoyed by 42 percent of all American homes.

And, as Perry points out, Colorado is ground zero of the birdseed industry. "A lot of people don't realize, there's more birdseed shipped out of Colorado than any place in the United States," he said. "Akron, Colorado ships over 85 million pounds a year out of that town. Flagler, Colorado ships 35 million."

Add to that the fact that Colorado has more species of birds nesting in the summer than any other state in the Union, and you've opened the door on a multi-million dollar industry statewide, bringing the kind of cash flow into the economy that can't be squawked at.


This Place is For the Birds

Matching the thriving hobby with a growing market and the ideal location, Perry was ready to put to work his lifelong affinity for birds. "I remember in second grade I built a wren house for some kind of school project," he said. "And I was really excited the day I came out and found wrens moving into the thing."

Perry's business is undeniably smaller than either Breier's or Dodge's, but he is the senior seed man of the three, having started his business in 1995 before Wild Birds Unlimited changed hands and before Wild Bird Center opened its doors.

Today, the historic property is maintained as a gentle throwback to an earlier era, a quiet business that is nearly undetectable from the street and is a thriving home to everything from sunflowers and prairie grass to towering fir trees that shield the haven from the suburban life around it. And it is, of course, a home to the birds.

On a typical day at This Place is For the Birds, Perry is visited by a neighborhood youngster on his bicycle, stopping by the airy, open barn to give a report on the morning's butterfly hatch. Later in the day, a regular customer and his son stop by for a supply of seed, and are encouraged by Perry to stop by the garden on the way out and pick some alfalfa for their rabbits. When the daffodils are in season, Perry sends his customers home with a freshly cut bouquet.

"He has really set it up to be not just a store, but almost a little sanctuary in the middle of the town," said Stephen Vaughan, President of the Aiken Audubon Society and a wildlife photographer.

Perry has identified 40 different species nesting in the area. "They were here pretty heavy before I even started, just simply because of the size of the lot and the amount of natural foliage that's been here over the years."

"I've seen some pretty cool stuff there," said Vaughan, "the Western Tanager for example, that I wouldn't expect to see around."

Perry has become increasingly observant of his winged visitors and has recently started keeping track of when specific birds come and go, learning their migration patterns and watching for irregularities. He has borrowed the old Sioux wisdom to use the birds as "a barometer of what's happening in the future. I can always tell when there's going to be weather moving in here in the wintertime; they'll come in to the feeders and be porking that stuff away big time."

The unique opportunity to observe the birds in action gives Perry an edge his strip mall competition can't quite mimic.

"I have all my own seed mixtures here," he explains of his individualized seed recipes. "I've been experimenting on this for almost 10 years since I've been here. I have nine different ones registered with the Department of Agriculture."

Vaughan testifies to the success of these blends, using his own birding experience as evidence. "I've tested a number of his mixes and compared them to the comparable mixes at the other stores, and his mixes bring in more birds. He spends a lot of time testing them himself. He puts them in his feeders and sees what works and changes the mix accordingly.

"The first year he was open he had a bunch of hummingbird mixes," said Vaughan, "and he had quite a few of them that had red food coloring in them. I mentioned that red food coloring is actually really bad for the hummingbirds; it sticks to their tongues and makes it so they can't drink. And instead of just selling out of them and not buying any more, he threw them away.

"We've got a place that's really trying to do good," Vaughan concluded. "It's extremely unique. It's the kind of place you want to go sit down and enjoy ... in the middle of the city."


Birds of a feather

Walking into the two franchise stores in strip malls off Academy Boulevard, it almost feels as if you're walking in a theme park. Leaving the rows of cars stretched out across the asphalt, you enter into a cool room with natural woods, a few fountains of falling water, and perhaps even a pre-recorded tape of wild birds singing. Things don't get much better at a mall.

"I'd looked into the Wild Birds Unlimited franchise," said Perry of the research he did some 10 years ago before opening his own shop. "I decided not to go that route, because one of the things they were pumping in their franchise meeting is that they have equal pricing in the United States for all of their seed. But it's all shipped out of Akron, Colorado.

"I'm thinking, why should I pay freight for someone with a New York store? Plus, I really hate franchises. You're locked into their deals, you can't have any creativity about what you want to put in or carry; it's just totally controlled. The franchises have just homogenized our entire country."

Eric Breier sees things differently. He came to Colorado Springs from Littleton, where he'd been a customer at the Wild Birds Unlimited franchise store in Denver while operating a sporting goods store called Mountain Miser. "We are part of a 274-franchise system," Breier said, noting that in addition to the local store, the Indiana-based franchise has outlets in Fort Collins, Estes Park, Boulder, and three in Denver.

Breier provides a localized list of birds along with information about what they prefer to eat. He too tries to tailor blends of seeds specifically for Front Range birds, noting that "the franchise has no participation in that."

Frank Dodge's Wild Bird Center is part of a national franchise based in Maryland. Dodge describes himself as "a recovering attorney." He came to the Springs in 1982 to teach law at the Air Force Academy, became the deputy staff judge advocate, and retired into the birdseed business a couple of years ago, blending his tinkering in backyard bird feeding with his desire to work with nice people who weren't angry.

"They're a competitor franchise," Breier said of Dodge's similarly named addition to the Springs seed scene. "We're a larger, more established, older franchise. They have a habit of following around Wild Birds Unlimited's successful stores and opening up stores."

"I think Colorado Springs is big enough for two stores," said Dodge in response. "The other guy [Perry] is not competition, quite frankly. He does his thing, he enjoys his thing, he's got his loyal customers, but he's not a threat to us at all. He's a nice man."

Perry echoes Dodge's sentiments, noting that Dodge and his wife "are the nicest people in the world. ...They kind of have the same attitude that I do. I always think there's enough room for everybody."

The mutual admiration society does not extend to the Breiers' Wild Birds Unlimited franchise, however. Eric and Dana Breier bought the store from the previous owners about a month before Dodge opened for business.

"I think we'd all be better off if we had two nice stores in town instead of one that pisses everybody off," Dodge said.

One source of friction has been squabbling over registered seed mixtures. Both Dodge and Perry have been visited by the Department of Agriculture in response to complaints that they were using stolen recipes. In both cases, the DOA determined the accusations were groundless.

Dodge beelieves Breier lodged the complaint against Wild Bird Center, though the DOA would not confirm his contention. "He said we were ripping off one of his seed mixtures," said Dodge.

Asked to comment, Breier said, "I don't know anything about that, nor have we made any complaints about that store."

In Perry's case, Julie Zimmerman, Feed Program Administrator for the DOA, remembered that it was Circle F, a local feed and pet supply store with two branches, who made the complaint.

Doug Nave, owner of Circle F, told the the Independent, that he made the complaint in reaction to Perry's hanging out in the east store and "asking a lot of questions" before opening his own seed store.

Since DOA doesn't handle patent issues, and there are no written records of either complaint, Zimmerman could only reply about the nature of the accusations: "Sounds like there's some ruffled feathers."


Bird eat bird

If it were just a case of ruffled feathers, the situation would be nothing more than an inconvenience. But in May of 1999, the stakes were raised considerably when Dana Breier complained to the city on behalf of Wild Birds Unlimited against This Place is For the Birds for violating their home occupation permit by bringing in items wholesale to sell as retail from the home.

A use variance hearing followed. The file from that action indicates that the complainant, Wild Birds Unlimited, was "upset that -- while they operated from [a] commercial location, 'This Place' was operating from a residence and therefore was able to undersell them on seed and the same type of bird feeders that they sold."

"One of the reasons they're so afraid of me is that my prices are so much lower than theirs," Perry explained. "I'm 25 to 35 percent lower than they are on the same stuff. And the reason is I buy most of my stuff directly from the farmers. I've eliminated the middle man in Akron."

It's not unusual for neighbors to complain about a new or growing business in an otherwise residential area, but in four years of operation, This Place is For the Birds had never received one complaint -- until the Breiers took issue with Perry's business practices and competitive pricing.

The Independent obtained city records that name Dana Breier of Wild Birds Unlimited as the complainant in the case. Ms. Breier initially agreed to speak with the Indy, but at the appointed hour, her husband called instead and emphatically denied their company had made the complaint.

When asked if his business had made a complaint against This Place is For the Birds, Breier initially answered "Not about any products." When reminded that the complaint was about a zoning issue, Breier said: "You'll have to talk to them and the city on that. We don't control anything."

When Breier was again asked about the details of the complaint which included his wife's name, he responded by asking that we change the subject, suggesting that we "keep talking about the hobby of feeding birds, because that's primarily what we do. I'd be happy to give you information about what birds eat. What sort of birds we have here. How people can enjoy, get more interest out of the hobby."


A lopsided battle

Wild Birds Unlimited fired their shot last year, then disappeared from the battlefield, leaving Perry and the city to spend personal and governmental resources waging war on behalf of an absent assailant.

"The bottom line was I just all of a sudden got this registered letter last year and it says 'cease retail sales and remove your truck from the street.' " Perry said. "So I went down the next morning and I had my home occupation permit with me that they'd given me several years ago and I said, ''what's the deal? You told me I could do this.' "

The problem with Perry exceeding the guidelines of his home occupation permit stems from a lack of clarity when the permit was issued initially. According to Perry, he was never given the guidelines.

"A [city] inspector came out, inspected my building, and there was no problem. He gave me a permit to sell birdseed, bird houses, bird feeders, and I had no problems until this new couple comes down from Denver and buys this store and then they discovered me and they were horrified."

"He was looking for an opportunity to try to run a quiet type of business," said Pam Brady, Land Use Inspector for the City of Colorado Springs, "and he didn't know what was legal and what wasn't. It may not have been explained as it should have been."

Perry prepared a thorough petition for justification for a use variance hearing that would enable Perry to continue operating his business. "There was extensive canvassing in the neighborhood and surrounding area," Brady recalled. "He had quite a blitz of letters and phone calls coming in advocating that they wanted that use to stay there and operate status quo." In his petition, Perry emphasized the historic nature of the property, Katie Veen's legacy, his quiet commitment to the community and the unique and unobtrusive neighborhood business.

Brady stressed her role as mediator, working for everybody in the city, accused and accusers alike. "Our values are commitment, trust and stewardship," she said, "and we're entrusted with caring for the natural and built environment."

Brady received at least 75 letters and phone calls regarding this case. All but one letter were in support of Perry. "I have never had [this volume of input] -- I was swamped with phone calls. And I was buried in letters," she said. Recollection places the number of interested parties at the hearing somewhere between 10 and 40, all supportive of Perry. "Maybe you'll have one neighbor come in opposition, or you'll have 4 or 5 neighbors come in opposition or for approval, but not the number of people that this fellow had.

"There was one person who thought they were going to knock the house down, put in a parking lot and lights, and put in a regular commercial thing, and she and several of her elderly neighbors were upset," Brady said.

Conspicuously absent from the hearing, including any letters or phone calls on record to strengthen their case, were the original complainants who initiated the nine-month process. Wild Birds Unlimited wasn't making a peep.

The report on the hearing was overwhelmingly positive. The department, clearly impressed, noted: "The uniqueness of the property is the country charm and quiet existence so that it does not intrude on its neighbors. ... It will also provide a benefit to the birds that use the area as a sanctuary."

Brady recalls that "the historic character and the overwhelming response from the neighborhood is kind of what won it over."

Perry won his variance, and was given a timeline to address a handful of concerns. "They approved me with eight conditions," Perry explained. "The devil is in the details of the seventh condition."


Victory has its price

Essentially, if Perry wants to continue selling retail goods from his home, a building permit, complete with the drawing of new architectural plans and a report from a structural engineer, must be submitted. Estimated cost for the plans themselves is $3,400, which does not include any adjustments Perry may have to make. He has been told by architects that he'll probably need to add electric baseboard heat in the shop, since there's no heat or water in the building currently.

"I kept saying, 'It's a barn! It's an outbuilding,' " Perry said. " 'Electric base board heat in a barn,' I said, 'are you kidding me? It'll be $5,000 a month.' " Perry says he was told he wouldn't have to turn the heater on, just to spend the thousands of dollars to install it.

Much of the frustration for Perry comes from the fact that, if he had been told of these requirements five years ago, he could have addressed them at the time, when his financial situation was much stronger and he was still involved with the music business.

"The nature of my business has not changed since the day I applied," Perry affirmed. "[The inspector] just didn't give me the right advice. He didn't come in with a heavy enough situation. He should have told me what they've told me now."

One way or another, Perry hopes to find some kind of resolution soon. What may be competitive one-upsmanship for a franchise like Wild Birds Unlimited translates into harsh reality for Perry.

"I'm a low income individual," said Perry. "If it's feasibly impossible for me to meet the financial aspects of it, I'm gonna have to shut down ... and probably sell the place."


Feed the birds

If the use variance hearing is any indication, Perry's friends, neighbors and customers aren't about to let that happen. Even city insiders can't help wanting to resolve his situation for the best.

One customer familiar with the machinations of the case summarized the objection succinctly.

"He started a new business and went through the proper procedures and got a rep from regional building to come out and inspect, and he got his occupancy permit," said the customer who asked to remain innamed. " I don't think it's fair for [the city] to come back five years later and say, 'Now you need to bring it up to code.' If, when he started his business, he knew that's what he needed to do, he may have planned his resources in a different way."

What really sticks in people's craw, however, is the fact that the trouble was initiated by a franchise that Perry estimates does 10 times his volume of business."It aggravates me that a national chain like Wild Birds Unlimited is who can create all this problem," said Perry's customer.

Nothing surprises Pam Brady, however. She's too familiar with her office being used as a "tool" in what she calls "grudge feuds." Of the 200 active cases she is currently reviewing, she estimates 10-15 percent are of that nature. "You have to have a very good read on the situation," she admitted, "and a psychology degree would be great."

The competition decries the Breiers' complaint, claiming it besmirches an otherwise good-natured hobby. "That's no way to do business," Dodge said of the approach of which Breier is accused. "I don't make any complaints about him. I try not to bad-mouth him in front of customers.

"We would love to put them out of business, everybody loves to put their competition out of business," said Dodge. "But we're not going to do things nasty. We'll do it with just treating the customers right and having the right products. We're going to just have a good store."

Perry agrees. "If I'm losing customers to somebody, I try to figure out why is that, and then I try to think what can I do to offer them as good a deal or a better deal."

In what may be a last-ditch effort, Perry approached Councilmember Richard Skorman, and Skorman explained the only potential option left to him, short of finding the funds to address all the variance conditions.

"The deadline for appealing to City Council a hearing officer's decision is 10 days, which have since passed, but he can request that that deadline be waived," Skorman said. "And if he appeals it to City Council, then City Council has to decide whether they want to hear the appeal and possibly overturn the hearing officer's decision."

Perry is certainly not looking to overturn the granting of the variance, but he would like some flexibility on the conditions, given the unusual circumstances regarding the initial permit. "I'm just hoping they could grandfather this in the way it was four years ago, or five years ago, because it hasn't changed any since then."

The only thing that has changed for Perry are his professional goals. "I'm hoping that I can move from my near-indigent income up to the low-poverty level," he said. "I hope to just concentrate on my business, sell birdseed and what-have-you without having all this extra baggage that I'm dealing with.

"There doesn't seem to be any room for common sense in a lot of it, and there's no room for something that's different. I mean this place is different."

Whether there is room for a third, local, independent seed seller in a two-franchise town remains to be seen. Colorado Springs wild bird enthusiasts will be watching closely to detect whether additional stealth maneuvers will squash Perry's business, or whether the bird man of Palmer Park will continue to feed the birds, monitor the prairie grass and play midwife to the butterflies.

-- owen@csindy.com

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