It's 7:45 on an unseasonably warm Saturday morning. I'm walking my dog through Old Colorado City. Most of the stores are closed, but the 120-year-old commercial district is coming to life.
At Jives, a coffee shop facing Bancroft Park, a half-dozen customers enjoy the early sun. Across the street, La Baguette does a brisk business. Two blocks farther to the west, the second wave has already hit Bon Ton's Café, the west side's iconic breakfast spot, which has been open since 6.
By early afternoon, the good weather brings out dozens of strollers, potential customers for the merchants along Colorado Avenue and the side streets. The merchants are wildly diverse, an Alice's Restaurant of retail.
Want some sexy lingerie, a tattoo, a jade horse, a cool little top, a 21.7-carat aquamarine set in diamonds and gold, a bankruptcy lawyer, a painting, a margarita, the opportunity to make a fool out of yourself singing karaoke, a bed for the night at one of the state's finest B&Bs, gluten-free tapas, or a simple scoop of ice cream?
It's all here.
Thirty-five years ago, Colorado City was dying. The 19th-century brick commercial buildings that lined Colorado Avenue were mostly vacant and crumbling. The few businesses that remained (the much-mourned Roger's Bar among them) serviced a strictly local clientele.
According to longtime activist Dave Hughes, city bigwigs even floated a plan to tear down all the existing buildings and offer the vacant ground to a manufacturing company, which would then create jobs for all of us unemployed west-siders.
Happily, that didn't happen. Working in tandem with city officials, local businesses and property owners, Hughes conceived and implemented a plan that led to the preservation, renovation and revival of this extraordinary area. It's a story that has been told — but now it's time to ask a simple question.
Why does Old Colorado City thrive, while downtown Colorado Springs struggles? What lessons can downtown merchants and property owners learn from their counterparts two miles to the west?
"I'm always wondering what we can learn from downtown," says Laura Teeters, who owns A Call to Life, a women's clothing boutique at 25th Street and Colorado. "I never thought that we had anything to teach them. But I love being here — this is such a supportive business community. I get so many customers that other business owners refer to me, and I refer my customers to them."
Silversmith Mike Velez occupied a prime Tejon Street location for 20 years before moving to "the avenue" two years ago. He echoes Teeters' comments.
"It's great here," he says. "It's just a lot of people who are really dedicated to small retailers, and making this work for all of us."
Commercial real estate broker and gadfly City Councilor Tim Leigh takes a slightly different tack.
"They've got a great tenant mix," he says, "lots of storefronts, small, shallow spaces. Downtown has a problem because so many spaces are too big, too deep. Small retailers can't afford the dead space, so they go out to Colorado City, or Manitou. And the more retailers you have, the more foot traffic, the more sales, and everybody benefits."
Also, Leigh continues, it's not so much what Old Colorado City has that's important — it's what it doesn't have.
"There aren't any panhandlers there — or at least there's no perception that they're working the street every day. It's considered safe at night, and parking is easy. Not like downtown. I get panhandled every day, and I get a parking ticket at least once a week. Twenty bucks! You've got the bars and restaurants, but they don't overwhelm the area."
The parking meters that so bedevil Leigh downtown line Colorado Avenue as well, but there's a difference. They're at least two-hour meters, and free parking is readily available on side streets and in lots behind the buildings. Plus, there are no gaping parking lots in the heart of the shopping district.
Here's another whimsical touch: For whatever reason, there are no chain retailers in the historic core of Colorado City. No Starbucks, no McDonald's, no KFC. You have to leave the historic district and drive to 30th Street to satisfy your fast-food jones. Locally owned businesses dominate the avenue.
And in every building, history is alive and present.
"This space [in the 1891 Templeton Building] used to be a gentleman's club in 1895," says Teeters. "Here's a copy of the newspaper article about the club, which had gilded chandeliers, a bar, a dining room — all the amenities. Up on the third floor, the Knights of Pythias had their meeting hall — and look, here's a piece of club stationery we found in the basement."
Teeters turned the building's long history to commercial advantage a few months ago, hosting a well-attended event featuring investigators of the paranormal. Did they find any ghosts?
"Oh, it was so interesting..." she starts — but she never finishes, interrupted by customers.
A block to the west, we squeeze into local artist Laura Reilly's just-opened gallery. It's a tiny space, one that was originally a horse alley.
"I'd been thinking about just renting a place for a few days," she says, "but then I saw this space and I said, 'Yes — this is a gallery!'"
Time for a cupcake? Sorry, too late ... next door at Mya Bella's, there's a cheerful sign on the door: "All out of cupcakes — see you Tuesday!"
Final stop: All that Glitters, to look at that 21.7-carat aquamarine pendant. It's magnificent, and unaffordable. But maybe the local bank on the corner would make us a loan...