Does downtown economy hinge on big crowds?

Filed under: News |

Jerry Rutledge says the crowds that descend on downtown Colorado Springs each weekend translate into additional sales at his men’s clothing store.

Twenty-five years ago, as one downtown businessman pointed out recently, “you could have rolled a bowling ball down Tejon Street at 10 o’clock on Saturday night, and not hit a thing.”
But, as any downtown visitor can attest, things have changed.
Downtown is no longer just a place for specialty retail outlets and government offices, it’s the epicenter of Colorado Springs nightlife — which has recently sprung to the forefront because of an assault at one of the area’s trendiest nightclubs.
And while the downtown bars and clubs have their critics, their supporters see them as the key to a thriving economic future.
Downtown’s core, arbitrarily defined as everything within a two-block radius of the intersection of Pikes Peak Avenue and Tejon Street, now includes four martini bars, 14 bar/restaurants, three neighborhood bars and three nightclubs.
The nightclubs — Eden, Rum Bay and the Vue — attract large, predominantly youthful crowds to downtown every weekend.
According to Sam Guadagnoli, owner of Rum Bay and the Vue, as many as 5,000 customers pass through the doors of his establishments on a typical summer weekend.
Eden, located two blocks east of Tejon on Pikes Peak, attracts similarly large crowds.
On a recent Friday night, as the crowds began to flow into Eden at 10:30 p.m., two uniformed police officers walked through the club, chatting with employees. An hour later, the sidewalk outside Rum Bay on Tejon Street was too crowded for easy passage. The music that blared through the second-story balcony doors was clearly audible from two blocks away.
These noisy, lively throngs may mean good business for nightclub owners, but other downtown business owners and/or property owners have mixed opinions.
Jackie Goode, owner of Idoru, an upscale, youth-oriented clothing store, doesn’t see any particular benefit to the big weekend crowds.
“There’s a lot of military, and people who aren’t interested in shopping,” she said. “I haven’t seen any [increase in business].”
Jerry Rutledge, whose men’s clothing store Rutledge’s has been downtown for a quarter century, has a different perspective.
“I’ve heard some negatives, but for us it’s been a positive,” he said. “We pay a lot of attention to our weekend window displays, because we get calls on Monday from people who say they were downtown on Saturday night, and they want the exact shirt they saw in the window. You know, retailers need people, and Sam brings people.”
It’s clear, however, that the presence of so many revelers concentrated in a relatively small area has led to dramatic increases in calls for service to the police department, and a corresponding increase in the downtown police presence.
According to Kurt Pillard, who commands the Gold Hill division of the CSPD, Eden, Rum Bay and the Vue are by far the three biggest sources of calls for service within the division. The Ritz is a distant fourth.
Responding to the number of calls, the police department has flooded downtown with officers on Friday and Saturday nights. As many as 17 police personnel, both uniformed and plainclothes, are concentrated around the three nightclubs.
Despite these numbers, downtown bars and clubs continue to be the locus of sometimes violent encounters, which have involved patrons and club or bar employees.
Last month, two bouncers at the Vue had their throats slashed when two men who had been refused admittance attacked the club employees with box cutters. On the same evening, shots were fired in the downtown area.
At closing time — when hundreds, even thousands, of people pour out of Rum Bay and the Vue — the police have taken the extraordinary step of closing Tejon Street to vehicular traffic, simply to make room for the crowds. This policy has been in effect for three years, and is designed to protect bar patrons and reduce confrontational behavior.
The clubs employ their own security personnel, but make no contribution, other than through sales taxes, to the cost of law enforcement.
Guadagnoli and his wife, Kathy, have owned similar clubs in Colorado Springs for nearly 25 years, and their ventures have been successful. During the last five years, the Guadagnolis, either alone or in partnership with other investors, have acquired at least nine downtown properties.
One of the partnerships plans to build a 24-story structure on the southeast corner of Nevada and Kiowa, adjacent to the City Auditorium.
The lower floors of the building would house a five-star hotel, as well as upscale national retailers. The upper floors would be developed as luxury lofts.
Guadagnoli was asked whether his existing nightclub businesses are compatible with an upscale hotel, as well upscale residential lofts less than a block away.
Vigorously defending downtown, and the downtown entertainment district, Guadagnoli noted that “when you have people, you’re going to have problems.”
And, he continued, downtown clubs, bars and restaurants, far from driving away hoteliers and loft dwellers, attract them to the area.
“Hotels want a vibrant downtown — they won’t locate in downtowns without nightlife, without bars and restaurants,” he said. “Look at San Diego, Nashville, anywhere. There has to be something there. And look, what else can there be downtown? There’s no golf course downtown. And the lofts — they’re downtown because it’s alive down here. You think the people buying those lofts (pointing at lofts under construction half a block from Rum Bay) don’t know there are clubs here?”
But Wylene Carol, who lives in the Daniels Lofts, just north of Rum Bay and the Vue, sees things differently.
“We don’t mind the noise and the crowds — but after hours, when the cops have left, then it gets scary,” she said. “The noise is of a hostile nature — there are fights, arguments, and it goes on until 5 a.m. I’ve been here for five years, and the whole scene has crescendoed — it’s just unacceptable.”
Guadagnoli claims that he and his employees try to do their part to ensure visitors to his businesses are safe.
“Those guys [who attacked the bouncers at the Vue] were inappropriately dressed, they had a bad attitude, we refused to admit them, and had to physically remove them from the door,” he said. “We handed them over to the cops — and five minutes later they came back and our employees got cut. I don’t know what else we could have done.”
He said that people’s fear of visiting downtown on weekend nights is misplaced.
“It was a lot more dangerous when the streets were deserted,” Guadagnoli said. “And you know, people have been complaining about ‘bad elements’ downtown since we were kids. Remember J’s and Garth’s [two drive-ins that were popular teen hangouts in the 1950s and 1960s], and how bad the cruisers supposedly were? And then it was the hippies in Acacia Park, and then the homeless.”
Susan Edmondson, executive director of the Bee Vradenburg Foundation, and a leading downtown advocate, noted that upscale hotels and entertainment districts comfortably co-exist in larger cities.
“It just depends which way you walk,” she said. “A block one way for clubs, or a block the other for upscale retail, restaurants.”
In the end, Guadagnoli sees a unique synergy between hospitality, retail and nightlife.
“You know, I love downtown, and we’re this far,” he said holding his thumb a hairsbreadth from his forefinger, “from having everything — hotels, lofts, apartments, retail. Get the hotel, the retail comes, the people come — but the hotels won’t come without the nightlife.”
John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com