Old Towne Arvada is about a 20-minute drive from Denver, as the crow flies, or an 18-minute hop on RTD’s G Line train. However you choose to get there, you’ll find historic buildings, brick-paved streets and what Joe Hengstler calls “a really quaint kind of piece of Americana.”
At any other time, the unique businesses and the historic charm would probably help tell a retail success story — but the pandemic isn’t a normal time. Hengstler is the executive director of the business improvement district and he knows that quaintness alone isn’t gonna cut it.
“Many of them are these small business owners who have taken a chance on Old Towne and really just built up these one of a kind shops that you're not gonna see anywhere else,” he said of the boutique downtown area.
In response, Olde Town made room for physical distancing and pushed cars off the street in three prime blocks. That space was instead transformed into patios and places for street furniture and a little extra ambiance.
“We threw up the Christmas lights early just to add a little bit of additional vibrancy to the downtown and just kinda made it into a friendly pedestrian mall,” Hengstler said.
Entrepreneur Scott Spears owns a lot of businesses in Arvada. Some of them are what you’d expect for a historic downtown — like the Scrumptious ice cream and candy shop — and others are funky, like Sock Store or Super Zoom Bang Bang.
“Sock Store, we just sell socks,” Spears said. “Super Zoom, Bang Bang is a toy store.”
“In all honesty, without these street closures, many of our businesses probably would have had to close down — just ‘cause we couldn't get enough people in,” he said.
Business isn’t where it was last summer but the ability to spill into the street has been a lifesaver. It’s also been an eye-opener for some. Sure, the idea to clear the street and offer more room for social distancing was driven by the pandemic, but some have told Spears they see another benefit beyond what’s kept the doors open for businesses.
“We've heard a lot of feedback,” he said. “I mean, I've personally had text messages and emails from a lot of people I know, and people I don't even know, saying, please, if we can keep these streets like this, that'd be amazing.”
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As far as the new street closure being a permanent change, Hengstler indicated that would be “a whole nother conversation” with a lot of different work that the Olde Town Arvada Business Improvement District would need to undertake. In the meantime, the street closure isn’t a panacea. Colder weather is just around the corner and that’ll change things. And not every shop and restaurant is benefiting from the pedestrian boost.
“I know some of the businesses where their numbers aren't quite where they should be from a capacity standpoint,” he said. “I know for some of those restaurants, like, they would love it if they could have everybody back into their restaurant at the same time. They're well aware that, you know, safety is a priority and we need to get over the pandemic. So I know some of them are struggling.”
“I would stress to everybody that it's just important to get out and really support your local businesses right now.”
Just please wear a mask, Hengstler added. Keep your distance. Jefferson County Public Health reports more than 80 new cases in Arvada in the last two weeks.
There’s another way Arvada’s been able to help local businesses: The city issued more than 250 emergency loans when the pandemic hit. Now, thanks to the CARES Act, those loans have been converted to grants and don’t have to be paid back.