Thursday, July 9, 2020

Poor Little Rich Town – Part I

Struggling for a lifestyle

By Dawne Belloise

The conversation can be heard everywhere, in cafés, bars, at the post office, among locals gathered around backyard fire pits—Crested Butte is changing fast. Many of the concerns revolve around the dark neighborhoods of part-time second homeowners who are driving up property taxes and contributing to the housing shortage, rising business fees, unsustainable rents for both business and residential tenants, different ‘cultural values’ seeping in, and long time community-invested businesses closing their doors.

The trends are overwhelmingly evident—Crested Butte is in a vortex of upheaval and change. September saw the demise of two long-time establishments: Donita’s Cantina, a 40-year fixture in the community; and Pema Dawa, a favorite retail bead and jewelry shop for 16 years.

These followed the recent closings of CB Kids, Shock Therapy, which was the last of the town’s small appliance electrical repairs, and the Rendezvous Gallery, a framing and art gallery in town for 31 years.

There were several businesses, like Mountain Oven Bakery, that either closed up or moved operations to a more affordable, ‘business-friendly’ location out of town in the past couple of years. Many have cited their main reasons for closing as escalating rents and a shortage of available employees due to a lack of affordable housing, along with a variety of personal reasons.

Winnie Haver started Pema Dawa in the Company Store (now Secret Stash pizza), where she was located for ten years before relocating to her last space on Elk Avenue for six years, claiming the latter was the best for sales. Her decision to close was made not just because the rent was going up, but also because the triple net fee was increasing.

Triple net is having to basically pay for the property’s insurance, utilities, maintenance and taxes in addition to or as part of the rent. Haver’s total cost to lease the space could have increased from about $3,000 to closer to $3,500 per month when including both the base rent and triple net expenses. Those triple net fees in the three-year lease could have changed the amount she paid as they were adjusted.

Previously, Haver explains, the entire building, all four units, shared the triple net costs, which included things like snow removal and shared electricity for the heating of the sidewalk, but the new lease stated that if the taxes or maintenance costs increased, then so did the amount the tenants had to pay.

“So I couldn’t count on the fact that for the next three years of the lease, I’d be paying $3.500. My rent portion would stay the same but if everything else changed, if property taxes shot up, I could end up paying $4,000 a month next year,” and property tax valuations on Elk Avenue shot up substantially this year. Haver said that it would be hard to try to budget for that in an already tight business market, “If I can’t know what I’m going to pay, it doesn’t work. Rent going up $500 was going to be pushing it for me in this space.”

She tried to configure a way to continue Pema Dawa in the space, considering profit margins of her small ticket items of beads and jewelry, “I started out thinking, how I could increase business, how can I make it better, how can I make this work, but the triple net pulls in a whole different piece. I can’t figure out how to make it work if down the road it’s going to increase again. It’s an unknown factor.”

Haver’s business was also seasonal, like most of the retail and restaurant businesses in Crested Butte. She has a huge local clientele but it dwindles in off-season as locals are either out of town or conserving funds during the employment drought.

In the normal turnover of employees that businesses experience in town, Haver has been fortunate in the past, being able to fill positions fairly easily. However, this year she noted that an ad she published for sales help yielded only one applicant. “I have noticed that over the years it’s getting harder and harder to find employees. For the most part, it’s been easy but employees state they have to move because they can’t find housing or can’t afford it here anymore,” she tells.

Even in Gunnison, where the housing rents have increased to reflect rising costs and take advantage of the Crested Butte housing shortage, the drive or bus ride makes for a long day of work with the commute.

Haver considered moving to a different space in Crested Butte, and even to Gunnison, as she played with all the different possibilities of keeping Pema Dawa open. In the end, she concluded that letting the shop go and doing jewelry design on her own, which was something she had been wanting to do anyway, would be the best solution. Pema Dawa has an active social media presence on both Facebook and Instagram but Haver will have an online shop with a new name on Etsy, where the internet clientele will be worldwide in addition to her loyal local followers.

Next year she’ll apply for a booth at the weekly summer Farmers Market, which is far less expensive than renting a retail space in Crested Butte, and has a guaranteed high-season clientele and tourist flow. Although the rent and business costs were the main reason for Haver closing the shop, it’s also the impetus for her to pursue her creativity and talent in jewelry design. She says, “I’m ready to close this chapter and start a new one.”

John Penn owns The Tobacconist, a sort of new rendition of the notorious hippie head shops of the 1960s and ‘70s. He carries pipes, CBD products, clothing, incense and tchotchkes. He’s moved the business location eight times in the past 25 years as rents increased, buildings sold, and some landlords didn’t like the cultural aspects of the marijuana-oriented items he was selling. Penn feels he’ll most likely close when his lease is up in two and a half years since he’s certain the rent will increase beyond his sales profitability.

He’s also had employee issues. “The whole town can’t find help. We’re losing our workforce. I’ll have to leave town,” Penn says, thinking that his time as a resident here will be at an end when his store’s lease is up. “I have no choice. It’s not affordable to live or conduct business here. Old friends and young friends alike are leaving and the wealthy upper-class are moving in. Walk down the street at night, how many dark houses are there? How many of your friends are still here? There was an old saying here that Crested Butte is what Aspen used to be and what Vail never was,” which Penn feels has now become reality, pointing to the fact that the wealthy have arrived and Vail bought CBMR. Although he’s living in the so-called affordable housing of Anthracite Place’s tiny apartments, he emphatically states that it’s not a home. “It’s more like a halfway house with its restrictive rules and regulations. Can’t even burn incense. Can’t have pets. It’s not a neighborhood. It’s a place to sleep, not a home.”

After 31 years, Lian Canty is gone, along with her shop, the Rendezvous Gallery. Having moved her business around town nine times for the same reasons other businesses were displaced she feels, “I’ve done my tour.”

Searching for something different, she’s moved to Portland, Oregon, closer to her kids. Canty notes that it’s ridiculously expensive and difficult to get to or from Crested Butte. It takes a lot of travel time and there are cheaper, direct flights from most other cities or towns. Canty is an illustrative artist who, to make ends meet, framed art during the day, with a second job at Mountain Tails, then created her artwork at night, “So I’m burned out and not able to do my artwork,” she says. Canty also found that to rent an entire three bedroom Portland house costs far less than renting a Crested Butte condo, if you can find housing in Crested Butte at all.

Rich Driscoll closed Shock Therapy last year for two reasons: his shop overhead increased when the space was sold and the new landlord upped the rent; and in his business of repairing electrical appliances, his niche was disappearing due to disposable consumerism. Never having been to Portland, Driscoll has moved sight-unseen with long-time friend Lian Canty and her boyfriend.

A year ago last spring, after nine years in business in Crested Butte, Mountain Oven packed up their baking operation and moved to Paonia, where owner Chris Sullivan was able to purchase a home on five acres with a small orchard for considerably less than the price of buying a small condo on the mountain. Sullivan also rented an affordable large space in downtown Paonia where he built a kitchen facility for his baking production.

For him, it was a lifestyle choice. “We were looking to be somewhere we could live and make a living and a home, which would never happen for us up here in Crested Butte because my business isn’t highly profitable,” he says of providing organic breads and baked goods. “We’re making a livelihood now and we’re doing better in Paonia where the overhead is lower.” It’s also a simpler business model without the retail café he was renting at the west end of Elk Avenue, where the rent was increasing substantially. Now in his new business home, Mountain Oven is thriving.

Sullivan didn’t want to leave Crested Butte, even though there’s been a noticeable migration of Buttians to Paonia. “Crested Butte is a really special place and the exceptional community of long-term residents, who are committed to each other, are trying to protect this place. But I see the people who are moving here, buying property here, and they’re not my people.”

Sullivan feels that his generation of younger Crested Butte residents won’t be able to continue here and he sees a drastically different demographic already replacing those who sought and loved Crested Butte as a lifestyle and real-world alternative. He wonders, as the aging so-called “mid-timers” move on, what will become of Crested Butte if the younger generation can’t afford to live here.

September’s emotional closing of Donita’s Cantina left little doubt of how Crested Butte is changing. Crested Butte’s community and wildness seems to be transforming into a more gentrified, wealthy culture.

An owner of the late Donita’s Cantina, Kay Peterson Cook, feels, “Unfortunately, the Front Rangers have changed the flavor of our town. They’re mostly transplants from other states. Plus, we’ve got the whole Epic pass thing, which is going to bring more of those people. They think it’s a cute little town.” She notes that Crested Butte is very welcoming to tourists and newcomers. But those very transplants are not only changing the flavor of town, they’re part of the reason for the housing crisis and rising costs of living here.

Heli Mae Peterson, a Donita’s owner, knows that that many who moved here have already sold their houses for a profit, which drives up taxes for everyone. “These people are moving from the Midwest because they come to a place like Crested Butte and love it. And you know, I came from somewhere else. I can’t shut the door on it but I can hang on to community. You’ve got to have tourism when your rent is $10,000 a month and going up 50 percent. I believe that we’re all hanging on to this community.”

But many also question what will the community look like a few years down the road if the population becomes primarily wealthy, part-time second-home owners, who might prefer chain stores to our locally owned shops.

This story was edited to correct possible confusion over the rent and triple net cost issue with Pema Dawa.

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