Business owners hold their breath as downtown construction kicks off in Basalt |

Business owners hold their breath as downtown construction kicks off in Basalt

Josie Taris
The Aspen Times
The Midland Avenue Streetscape Project will take place over 18 months.
Map by Connect One Design

Business owners in downtown Basalt are braced for a challenging summer as Monday marks the start of the Midland Avenue Streetscape Project. 

Construction will begin Phase 1 on the Midland Spur, or the parking lot behind Town Hall, and move eastward down Midland Avenue in later phases. Businesses will always be accessible via pedestrian traffic, and one-way street traffic will always be open, according to town staff. Construction is scheduled for 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

Phase I will result in 30 more parking spaces, from 60 to 90, along the spur. Under-road utilities and sidewalks will also be updated. Once that project is completed around mid-June, construction will move to Phase II, further down Midland Avenue. 

Those with businesses expressed resigned optimism and resilience ahead of the start of the project. Many agreed that downtown is in desperate need of revitalization. And everyone worries that the construction schedule over their busiest season is going to be tough, maybe impossible. 

This map shows where parking will be available in Historic Downtown Basalt during Phase I construction. / Town of Basalt
Connect One Design

My Side

Ripping off the Band-Aid

Voters approved the project by 71% on the November 2021 ballot as part of the town of Basalt’s 2020 Master Plan. 

The language is vague, asking voters to approve or deny “streetscape, sidewalk, and related infrastructure improvements on Midland Avenue in downtown Basalt.” But, as town Planning Director Michelle Thiebault explained, ballot measure language is usually vague to leave room for contracting a team and the complexities of allocating a budget and schedule, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The project includes extensive improvement plans to the area’s water lines, stormwater management, snow and ice, electric, gas, communications, delivery and pedestrian infrastructure, plus aesthetic improvements.

The project takes in Midland Avenue from the intersection at Two Rivers Road through the intersection with East Homestead Drive. It also includes the Midland spur between Midland Avenue and Two Rivers Road. In all, it is expected to take 18 months, with completion in late 2024. 

“Downtown Basalt could do with a little facelift,” said Sue Edmonds, gallery director at Ann Korologos Gallery. “Everything has to be strong enough to stand up to the extra population.”

Right now, most of downtown Basalt is not compliant with the 1991 Americans with Disabilities Act. Sidewalks are not sufficiently wide, some doorways have steps up without ramps, among other issues. The streetscape project will bring all storefronts and facades to ADA compliance.

Tracy Bennet owns Midland Shoe, a shoe store with a decades-long presence that is a vestige of local specialty shops in the age of e-commerce. 

The entrance to her store has a step that is a few inches off the sidewalk. It is not much for an able-bodied customer, but some of her clientele struggles with the step. Bennet said she is excited for the construction to level her door with the sidewalk.

“I happen to have a lot of older customers (who use) canes, walkers, you name it. Sometimes strollers have a hard time. That one little step is the big complaint,” she said. “But I’ve weathered 30 years (here). I don’t want to move. I want to stay here and want to make it work. I’m not ging to go down a negative spiral.”

She said she is focused on staying positive through the projected 18-month construction schedule because it’s all necessary work. 

“I want to get through it. I want it to be done, so that we can move forward,” she said. “We’re not the first town that’s gone through this. I’m not the first business that’s gone through it. And a lot of businesses that I talked to from different states, different towns that went through the same thing. They said, ‘Yeah, it was painful.’ They were down a little bit. It wasn’t nearly as drastic as they thought it would be. But they said on the other side, it made things 10 times better for them. So fingers crossed; it’ll be better for us, too.”

Midland Shoe’s neighbor, the consignment store Heirlooms, hosted an information party for its staff and clientele on Thursday. They also share the “rip off the Band-Aid” sentiment that Town Hall promoted throughout community engagement campaigns.

Chris McLaughlin owns Aspen Repair Service, a vacuum and electronics repair store tucked in the alley behind The Art Base. He said he is not pleased at the prospect of losing parking spaces closest to his store, even though overall parking spaces in the downtown Basalt area will remain unchanged, 300, by the end of the project. 

“I went to a couple Town Council meetings, and I had expressed my concern that there wasn’t going to be enough parking in the middle of the street for deliveries. And my customers kind of depend on getting as close as possible to here to carry in or carry out stuff,” he said. “But I don’t know how that’s going to be affected with the new system.”

His business has edged closer from Aspen to Basalt, where he lives, since he started in 1972, due to climbing rents. He does not remember which way he voted on the 2021 ballot issue but said he likely voted against it. 

Why summer?

In the winter, downtown Basalt enters a quasi-hibernation. Local restaurants have live music and shops run holiday promotions, but the town really explodes in the summer.

“The concentration of our business happens in the summer. People come down here from Aspen,” said gallery director Edmonds. “They ride their bikes, they come to lunch, they go to the grocery store and then they stop in Basalt. And they look in the gallery, and they wander around.”

The Ann Korologos Gallery boasts a selection of Western-themed photography, paintings and sculptures. It relies heavily on foot traffic, as their showroom sits at the corner of Midland Avenue and the street down to the storefronts next to the Fryingpan River. 

“It would be ultimate to have the work done, say, start now, stop in June, start again in September,” she said. “Like at least give us a couple of months where people are not having a hard time getting here.”

“Ripping off the Band-Aid” never seemed like a viable option to Laura Maine, who owns Spanish/Italian restaurant Tempranillo on the south side of Midland Avenue. She said her restaurant makes about 70% of its yearly business during the June-September months.

“(The construction) needs to be spread out. It’s worth it, we need to do the infrastructure. We’re all on board with fixing the pipes and doing whatever they need to do. All we’re asking is don’t do it during summer, our one busy season of the year,” she said. “I won’t have any lunch if there’s construction machines and jackhammers and that kind of thing in front of my business, right?”

She presented a petition to the town of Basalt dated March 3, asking the town to reschedule the construction away from their peak months of June, July and August to September-May. Approximately 33 business owners along the construction zone signed. 

Maine also expressed concern for her employees, many of whom count on making a bulk of their yearly earnings turning tables during the summer on Tempranillo’s patio.

Thiebault, the town planning director, said that, unfortunately, a June-September pause would not make fiscal sense.

“Any contractor and anyone that’s ever done construction will tell you you need to work through the summer months. You have less weather delays and less schedule delays. The weather impacts will add cost to the project,” she said. “That includes working as soon as you can at the beginning of spring. … You can do it during freezing. It (costs) about twice as much because you have to heat the street and the paving. It’s not that it’s impossible. It’s that it’s fiscally irresponsible for taxpayer dollars.”

She said the town staff is also working on value-engineering the plans to potentially replace concrete with asphalt in the center section. That change would save the project time and money, she said.

Also, staff is waiting to release a detailed schedule of the “sectioning” of the construction project as it moves eastward down Midland. The whole road will not be ripped up at once, she said, and construction impacts will be contained to smaller sections of the road.

“When you don’t know (the construction schedule) in that fashion, it feels like it’s the whole street blown up and the whole sidewalk blown up, and then a huge thing. But that’s a different scenario than what is actually going to happen,” she said. “It’s absolutely going to be noisy. It’s absolutely going to be a construction zone, but it’ll be limited to sections at a time.”

Thiebault said that schedule will be ready for business owners in about a month.

How businesses plan to cope

With construction scheduled to occur from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Saturday, businesses are thinking about adjusting their hours and services. But most said they will make game-time decisions for what best suits their employees and customers. 

“I’m not a genie in a bottle. You’ve got to pivot in the moment. I’ve been talking to a lot of my vendors, and I’ve told them what my situation is. So I’ve cut way back on my merchandise, and I’m going to hopefully be able to react and fill in and get what I need,” said Bennett of Midland Shoe. “Customers may just say, ‘Go to hell with it! I’m not going to go down there!’ And I’m going to support everyone. That is what I would really like to see. I just don’t want to paint doom and gloom. I’d like to offer solutions instead of dwell on the problem.”

She has no plans to put any inventory online and is considering altering her hours to stay open outside of the construction window.

For Maine and Tempranillo, it seems no solution will ease the financial burden of losing any business during lunch service. 

“We’re looking into valet parking. They suggested that maybe I set up a tent in the park, and I thought that was pretty insulting,” she said. “I’ve got a big operation here, and I just thought that was pretty short-sighted. One other thought is to close lunch, but another angle is that my employees rely on the summer, as well, for a lot of their income.”

Maine is still holding onto hope that the schedule could change. 

“I have to believe that they can figure out how to do this work during the off-seasons and not right in the middle of our only busy season of the year,” she said. “They say, Well, you know, it might cost more,’ but that doesn’t take into consideration how much we will lose. And they’re using taxpayer dollars. So they’re using our money to take our business away.”

Edmonds also considered altering hours at the gallery. And though art is difficult to transport, she said, the gallery will likely put its inventory online and offer to bring pieces to a customer who expresses interest in purchasing something.

“I think we’re in a position where we can get through one summer like that. If it’s two summers, I don’t know, that’s another story,” Edmonds said. Mayor Bill Kane, with whom Edmonds has spoken about the project, would be her first stop in that scenario, she said. 

For the town’s part, Thiebault said two summers of intense construction on the street is highly unlikely. 

“The worst of it, the trenching and the paving, in the sidewalks should all be done by the end of this year. So anything that would come back for 2024 for that (center) section would just be landscaping and lights,” she said. 

She also said that the town is looking into hiring a valet service for downtown customers, expanding BasaltConnect service and employing a variation of COVID program “Basalt Bucks” as “Midland Money” for the duration of the construction. Town staff will hand out Midland Money, or gift certificates eligible at Midland Avenue businesses, during the summer. 

Still, there is no official plan of recompense for business lost during the construction.

The Town Council approved a more than $3 million contract with Stutsman-Gerbaz for the construction of Phase I on March 14. Phase I accounts for about 30% of the project. 

All interviewed business owners agreed that town staff and members of Town Council communicated the process and listened to their concerns, though not everything could be resolved. 

Town staff will host an informational meeting on Wednesday for business owners, building owners and residents. More information on the project is available at the Let’s Talk Basalt web page.

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