Guest Column: Anchors away and ships ahoy in downtown Rifle
Regardless of your political affiliation, or culinary tastes, downtown Rifle has lost one of its anchor merchants. For better, or worse Shooter’s Grill is closing its downtown location. No more cameras, no more swag, and no more meals. News outlets are reporting that the new owners of the downtown building won’t be renewing the restaurant’s lease. The sign is out. “See you later.” The end of an era. Anchor’s away and ship’s ahoy.
Located squarely in the middle Rifle’s historic Third Street, the grill, vaguely known as a greasy spoon before 2014, was thrust into national news with its quirky atmosphere: Many of the waitresses wore guns on their hips whilst slinging hash. Cool factor? Check, please.
Whether it was publicity, or practicality, we won’t know, but it certainly sparked debate, outrage and, if nothing else, intrigue. Gawking men in their 60s could proudly proclaim: I ate there. Got the T-shirt, took the picture, and it was worth the trip. Cha-ching.
Holding its own through the downtown transition period, the grill was again back in the spotlight, but this time for politics. And guns. Or, maybe, guns and politics. Guns, politics and, well, more guns. Whichever it was, Lauren Boebert, the owner of Shooter’s, would eventually win a Colorado congressional seat. Her rise brought attention to downtown Rifle that was impossible to ignore.
Bobert boldly proclaimed, “Hell no, you won’t take my gun” on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol Building, and soon found herself in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, back home, the grill cranked up the heat on its back alley smoker and brought their merch “A” game. Nothing wrong with a little tourism for a small town named Rifle. As Jackie Gleason said, “And awaaay we go!”
All history aside, this article isn’t about politics, it’s about downtown Rifle and small businesses in general, which, nationally and in Rifle, are a dying breed. Not because they’re bad businesses, or bad business owners, but because businesses, in order to thrive, need thriving communities, and those are in short supply right now.
There’s no doubt that Rifle’s claim to fame has come with a heaping spoonful of controversy, but we’re used to that by now, or have we grown tired and are looking for something to help the medicine go down? No matter, because, even today, as I walked past Shooter’s, windows shuttered, there was activity. Three men, all with gray hair, emerging from their Illinois-plated SUV to stretch their legs. Snapping a photo in front of the barrel emblazoned windows and getting back in again to drive away, but not before one of them stopped, took a gander around, and said, “There’s nothing else here.”
“There’s nothing else here” is a phrase that I pondered all evening and now has me punching keys on my iPad. Trying to wrap my head around how to build and sustain small business relationships that benefit the growth of this amazing community is a task too great for me to tackle alone. Indeed, it’s a Goliath that won’t go down without an army. Charge.
There’s a lot to love about downtown, but, for any brick and mortar business, let’s be candid, it’s tough sailing. Scratch that. Cruel sailing. The businesses that hang on here, hang on. E-commerce hits hard all year long. In fact, the day of this writing, my wife informed me of her most recent retail temptation: a robotic vacuum that whisks while you sleep. Don’t judge us, it was Amazon Prime day.
Back when the west was won, marketplaces operated a lot differently than they do today. For example, haggling over price was commonplace as it was seen as an opportunity to get to know one another and a way to build trust for future transactions. Today, these small social exchanges are expendable moments that we quickly throw away as we reach for our digital shield: the phone. By guarding ourselves from any unwarranted social interaction in this way, we will only grow further apart as a community and, consequently, downtown will only get more dusty and more empty.
Small businesses can’t thrive unless we know one another.
It’s true that, as it stands right now, we treat our downtown like it’s in the way, not on the way. I get it, and I am guilty of this as well, but there’s no way to get to Interstate 70, save for plowing right though each of those incessant stop lights. The speed limit is 25, but, let’s face it, downtown pedestrians will always be in the way. I would even go so far as to say Rifle doesn’t have a downtown, we have a thoroughfare, and no one wants to get railroaded on Railroad. We’ve all come close. I love and appreciate the work that went into the new downtown. The walking spaces, even terrain and brickwork are all wonderful, but there’s a hustle through the streets that’s keeping us away. Hopefully, not forever.
Some political affiliates would count the removal of Shooter’s from downtown as a win, but they don’t live here. We do. It’s a loss. Not a fatal loss, but a damaging blow, nonetheless. In the future, let’s not leave it up to one business to hold down the fort. Let’s build community in the downtown area that values relationships and time spent with others. The anchor is us, and we haven’t left yet.
We’re just the people that can build a vibrant downtown that we’re proud of, enjoy visiting, and can pass on to the next generation. A great downtown is so much more than just buying and selling, it is relationships. People meeting for the first time. Acquaintances getting to know each other better. Old friends deepening their connections.
Yes, to grow the Rifle economy we will need so much more than the old mantra: shop local. The hope of downtown doesn’t start with the next big retail giant moving in, it starts with us claiming what’s ours: the marketplace. The people are the anchor, and a loving community will always be the most attractive thing to visitors. For downtown to grow, community must come before competition.
What’s that? You were wanting to ask about my favorite dish at Shooter’s Grill? A delicious burger, of course: the “Guac Nine.” I relished it and treasured the time I spent in Shooters with friends and neighbors.
Jonathan Phillips has lived in Rifle for nearly 10 years.
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