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Posted: September 01, 2008

Who owns Colorado: Greeley

Greeley stretches toward Loveland, dusts off downtown as residential lags

David Lewis

"Go West young man, and grow up with the country," newspaper editor and Greeley, Colo., namesake Horace Greeley is alleged to have said. That’s exactly what Greeley has been doing — moving west.

The city’s residences and retail both have edged west for decades, moving closer to the orbits of Loveland and Fort Collins.

And, while the city center turned toward the Rockies, its residential real estate scene in recent years took a decided turn south.

"For a time a year or so ago, Weld County had the dubious distinction of having the highest foreclosure rate in the nation," notes real estate broker Matt Revitte.

Yet while foreclosures soared and residential construction withered, downtown Greeley has been undergoing a quiet renaissance.

Investors and entrepreneurs have been busy adding retail, restaurants, theater (see: Union Colony Dinner Theatre) and movies to downtown draws that include the Ice Haus, a municipal skating rink, and the City of Greeley Museums, a complex of museums due to include the nifty Greeley Freight Station Museum (see www.gfsm.org). Also significant is the transformation of the somewhat neglected downtown Regency Hotel into the renovated Clarion Hotel & Conference Center.

Scarcely anyone in Greeley can remember the last time downtown generated the kind of interest and excitement bubbling there today, notwithstanding remaining retail vacancies.

"Fifteen years ago the (Ninth Street) plaza was a ghost town," Revitte says. "But downtown continues to evolve and create itself. In the last couple of years there have been some serious investors in downtown; interest by entrepreneurs is infinitely greater than it was two years ago. Maybe the stars are aligning and it's going to pop."

Revitte has bought three central Greeley buildings in the past 14 years, including the 2007 "pretty expensive impulse purchase" for $250,000 of the Orr Building at 826 Ninth St.

Brian Florio co-owns Florio’s Shoes of Distinction with brother Mark Florio. Florio's Shoes has been a downtown landmark for four generations, since 1922, and it moved to its 820 Ninth St. location in 1955.

"We’ve seen two-way streets, no-way streets, one-way streets," Brian Florio says. "Downtown was closed off almost 20 years ago to the day, and traffic was nonexistent for 20 years. It reopened in 2003, and this right now couldn’t get any better. This is one of the best years we've ever had, but I don't know why."

Nor are Florio and his customers the only believers. Across the street, the Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant (founded in Fort Collins in 1986; in Greeley for 11 years) in early summer set records by hosting more than 1,000 patrons one Friday night.

Fridays in summer are fueled by the Downtown Development Authority's Friday Fest, a street event that provides music and sells beer, regularly drawing 800 to 1,000 celebrants. And September’s Oktoberfest attracts about 10,000 to downtown. New DDA executive director Tricia Stewart is widely given credit for energizing the already effective organization.

"Tricia has added a great amount to this organization, and we’ve got this really great foundation we're building off of right now," says Amy Fahrenbruch, DDA Main Street manager. "Now, going into this next year, I’m really excited because of the increase of quality businesses that we’re getting downtown. We’re getting Mariposa Plants, which has been in Greeley for years and is well-known and well-liked; we’ve got the Kress Cinema & Lounge coming, which is huge for us; we’ve got Patrick’s Irish pub opening. There’s an energy and great optimism I haven’t seen in years."

Patrick’s aims to attract University of Northern Colorado students and others. So does the Kress Cinema and Lounge, which also hopes to draw audiences from a nearby senior center. The Kress Cinema will feature both analog and digital projection systems, "super-comfortable seating," and extra handicap access, owner-developer Ron Thompson says. Thompson says he believes the business will "hit the sweet spot" that downtown is approaching.

"We’re starting to get a critical mass of momentum down here, with good, vital businesses that are of interest to people so they want to come down here," he says. "We’re going to add one more really critical piece to that. Things are really going to take off. You can observe it empirically — foot traffic and car traffic are up dramatically."

Among the heartening developments downtown is the move of Mariposa Plants & Flowers from west Greeley. Part of the reason was the contrast in rents between the two districts, with lease and other expenses in west Greeley running as much as 250 percent higher than those downtown. Much of the reason is less tangible.

In west Greeley, "you’re just another door in a strip center," Mariposa Plants owner Pam Bricker says. "There’s just a different vibe downtown. We felt we were home from the minute we stepped in the building. My staff is totally energized; it’s like I have a whole different staff. So we hope we’re at the start of a lot of good things happening in downtown Greeley."

Greeley’s evolving downtown rebirth could be dated eight years back, when Phelps-Tointon Inc. president Bob Tointon bought the Kress Building at Eighth Avenue and Ninth Street and the nearby Shaw Building, at Eighth Avenue and Eighth Street.

Tointon’s downtown buys were less a question of seeking a smart investment than putting his money where his mouth was.

"The downtown development authority was formed 10 years ago, and I had been chair of it since its formation," Tointon says. "We made some investments that were not really made because it was the best financial investment that we could find; we did it with the community in mind."

Tointon says he’s excited about downtown, too, but he takes the long-term view.

"If you go back 10 years and take a look at what was here, there has been significant change now. There’s more enthusiasm now, but revitalization is something that will always be under construction. You’re always going to have work at making sure that there’s energy devoted to revitalization."

David Lewis is a freelance writer based in Denver.

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