Several longtime local businesses close as owners face uncertain future in COVID-19 era
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Like so many other small business owners in Steamboat Springs, Fringe Boutique owner Pam Pole was faced with some tough choices earlier this spring as uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic spread across the country.
The biggest decision came when Pole’s landlord wanted a commitment in May that she would sign another long-term lease on the space, located at 907 Lincoln Ave. She said COVID-19 did impact the business’ closure, but that wasn’t the sole reason.
“It’s been a difficult decision,” Pole said of closing the store she opened with her daughter-in-law Vanessa Pole in 2015. “My lease was up and because of all the unknowns with COVID, I just decided to not renew my lease and wait and see how things pan out.”
Fringe, which opened in 2010, had enjoyed a strong start to 2020 before being closed in mid-March by Routt County public health orders — and ultimately orders from the state of Colorado — aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19. The store offered online shopping and curbside pickup to customers during the seven weeks it was closed, but wasn’t able to reopen to in-person shopping until the first week of May.
“What set us apart was the customer service, and that you could just go and buy an outfit for that night,” Pole said of her in-person business.
She knew that COVID-19 would impact those things. She also knew that COVID-19 was likely to have a long-term impact on the retail business by changing the way customers shopped and how they would spend money.
Pole didn’t know what to expect when she was finally allowed to reopen in May, and she was’t willing to gamble on signing a new lease.
“My summer was awesome, so when I ended I felt like I ended on a really great note,” Pole said. “But I had to tell my landlord by May 1, and I just did not know what to do … It wasn’t like I was a bad business person, it was just all out of my control.”
While Pole said her summer was strong, she was still concerned about what the winter and next summer would look like.
She hopes to bring Fringe back, but she may opt instead for a pop-up model, sharing space with another retail store.
“I would love to bring Fringe back in some form or another,” Pole said. “It might be a pop-up where we just do June, July, August or maybe like a couple months in the winter. I even thought of renting a suite at a hotel for example, so I could do Christmas week and I could kill it.”
John Bristol, director of economic development for Steamboat and Routt County, said that while Steamboat enjoyed a strong summer — August sales tax numbers were up 2.11% — many businesses are remaining cautious as they move into an uncertain time.
A closer look reveals that restaurants and miscellaneous retailers are still down from last year.
“Everybody’s been optimistic,” Bristol said. “We’ve got to be optimistic and responsible when it comes to the pandemic.”
A recent economic survey by the Steamboat Chamber eluded to the challenges and concerns of many local businesses.
“I think (the survey) reinforced what we know is happening in the local business community,” Bristol said.
Business owners are most concerned about revenue, then about their employees’ physical and mental health and well-being, according to the survey.
“That was something that I think really stood out to me,” he said.
It’s necessary to examine what’s happening in the community and take precautionary steps while still planning ahead, he said. And that’s already being seen around the community; there’s been an effort to open up communication and create consumer confidence.
“We will see what it looks like at the end of the year and the beginning of next year,” he said.
Lisa Popovich, executive director of Main Street Steamboat Springs, said it has been a challenging year for businesses but many have found strong local support.
“I feel we did as well as we did as a town this summer due to the overwhelming support from our locals, and from our second-home owner who came and stayed,” Popovich said.
But not all businesses were able to overcome the hurdles brought on by COVID-19.
Some local small business owners faced insurmountable financial difficulties, others struggled with leases and some just saw it as an opportunity to move on. Still, Popovich said that has not dampened Steamboat’s entrepreneurial spirit.
According to Popovich, almost all of the vacated business spaces downtown have found new tenants. And that’s unheard of — even in a normal year.
“I have a list of people who are looking for retail spaces that they can’t find,” she said. “In a year where we’ve had so much controversy and challenge, the idea that two restaurants have already opened and two more are scheduled to in a time where we’re all being hit so hard — that speaks to the fortitude of these people.”
Pole is proud of her store’s run in Steamboat, the fact that she hired so many young members of the community to work at Fringe and provided so many with the opportunity to work. She is also proud that so many of those former employees have gone on to great things.
“I’m going to do something, but I’m just not sure exactly what it is,” Pole said. “I feel like it’s my opportunity to do something different. It may be something Fringe related, and I’m going make it really cool.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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