On an afternoon in early March, Marty Packham stood glumly as he watched two locksmiths drill new keyholes into the doors at Pier 1 Imports at 1201 East Colfax Avenue.
Packham had worked for the national chain of fashionable furnishings on and off for fifteen years. He was a true company man, traveling to cities in California, Tennessee and Florida to open new stores and help remodel old ones. When he arrived in Denver two years ago, he took a job as the assistant manager at the Capitol Hill location (there are twelve outlets in metro Denver), just across the street from his apartment.
The quaint two-level store was situated in the historic Bourbon Square building, next to a bookstore and a flower shop. "It's the only Pier 1 I've ever seen that isn't in a gigantic shopping mall or in a strip mall," Packham says. "It's right in the middle of a neighborhood. The customer relations were excellent; customers would come in and ask for you by name. It's certainly the only Pier 1 that let dogs in the store, but that's just the way the neighborhood is."
Yet after fourteen years on the Hill, and after what store managers say were record-setting sales the past two years, Pier 1 suddenly closed. Just three weeks before the locksmiths arrived, Packham says, he and ten other employees were shocked when store manager Tami Smith called a meeting and told them to start boxing goods and preparing for a fire sale. Oh, and there was one more thing: Don't allow employees from Triton Properties, Pier 1's landlord, inside the store.
"The instructions were explicit," recalls Smith, who was as surprised as the rest of the employees. She says the terse verbal instructions came down from Pier 1 regional property manager Emily Gross: "You are not to give [Triton] a key or let them set foot in the building. Under no circumstances are you to talk to Triton employees. Let them deal with the home office." Smith also says Gross described the parting between the two companies as "the ugliest [she'd] ever seen."
More confounding to Packham and Smith was that Pier 1's lease wasn't scheduled to expire until May 2001 -- and that Pier 1 is continuing to pay $13,000 per month in rent. To change the locks and not allow Triton employees to show the property for more than a year was a symbolic middle finger on the way out of town, Packham believes. But that's how bad things had become between landlord and tenant.
Complaints from residents about Triton's growing presence on Capitol Hill are nothing new. In just the past few years, the company has purchased and remodeled several buildings in the city's funkiest neighborhood. The sites include the Colonnade Lofts and the Alta Court offices across the street from Bourbon Square, as well the building adjacent to it, the Upper Colfax Business Center. Before it was a sleek, rehabbed business center, the outmoded building housed a number of nonprofit agencies -- many of them serving homeless or other disadvantaged people -- at discounted rents. After purchasing the building, Triton issued eviction notices to several of those agencies. The unceremonious boot angered many residents who believed Triton's redevelopment tactics were forcing the economic and social diversity out of their neighborhood ("No Lease on Life," February 25, 1999).
Until 1998, Bourbon Square had been run by a single owner. That year, however, the building was purchased by a small company named Upper Colfax Investment. According to records at the Colorado Secretary of State's Office, Upper Colfax Investment is owned by Triton Investment Company. When Triton first took over Bourbon Square, Smith says, the company was a welcome landlord.
"They were doing more than the guy who owned it before, that's for sure," she says. Triton workers immediately fixed a leaky roof that had allowed water to drip onto merchandise and repainted the aging building white with blue trim to match Pier 1's corporate color scheme. Triton didn't even raise the rent.
But Packham says the work on the roof was shoddy and the floor was still littered with pots and pans to catch leaks on rainy days; he says Pier 1 asked Triton several times to redo the roof, but the requests were ignored. Packham also says Triton disregarded terms in the lease that called for the company to keep the building's restrooms clean. And, he adds, Triton was slow to remove snow from the storefront -- if it removed snow at all. "We were always getting the runaround," he says. All of these complaints were forwarded to Pier 1's home office in Fort Worth, Texas, and by mid-February, when Pier 1 corporate officers told Triton it was closing the store because of an "internal decision," the lovefest had been over for a while.
Lisa Ratliff, a company spokeswoman at Pier 1 headquarters in Forth Worth, disputes the claims made by the store's ex-employees, saying that the company had decided to close the location well before Triton took over. "The store was not profitable, so we decided to move it. I have no indication that we were upset with the landlord," she says, adding that paying more than a year's worth of rent for a vacant store and changing the locks was a "very normal procedure." (Indeed, Smith concedes that the change-the-locks rule was listed in the manual she followed to close the store.)
"It came as a shock to us, too," says Paul Allen, vice president of operations for Triton Properties. "We don't like that [having an empty space]. We'd much rather have them here." Allen says Pier 1 was paying just over $10,000 a month in rent, and he considers the store's decision to leave the space empty a "strange one." He denies that there's any bad blood between the two companies. He also says Pier 1 has since allowed him into the building for maintenance work. The complaints from Pier 1's former employees, he adds, come as "news to me."
One incident between Allen and Smith, however, did need city intervention. Smith says that when the company plastered an oversized going-out-of-business-sale sign in the window, Allen asked her to take it down. "We asked. They said no," he recalls. "It was nothing more than a two-minute conversation."
But a few days later, Smith received a letter from a city inspector outlining the rules and regulations for the size of business signage. Smith says Pier 1's sign fell within the letter of the law, but the action was indicative of Triton's pestering. "They were just trying to be mean," she says.
Just before Pier 1 pulled up stakes, the owners of the neighboring bookstore, A Bargain in Books, and the flower shop, Finely Flowers/The Basket People, both received notices that they had 45 days to vacate their spots.
"We were doing decent business, too," says Perry Deschler, the 71-year-old owner of the bookstore, who has since moved it to Englewood. "Of course, you got a different kind of person on Colfax, but we liked it." Deschler says that when Triton took over the building, the company sent him a letter indicating that a representative would come by to renegotiate his lease. When no one visited him for a year, he thought things were fine and dandy. The eviction notice, slipped under his door, came as a surprise, but Deschler moved out with little fuss after 45 days, assuming the extra fifteen days was a grace period. Recently, he received a call from a bill collector working for Triton, looking to pick up the fifteen days' worth of rent ($250). "Guess they didn't have time to come and talk to us little people," Deschler says.
Triton's Allen says he doesn't know why the two locally owned stores were run out; he says he wasn't with the company when the decision was made.
At the end of this month, a white-tablecloth seafood restaurant is set to open in Deschler's former space. It will get off the ground with a $150,000 loan from the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, which gives out money to small businesses that are attempting to revitalize perennially downtrodden neighborhoods.
Now, however, it will have to spend its first year next to a vacant storefront -- in a neighborhood that was just fine, Packham points out, before Triton started handing out eviction notices and forcing favored tenants to leave behind empty storefronts.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.