Seems Like Olde Times

Ron Domenick, dealer of model trains and antique china, gulps the dregs of his morning coffee and slams a meaty fist on the counter.

"You want to know what's really going on?" he asks. "Come on, I'll show you. No bullshit."

Domenick, a burly guy with a beard, ponytail and tattoos, storms out his shop door and stomps down a few blocks of Olde Town Arvada.

"See that?" he asks, pointing toward a teen-pregnancy prevention center. "That used to be a DMV office. It was great for business. Fucking great. People wandered around while they waited, and sometimes they came back on the weekends and bought stuff. It was a draw. A big draw. Then they upped the rent, and it moved to 64th and Wadsworth."

Stomp, stomp, stomp...
"See that building?" Domenick continues. "That used to be a drugstore. People used to go there all the time for medications, ointments, gift cards and little bullshit like that. Then the city somehow got it, and now we don't have a drugstore in Olde Town. It's a rehab office."

Stomp, stomp, stomp...
"That used to be a ceramic shop...That used to be a framing store...That used to be a leather shop...

"Gone," he says. "All fucking gone. They cleaned the whole block out. I've been here fifteen years, and do you know how many businesses have come and gone through here? Christ, I can't even begin to count them. All the people who put time in are gone. All the draws are gone. Gone!"

And soon Domenick's Elegant Glass Antiques will be gone, too. The windows of the shop are plastered with "Going Out of Business" and "Sale" banners. So when you mention the latest plans to revitalize Olde Town, laser beams shoot out of his eyes.

"It's a goddamn blow job," he says. "Smoke and mirrors. All bullshit."

Last fall, a coalition of Arvada business leaders, merchants, politicians and planners hired Denver redevelopment messiah Dana Crawford to visit Olde Town and make recommendations for a project called "Renaissance."

Olde Town, founded in 1870 as a new town named Arvada, today is a cluster of 61 brick and wood buildings on a shady hill overlooking the mountains and the Denver skyline. Trains rumble nearby; a water tower looms in the distance. Bounded by Grandview Avenue, Ralston Road, Yukon Street and Old Wadsworth, the historic district (Olde Town was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989) contains an eclectic mix of shops--Steve's Homemade Jerky, Your German Bakery--where you can find everything from wedding-cake ornaments to computer disks to out-of-print collections of Ernie Pyle's World War II dispatches.

Olde Town is the kind of place where signs on shop windows say "Welcome Friends" and "Back in five minutes: Went to the bank." But over the past few years, "For Rent" placards began popping up in those same windows.

Today, some storefronts along the main drag sit empty. Surly teens congregate outside a video arcade. The occasional vagrant sleeps on a park bench at the village square.

Before things could get worse, the Arvada coalition hired Crawford to plan a rebirth. Among her recommendations: Add outdoor cafe seating, public art, lofts and upscale housing; improve streetlights, landscaping and traffic; offer shuttle buses and free parking; hire a foot-patrol police officer; relocate the library to the village square; schedule more festivals; hang banners and awnings: repair sidewalks; refurbish and repaint the landmark water tower.

Crawford, who built her reputation on such historic renovations as the one in Larimer Square, said Olde Town should also adopt design guidelines, reorganize its merchant association, hire a management team and seek government funds. If, as projected, 2,000 people move into Olde Town lofts and apartments, $13 million would pour into Arvada's economy each year.

"It's a pretty unique place," Crawford says. "You've got a lot of examples of diverse small-town architecture. It's pretty unusual in America to find a collection of eclectic buildings representing generations. It has a lot of potential."

Domenick, an Arvada native who's visited Olde Town "since the beginning of time," has heard it all before.

"Let me ask you a question," he says. "How much money have they already spent hiring some yo-yo to tell us what needs to be done? Wait until you see that figure. You'll jump for joy over that one. And now they're paying this broad $70,000 to tell us to paint the water tower and plant trees? I don't need more flowers and sidewalks; I need parking. But do you know what? It doesn't matter what the study says. Nothing ever happens."

And if something does happen this time, Domenick predicts the so-called renaissance will destroy whatever authentic vitality Olde Town has left, while the breweries, lofts and boutiques will fizzle. Instead of focusing on luring new, high-dollar businesses, he says, the revitalization committee should spend its time and money helping the existing businesses revitalize Olde Town from the inside out.

"You want to know what makes Olde Town?" he asks. "Mom and Pop. This is a blue-collar town. You need services. Merchandise. You need to bring shit in here that will bring people. Like J.C. Penney. Sears and Roebuck. But they don't want that. They want high-class restaurants. They want out-of-town yippie money. But that ain't going to happen. You know why? Who's going to go to them? And who's going to sit there with their thumbs up their asses waiting to cater to them? What do you think this is? Cherry Creek? Boulder fucking Square?

"I don't care what works in LoDo. They've got the Rockies stadium and the Pepsi Center. It only works in LoDo because people are bored enough to come down from their high-rises, sit outside and smoke a cigar. You can bring in a whole block of coffee shops and cigar shop this and cigar shop that, but I ask you: Who in Arvada is going to drive ten minutes to buy a fucking cigar? No one."

A few doors down from Domenick's shop, Bunty Rees stands at her counter sorting sales tickets. For 25 years she's owned the House of Rees, one of a string of antique shops along Grandview Avenue that anchor Olde Town. Once upon a time, she says in a Scottish brogue, Olde Town had two fine-art galleries, a bookstore featuring visiting authors, a silk-flower shop, a dress boutique and a restaurant serving four-star cuisine. All catered to sophisticated clientele--and all closed because Arvada could not support them.

Given that history, the renaissance group is "flogging a dead horse," Rees says. "It's just some idiot with a grandiose idea of what this place should look like."

Olde Town might not generate millions of dollars, but it's not a ghost town, either, she adds. It percolates at its own pace, thank you very much. And the merchants who survive are the merchants who do homework, build a steady clientele and persevere. Brewpubs may come and brewpubs may go, but her shop will stay the same. "As far as I'm concerned, leave me in peace," Rees says. "Let me run my business."

Around the corner and down a block, at Grandfather's Used Bookstore, Dick Lechman sits at a backroom computer eating cherries from a paper bag. His musty shop, which is crammed with "everything but hot romance and textbooks," does quite well on existing foot traffic and Internet sales. Although he thinks Olde Town could use more free parking--"I've been told by customers they've been trying to find parking for five years and still haven't"--Lechman worries about the unwelcome side effects of the renaissance. Particularly higher rents.

"I myself picked this shop," he says. "I like the small-town flavor here. I like to visit places where I know people. I'm happy at the slow growth. If it stays small and keeps some of the shops that are here, maybe I'll be able to afford it. If it doesn't, it will be a completely different Olde Town. If the buildings take on the value of LoDo, I'll be forced out."

Across from Lechman, at Arvada's Silicon Village, that's already happening. J.D. Stark opened the computer store two years ago and did so well he bought the building. Then he got the bad news from the renaissance committee.

"They want me to tear it down," he says. "They don't think it fits with the area. Most of the buildings here are a hundred years old, and a lot of others are 1930s brick facades or ornamental wood. Mine's basically painted cinderblock and lots of glass. Granted, it's not the prettiest thing on the block, but it's mine, and I'm making good money. But if I don't agree to sell, they'll write a check and say, 'I own the building.' And then they'll tear it down."

Stark attended renaissance meetings and supports most of the committee's ideas. But he's fighting his building's demolition with everything he's got. And that includes coming up with money to renovate the structure before it's too late.

"Most of the landowners have been here twenty or thirty years and really haven't done a lot of upkeep," Stark says. "They basically had the luxury of being able to rent their building without doing a lot of their own renovation. I've only been here a few years, but I'm one of the ones who's going to get pushed out."

A few stores down, Don Lewis says he could have predicted it. After five years, Lewis and his wife, Dianne, are shutting their Native American Design shop--a closure he blames not on the renaissance project, but on bad luck and an erratic management style. Still, Lewis has enjoyed his time in Olde Town, feels protective of the area--and doesn't like what's coming.

He holds up a glossy brochure from the Arvada Urban Renewal Authority that contrasts black-and-white photos of the old Arvada Flour Mill and Arvada Bearcat service shop with color snapshots of Starbucks and Conoco. "This is what they want," he says. "They say they don't, but that's what's going to happen. And that's too bad, because you'd like to see something unique here. There aren't too many of these areas left. This could be something unique. But it won't. Because that would take vision and courage, not someone who is only interested in 'How much money can I get out of here?'

"This is about tax base," he continues. "They want to bring in these high-class restaurants. But why don't they help the ones they've got? Ophelia's and Sonora Inn are landmarks. They have community loyalty. That's something they should foster. But if they bring in a big corporate restaurant, they'll kill them. And if they kill the mom-and-pops, what have they really done?"

Change comes with success, says Gary Carnes, manager of Mrs. Mayo's cake supply and decorating school. Standing before a counter of wedding-cake brides and grooms, he explains: "For the things you gain, you lose stuff. Does the fact that there's a Chipotle in Highland damage the character or change it? And if it does, is that a bad thing? I agree that this might change the feel of Olde Town, but that's what they're going for. That's what the renaissance is all about."

At the nearby Army/Navy Surplus store, manager Sherry Thompson is willing to take a chance. Although she wonders where the money to fund the rebirth will come from, the timing is right: Denver's renovation boom shows no sign of slowing.

"If we don't do something, we have a chance of losing out on more things," she says. "We can't let Olde Town deteriorate. We need to maintain the level we have now. We need to help it and bring it up."

Which is just what the renaissance project hopes to do, says Penny Coleman, owner of Penny's Antiques. For the first time in a long time, the revitalization effort has support from business leaders, city hall and merchant's groups. More important, it also has more than $1 million in taxes from businesses down the hill in "New Town": Mann Theaters, Home Depot, Office Max and Eagle Hardware.

"So many things are positive now that before seemed insurmountable," says Coleman, who heads the renaissance committee. "It didn't seem we could pull everything together like we have."

Mom-and-pop businesses have nothing to worry about, she says. "Everyone we talk to wants to keep independent businesses here. There's no way you can make Olde Town a LoDo. It won't work. You have to pick up the individual character of each area, work with it and enhance it. We don't want larger chains. We already have a Starbucks down the hill."

But the committee wouldn't turn up its nose at a gourmet restaurant. "We have no nightlife in Arvada," Coleman points out. "There's no high-end restaurants. All you have are quick restaurants. There's no white-linen places. That's one thing everyone asked for. That's something we're going to try and attract."

And if rents rise, "that just means businesses are doing better," she adds. "We have people here who kind of look at their business as a hobby. A lot of them don't want to grow more than they are. Instead of trying to make it positive, they immediately make it negative and don't investigate anything to make it work. Maybe I'm off-base, but I've owned three businesses, and every one has worked really well. I've never depended on any of the businesses around me. I did all the marketing and advertising and made it work on my own. If you really want it to work badly enough and you get off your heinie, it will."

Crawford also bristles at the critics, particularly those who charge that strangers are pillaging Olde Town and destroying its character.

"I was painfully aware of the view that this was people from the outside telling them what to do," she says. "But that just isn't the case. There were a lot of meetings where we went over it and over it. Every idea was something that came from the team meetings. The people who are complaining probably didn't attend any of them.

"It's human nature to resist change," she continues. "I'm sure there are people who would like to have fixative sprayed on it and keep it like it is, fading and less than successful--and it is less than successful. But this project is trying to make sure Olde Town will have a long-term life and not sputter out. It's a unique opportunity. I think Arvada recognizes that."

Coleman says most people do, even though they know it could take five years to get under way.

"We need to keep growing," she says. "If you look back in history, Olde Town has changed a lot in its life. It has had periods when there has been lots of activity and periods where it hasn't. I see this as another high point in the cycle. It's been a while since anything was moving and shaking in Olde Town."

Ron Domenick is planning a rebirth of his own--no thanks to the renaissance committee. Come August, once he sells his stock of antique china and vintage collectibles, he'll expand his train shop next door into a world-class showplace. He'll have an amazing assortment of trains clattering through elaborate displays inside, and outside a mural "with trains busting out of the fucking brick." That is, if the renaissance committee's design guidelines will let him.

"If it doesn't say 'Bumfuck Livery Stable,' it ain't going to fly," he grumbles. "Hey. If you don't like my business, that's one thing. But you get my tax base every twentieth of the month like clockwork. I've always done fine. I've been here fifteen years, and everyone else has come and gone. They should just keep their noses out of it.


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