Bean There, Done That

Marcie Miller got the idea to open a coffeehouse in Golden from a friend who'd moved there from San Francisco and complained that "you can't even get a latte in this town." But when she started Higher Grounds Cafe in the historic downtown in 1993, she took a gamble. Businesses were struggling, and boarded-up storefronts lined Washington Avenue, the main street. It just wasn't the most promising place to sell espresso.

Over the next few years, though, Miller was able to build up a steady business that included retirees, students from the Colorado School of Mines and anyone who loved good coffee. She invited local artists to display their work on the walls, and the bulletin board became a place to announce garage sales or bingo games. Higher Grounds also became an important gathering place for activists when, in 1998, locals fought a proposal by Nike to build its world headquarters on top of South Table Mountain, the beloved mesa that is part of Golden's identity. In fact, Miller's coffee shop became such a fixture that it helped her win election to the Golden city council last year.

Over the past decade, downtown Golden has made a remarkable comeback -- several historic buildings have been renovated, and new office and residential projects have been built -- and a few coffee entrepreneurs have followed Miller's success. The town where you couldn't get a good latte is now known for its coffeehouses, of which there are five.

Soon there will be one more: Starbucks Coffee has signed a lease to move into a prominent location at the corner of Washington and 13th Street, right across from the landmark Foss General Store. Scheduled to open in late July, the Starbucks will be within a block of three locally owned coffeehouses, including Higher Grounds.

"Every cup of coffee they sell will take from one of us," says Marg Edgell, who owns the Thirteenth Street Bake Shop, just up the street from where Starbucks will be.

Edgell opened her establishment a little over two years ago. She wanted a place to sell the cinnamon rolls that she makes from her grandmother's recipe, and she took a space in the historic Armory building. Like Higher Grounds, her store features large rooms with overstuffed chairs and wooden tables where community groups are encouraged to meet. But Edgell also caters to tourists, especially those who come to tour the nearby Coors brewery, and she is worried that most of them will make a beeline for Starbucks. "They'll take all the tourists because of the name recognition," she says.

Starbucks is moving into the long-vacant space that was formerly home to Steve's Corner, a Western-wear store. The owner of the building received $350,000 from the Golden Urban Renewal Authority to renovate it; that money will be paid off with revenue from the new tenants, including Starbucks. Although the city didn't have anything to do with leasing the building, some people are angry that public funds will be used to benefit Starbucks.

"The City of Golden needs to stand behind its local merchants instead of corporate America," Edgell says.

The dismay in Golden over Starbucks isn't unusual. The gigantic Seattle-based company has always targeted neighborhoods and towns where there is an established "coffee culture," seeing them as fertile ground for expansion.

"We look for locations where our customers want us to be," says Bridget Barrett, regional marketing manager for Starbucks. "Downtown Golden is vibrant and growing, and we're excited to be there. We want to provide another choice."

Starbucks now has 62 stores in metro Denver and is rapidly expanding. Last month the chain opened a store in Old Town in Fort Collins, another area that has a half-dozen locally owned coffeehouses within a few blocks. That opening prompted a protest from a group that calls itself Fairbucks Fort Collins; the organization distributed leaflets accusing Starbucks of buying coffee grown under exploitative conditions and union busting at some stores. The group also included a map of coffeehouses near Old Town so that coffee lovers could find the locally owned stores.

"Fort Collins is growing like mad, and Old Town is where this community comes together," says Fairbucks activist Paul Bame. "They're tearing the fabric of the community if they cause locally owned stores to go out of business."

Barrett counters that Starbucks has helped to enlarge the number of espresso drinkers in the United States, and she says the chain -- which now has more than 3,000 stores in North America -- is still in the minority. "There are 13,000 coffeehouses in the U.S., and we have a very small percentage of that market," she insists.

That's not much comfort to Miller. "All the little coffee shops took a chance on Golden when it wasn't cool," she says. "It feels like we're being shoved out. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared.

"Starbucks is sitting on $220 million in cash, and I feel good if I can pay all my bills and have a little left over," she adds. "I'm not going to get rich at this, but my life is rich in other ways."

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers