RiNo didn’t exist when Denver International Airport opened in 1995. Ten years later, two artists/entrepreneurs who worked in the River North area of Five Points decided not only to give their neighborhood a nickname, but to create an official art district in what today is the hottest part of town. Hoping to heat up their own reputations, locations far from the original have since slapped on the RiNo label: a building for sale on Welton Street, still the heart of Five Points; a loft in LoDo, which was the hottest part of town when the airport opened. And now...the airport itself?
Denver International Airport is about to embark on a $1.8 billion renovation of Jeppesen Terminal that will move security out of the Great Hall and into the north section of level five, where once-bustling, now-empty airline counters reflect the new reality of how people travel. That will free up a vast expanse to take advantage of how people shop when they’re a captive market. Great Hall Partners, a private consortium led by Spanish company Ferrovial Airports, will fill the terminal with new concessions, collecting 20 percent of the income during a 34-year contract with the city. But while surrendering control for that long sounds silly, would it be any better for the city to take the lead?
The airport’s concession program has never been a thing of beauty. Marked by charges of nepotism and just plain overcharging, the shops were a disappointment from the start. In recent years, the airport has worked at bringing in better stores, even ventures with local connections: Root Down’s restaurant on Concourse C has earned raves from travelers around the globe; the Tattered Cover name, if not its stock (or service), is represented; and DIA even gave the nod to a tiny craft-beer kiosk (though we still thirst for a Colorado craft-beer store where passengers who’ve already gone through security can load up on souvenirs of this state’s liquid assets). But still, today the Greetings From Colorado store is selling “Colorado-style” socks and T-shirts with Colorado symbols...made in Nicaragua.
While the renovation project is about to get under way in the Great Hall, the airport continues to control concession contracts out on the concourses, where it recently announced seventeen “exciting new shops and restaurants” with a local emphasis. Included in the lineup are Larimer Street Market on Concourse B and RiNo District Market on Concourse C, both billed as “travel convenience retail stores” from Marshall Retail Group out of Minnesota.
That’s not the outfit that contacted the RiNo Art District last December and told president Jamie Licko it would like to partner with the district on a store at the airport. And by partnering, company reps told Licko at a meeting, they meant they wanted to pay to use the RiNo brand, work with the organization to feature goods made in RiNo (the arts district plans to open its own store in RiNo itself in 2018), and even give the district and local artists the proceeds from the sales of those items, Licko recalls. Even for an organization very protective of its name, the deal sounded good to the RiNo board, which wrote a letter of support for the proposal last January.
That was the last Licko heard from that group. Then this summer, a Marshall rep called the RiNo office, said the company was short-listed for a deal at the airport, and asked for the name of a graffiti artist who could paint a RiNo-like mural in a RiNo store. This was a double slap: No one from Marshall had asked for permission to use the RiNo name, and now it wanted to coast on the district’s reputation as a supporter of street art. Licko expressed her dismay that Marshall was “basically commercializing Denver’s neighborhoods.” Next thing she knew, the airport’s RiNo District Market was a done deal.
Last week Licko spoke with a Marshall rep, but didn’t get much satisfaction. “We don’t intend to let this go,” she says. “It smells like a cheap ripoff. It’s a group from Minneapolis that hasn’t even spent time in RiNo. It’s incredibly sad that the airport is letting them do that...that the city will let them do it.”
Airport officials point to Flight Stop, a Marshall store on Concourse A that’s “themed after Union Station” and is “currently the airport’s best-performing convenience retail option” for what we can expect from the Larimer and RiNo shops.
Expect to be disappointed.
(And surprised, if you happen to be involved with the actual Union Station developers: Joe Vostrejs, a partner in the Union Station Alliance, says his group didn’t hear from anyone at Marshall regarding a store named after the station. Vostrejs is also a partner in Larimer Associates, which runs Larimer Square; Marshall hasn’t contacted that group about its upcoming Larimer store, either.)
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At this initial Flight Stop, the words “Union Station Market” are spelled out in the back in lights vaguely reminiscent of the Terminal Bar sign, but it offers no description of the station itself...or much of Denver, for that matter. Among the usual magazines and nostrums, there’s a display dedicated to actual made-in-Colorado items, including salsa and Enstrom’s candy, and you can buy Broncos memorabilia that’s NFL-approved. But no one’s looking out for other local interests: The T-shirts and sweatshirts on the “Colorado Souvenirs” rack are made in Honduras or in Mexico (but “styled in California”); the Denver shirts on the “Local Souvenirs” shelf come from the Dominican Republic. And while the display table at the entrance does display copies of Mindy Sink’s Walking Denver , judging from the shirts stacked by the books, you’re supposed to walk the Mile High City while wearing garments made in Duluth, Georgia.
Time to make tracks.