Owners keep the faith in Fruita’s downtown area
In 18 months, the economy has tanked and Fruita’s downtown has filled up.
Aspen Avenue between the Fruita Circle and Peach Street once had as many empty spaces as a first-grader’s smile. But as unemployment rose and shops across the Grand Valley shuttered, Fruita building owners adjusted rents, and entrepreneurs came out of the woodwork to revitalize their hometown, according to Fruita Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary Lou Wilson.
“The opportunity arose for them in Fruita to fulfill their dreams,” Wilson said.
It certainly wasn’t national consumer trends or employment growth that inspired shop owners like Wanda Malone of It’s a Girl Thing salon, 126 E. Aspen Ave., to open her business in downtown Fruita. Malone wrinkles her nose at the thought that the economy could stop her dream of business ownership.
“I just went with it,” she said of her decision to open the salon in November.
As the downtown has grown, so has Fruita’s population. But the small-town sense of customer loyalty has never dissipated and has helped businesses stay afloat. A loyal customer base has given Camilla’s restaurant at 206 E. Aspen Ave. the capital to remodel. Co-owner Aaron Smith said the restaurant will expand its menu of mostly coffee and sandwiches to include choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“The demand was there” to expand, Smith said. “We have built a strong base of customers. Hopefully we’ll have more.”
Just because customers are loyal doesn’t mean they can’t bring something new to downtown Fruita or drum up a new type of customer. Kl!k owner Susan Lettman said bringing something new to downtown Fruita is often appreciated. The success of her year-old, high-end clothing store at 122 E. Aspen Ave. has given her the ability to open a second location. The Grand Junction store will open Oct. 1 at 912 North Ave.
Like most Fruita shop owners, she picked Fruita as the place for her first shop because she wanted to work in the place where she lived.
“I hear all the time Fruita is stepping up,” Lettman said. “It’s helped me be able to open another location.”
Trying something new appears to be working for restaurant owner Virginia Sullivan. She said she decided to change her restaurant’s name from Pancho’s Villa II to Sullivan’s Grill and switch the menu from Mexican to Irish and American food because of the economy. A vendor tried to talk her out of the change because he thought she would lose 35 percent of her business.
“When we were down 38 percent, I figured what can it hurt?” she said.
Apparently, not much. Business has been booming since Sullivan changed the menu, repainted the restaurant and replaced tables and chairs over a two-and-a-half day period and reopened two-and-a-half weeks ago.
Every storefront is claimed and open or getting ready to open for business in the two-block stretch of Aspen Avenue between the Fruita Circle and Peach Street. The challenge now, according to Aspen St. Computers co-owner Tony Cabral, is to appeal to the Fruita residents who still go to Grand Junction to shop rather than take advantage of the new variety of downtown Fruita shops.
“We’ve been labeled a bedroom community by Grand Junction. Because of that label, we’re worried people don’t know what we’re doing,” Cabral said.
Although she grew up in Fruita, Coleen Shive rarely used to shop in downtown Fruita and often went to Mesa Mall instead. That changed when she opened a store three months ago in Fruita, Hands & Feet Family Thrift Store, 223 E. Aspen Ave. Now, she thinks of downtown as “an oasis.”
“There are great deals here,” she said.
Cabral, who moved his business into 223 E. Aspen Ave. two weeks ago after spending a few months at 127 E. Aspen Ave., hopes more people like Shive will be willing to give shopping in their hometown a try. He wants to drum up more business from out-of-towners as well by having new and old downtown shops band together for promotions. It’s a new concept for longtime business owners who prefer to keep to themselves and rely on loyal customers to keep them afloat, Cabral said.
“There’s definitely a connection between Fruita people and downtown,” Cabral said. “That’s all well and good, but we want to find a way to somehow let Grand Junction, Clifton, the Redlands and Orchard Mesa people know there’s another venue to shop.”
The most recent example of Fruita stores working together to stir up business is this summer’s Treasure Hunt program, which has offered customers discounts at participating merchants since mid-July. The city of Fruita spent $15,000 to promote the program, purchase window decals and posters for participating businesses and mail Treasure Hunt cards to homes in Fruita, Loma, Mack, the Redlands and north Grand Junction.
The Treasure Hunt cards, which must be presented to get a discount at a business, also are available at the Fruita Chamber offices and at Fruita’s city offices. Anyone can use the cards, regardless of where they live.
Fruita City Manager Clint Kinney said the Fruita City Council asked for input from business owners and the Chamber before starting the Treasure Hunt program.
“The City Council had a goal in mind of helping the business environment here,” he said. “We’re smaller than our neighbors up-river, so we want to be as supportive as we can of new and old businesses.”
Kinney said he’s not sure why Fruita is getting new businesses, but it may be more noticeable whenever one is added because the town is small and anything new sticks out.
Cabral said the Treasure Hunt program hasn’t been extremely successful so far, but he hopes greater participation and greater awareness will help boost the current effort and give people from in and out of town time to get used to downtown’s new marketing style.
Wilson said she is excited to see more retail moving into downtown as well as into the Kokopelli Center, which is nearly full and in January added The Feedlot Restaurant. She hopes the Treasure Hunt program gets to be as popular as Grand Junction’s Jump on the Blue Band Wagon program, which also promotes shopping local, and helps stores new and old stay in Fruita.