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Fall 2011 New Program Has Mile-High Expectations

An improved specialty leasing program is looking to revitalize downtown Denver.

The “Mile-High City” has launched a new and improved downtown specialty leasing program that is stirring up excitement in Colorado. Marketplace on The Mall is a year-round program that showcases local, regional and national retailers on outdoor retail units within a 16-block area in downtown Denver.

Located within the 16th Street Mall—a mile-long pedestrian and transit mall—the renovated program was launched in July with eight new RMUs accommodating a variety of start-up merchants. The Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP) installed the new RMUs designed and manufactured by STAK Design of Carrolton, Texas. The vendor program includes pushcarts, RMUs, sampling opportunities, special events and promotions.

Cord Rauba, specialty leasing manager for the DDP, says the organization’s goals are to enhance the downtown shopping experience and to energize the mall by “continually adding unique, fun, creative retail and entertainment uses to our existing food and retail pushcart program.” With just that in mind, Rauba has set about totally re-merchandising the program. Several new specialty retailers have injected vitality into the program. They include: Mile High Hippie Hardware, featuring tie-dye T-shirts and items popularized in the 1960′s; Hootenanny Candy, a local retailer selling handmade candies, caramels and toffees; ROK’D, a local company offering invisible protective coverings for electronics and Hats & Hats a local retailer who offers functional and fashionable headgear. When I Was A Kid, a local vintage toys and collectibles concept, is another special addition.

Launching the program

To gauge interest in the program, Rauba held an “Open House” for prospective retailers. Simply by sending out a press release announcing the new RMU opportunities for small business owners—the open house event was packed. This demonstrated the strong level of interest in downtown Denver, Rauba says. The open house event provided answers to operator questions; set forth the new goals and standards for the program and provided a forum for interested parties to submit applications.

Rauba directs the outdoor retail operations including retailer recruitment and attraction, promotions and marketing, activation and policy enforcement. As an employee of the DDP, she negotiates and manages all license agreements on behalf of the Business Improvement District. Soon Rauba expects to be managing a total of 27 operators with a capacity of up to 39 units.

“There remains great interest in our outdoor food program,” Rauba says. She is in the process of reviewing over 50 food cart applications to identify and select the right operators with the right products that do not compete with permanent restaurants while simultaneously catering to the needs of the downtown business workforce.

The Downtown Denver Partnership is a non-profit business organization that is, according to the organization’s website, charged with managing, developing, and marketing downtown Denver as “a unique, diverse, vibrant and economically healthy urban core of the Rocky Mountain region.” Funding comes from the BID, which in turn is funded by private commercial property owners. The funds are also used to support cleaning, maintenance, and security; and targeted marketing and special event initiatives. The Downtown Denver Partnership is one of the oldest and largest downtown organizations in the country.

The idea of improving the business district by creating a mall-like environment was initiated in 1976 when the world-renowned architectural firm, I. M. Pei and Partners, created the architectural design and layout of the Mall. The firm also designed the Pyramide du Louvre in Paris and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. The 16th Street Mall opened in 1982 spanning 13 city blocks. Today the expanded 16-block area has exceeded all the objectives of its original grand vision. Millions of people use the Regional Transportation District’s Free MallRide shuttles every year—the ride takes passengers from one end of the mall to the other. In the fall of 2007, the 16th Street Mall celebrated its 25th anniversary. Today, with over 100 restaurants and retail establishments, the mall is a popular attraction in the Metro area.

Overcoming challenges

Managing carts and RMUs in the challenging Colorado climate where the weather can turn on a dime is no small undertaking. “Since Colorado can receive a half-foot of snow one day and be bright and sunny the next, our criteria for RMU/cart closure is based on the level of precipitation [snow or rain] more than the temperature,” Rauba says. Specialized equipment can handle most winter days. The RMUs are equipped with heaters at the cash-wrap and soon thick rubberized floor mats will be added to cushion retailers’ feet against the cold granite sidewalks.

The Marketplace on the Mall program competes with shopping centers in and around the city. Rauba says the program competes on price and traffic volume alone. “Our pedestrian traffic is phenomenal with more than 50,000 people using the free Mall shuttle daily, not including the pedestrians.” In addition, she says, “Our retailers benefit from the 12 million annual overnight visitors, convention delegates and tourists.” Since outdoor markets have a set of physical challenges that enclosed shopping centers do not have, Rauba’s rental rates are much lower. “I have been told that our annual rates are equivalent to the December [holiday] rates of some of the strongest local centers,” Rauba says. “But the Downtown Development Partnership is more interested in the success of the program than the bottom line at this time,” she adds.

Rauba also has challenges ahead as she begins meeting with existing long term cart retailers to discuss the advantages of sprucing up their carts to the standard of the new RMUs. She hopes that by painting and repairing the units; retooling their merchandising mix, and using a visual merchandiser, the retailers will discover it will make a difference in the sales volumes. “We are really working with each retailer on a case-by-case basis. Some need more help than others and to the extent they are willing to let us help them, we are here to do so,” Rauba says. She hopes retailers will take advantage of working with the Small Business Development Corporation for business advice, loans and business plan direction.

For a downtown district it appears that Denver has worked on all the right action points that typical suburban mall customers have grown accustomed to: the right mix of stores and restaurants; security, cleanliness and customer service.

The new leasing program is looking to accentuate that trend. Rauba sums it up this way: “The bottom line with the expansion of the program is to focus on quality, and to ensure that we select the very best food or retail products for the 16th Street Mall.”

Duffy C. Weir

Duffy Weir is the former vice president and director of specialty retail and marketing at The Rouse Company of Columbia, MD. Now an independent retail marketing and sponsorship consultant and writer, Weir travels the world searching for what she says "makes marketplaces tick." She can be reached at or 410.252.8885.

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