Recently, I spent a mid-morning near Colfax and Colorado, going door-to-door to meet local business owners and spread the word about the virtues of employee ownership. As I moved eastwards, from Steele street across Colorado and towards Monaco, I passed dozens of shops, talked to numerous owners, and learned a powerful truth: Colfax has two faces.
One face is the booming businesses that are trendy and new on Colfax, attracting the young millennials growing so rapidly in Denver, and hitting their prime spending years. I passed bustling new coffee shops, trendy bars, and exotic restaurants filled with energy and young crowds: East Colfax has become a hot spot for fun. These shops have attracted lots of investment money, and as a result, they are thriving. When I stopped by one upscale coffee store, the store manager told me that the owner of the coffee shop was in his 30s. Next to this small new coffee shop, there was a guitar store, where a new owner in his mid-30s had just opened up the shop one week ago. He greeted me with a big smile and told me that he is brand new here, thinks he’ll do well, and wouldn’t think of selling his business to his employees.
Right next door is a trendy hair salon at high prices, where many hair stylists work for a young owner in her 30s. When I talked about employee ownership, a receptionist told me that “that would be cool but I am not sure if the owner may want it.” A few blocks away from this hair salon was a liquor store where the owner was literally counting out bills from his overfull register as we talked. As he counted the cash, he told me he was not at all interested in employee ownership. “I make lots of money,” he said. “This is a million-dollar business, so why would I sell it to employees? I will make more money selling on the market.” The owner of this liquor had become a successful entrepreneur amid all the new Colfax energy. For all of these thriving Colfax businesses, an interest in perhaps one day selling or converting their business into employee-ownership simply did not come to mind.
The Denver Post (7/22/2019) recently observed all the new money and young entrepreneurs pouring into the area and declared that “East Colfax is the next frontier.” The Post described how the city officials have been active in closing down lower-income, run-down establishments like the old Hangar Bar and 7-Star Motel and facilitating their transfer to upscale investors for conversion to pricey new taprooms and hip artist housing. But every “frontier” has two sides, and right in the midst of all this new money and optimistic energy is the second face of Colfax: older and lower-income businesses, filled with their own hopes and dreams about a better future. Colfax has many small businesses that are struggling to survive: small mom-and-pop stores pepper East Colfax in somewhat outdated, run-down looking stores.
Sadly, many of these struggling small businesses on the Colfax corridor are closing down. My teenage daughter goes to a K-Pop dance class on Colfax near Elm street but her dance studio is closing down this month because the young owners can’t make it. Another business owner has run an African-American hair-braiding salon on East Colfax for more than 20 years. She is from Mali, and used to have many employees in the past. But the pandemic dried up most of her business and now she only has herself and another part-time worker running the shop. She is in her 60s and feels stuck. She would be interested in employee ownership or other strategies to revitalize her struggling shop, but really has no idea how to survive even the next months.
There was a nearby chicken rotisserie restaurant that was supposed to be open at 9 am, but the door was firmly closed at 11 am. It must have been closed permanently. Two tiny restaurants, Ethiopian and Thai, were right next door. Next to those was a small furniture store, boarded up and closed. It had a flyer on the door, saying that “Rustic Barcelona is permanently closed. We have moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Thanks!” The owner must have been an immigrant who tried to make it. But, closing down the shop seems to have been the outcome for this entrepreneur. Just down the street was an old-school barbershop, small and still closed near noon.
The next store was a used auto business. When I visited the office, a young Ethiopian, Michael, greeted me. Michael lighted up when I talked about employee ownership. “I worked for this place for more than 5 years,” Michael said. “The owner is very nice and is also from Ethiopia. He may be interested in selling this business to employees!” There was an event post to celebrate the Ethiopian Festival the previous weekend and according to Michael, the owner was a big supporter of local events and the immigrant community.
The Denver Post (7/22/2019) reported on this same Ethiopian community on Colfax and described many immigrants’ concerns over area speculators buying up areas businesses and houses, expecting to turn a big profit in a few years. One longtime organizer of the East Denver Ethiopian community (Nebiyu Asfaw) described how “I’m optimistic about the development and the capital coming into the neighborhood, but I’m extremely anxious and fearful of displacement.” This was a real fear of many small business owners I talked to, but as Michael from the auto shop shared, there is a real interest in the possibility of employee ownership as one answer to the challenge.
Walking down the Colfax Corridor, I saw two different faces of Colfax. One face is positive, young, and filled with hopes for their future as their businesses are well financed and doing well. But the other face on Colfax is creased with the concerns of stressed mom and pop business owners who feel helpless. These two faces coexist today on the rapidly changing East Colfax corridor. But I wonder how these two different faces on Colfax will be changing over time. I wonder how long these struggling mom-and-pop stores can fight back and whether employee ownership can help them prevent business closure. I worry that these small mom-and-pop stores, filled with creative immigrant energy, will be replaced with trendy stores financed from afar, leaving little room for unique, small businesses on Colfax in the future. It was fulfilling to find so many struggling owners and employers interested in supporting the community and in innovative strategies like employee ownership but disheartening to meet much more affluent business owners who seemed more concerned with keeping their profits high than with broader community health. Walking down Colfax Avenue today left me with a deep impression of the many human stories behind each store on Colfax. They are diverse human stories of small business owners filled with all kinds of different human emotions: hopes, despair, sadness, positivism, avarice, and amity–all of it.