Constantly evolving may best describe the Lakewood West Colfax corridor; the strip from Sheridan to Simms and a block or so to the north and south. Much has changed in the area since the first parts of Lakewood were platted in 1889 (and even in the 45 years since the town of Lakewood officially incorporated). Colfax has always been a commercial strip where businesses have come and gone. What’s been the secret to success for those who have stayed?
Rockley Music (www.rockleymusic.com)
“You cannot fall in love with your inventory,” Nina Rockley opines as she rattles off the list of adaptations that have transpired on the Rockley Music Center showroom floor since the family first set up shop in 1946. In the beginning there were band instruments. Appliances and pianos were added in the 1950s, followed by televisions and records in the 1960s. From the early 1980s through the late 1990s, Rockley Music sold technology devoted to audio recording (home and professional) and at one time even had a salesperson who spent weekends selling pianos at metro-Denver warehouse clubs. Now pianos fill about a third of the building, and electric and acoustic guitars have taken over what used to be a restaurant space next door. “You can’t buy a piano on the Internet,” Nina deadpans, before laughing.
It’s not just the physical pieces for sale that have changed: some years ago the Rockleys bought a motel directly behind the Music Center building and turned it into studio and music education spaces. They also have a nonprofit devoted to providing new pianos to colleges. The colleges receive a new piano every year while the old pianos are refurbished and re-sold by the Rockley Family Foundation. “That’s how we’re still here,” Rockley maintains, commenting on the method behind the revolving door of products for sale and the variety of business ventures. Throughout the years, the Rockleys have paid attention to demand and to competitors like big-box chains and online retailers, and adapted accordingly.
The Grow Store (www.thegrowstore.com)
Don Jelniker, CEO of The Grow Store grew up in the area; his family has resided in Lakewood since 1950 and Jelniker previously owned a restaurant on Kipling, near the Wheat Ridge border. Eighteen years ago, when his brother-in-law came to him with the idea for The Grow Store, Jelniker knew exactly where to put it. “West Colfax is a great location for business and retail,” Jelniker remarks, explaining that the strip has always been seen as the heart of Lakewood.
Over the first nine years in business, the store expanded and eventually took over the entire building, which the company was able to purchase in 2006. Recently, Jelniker has noticed a resurgence of new people moving into the area and sees this as an opportunity for thousands of new residents to support the businesses along Colfax. “There’s a change in the paradigm on West Colfax. In years gone by—the sixties and seventies—the buildings were just landlords renting to various types of businesses,” he says. “In general, I think there’s a lot of commitment from new businesses in the area.”
Chicago Style Hot Dogs (www.chicago-colorado.com)
Joe Margotte first came to Denver from Chicago in the sixties. He has set up shop in three locations on Colfax over the years, including one full-service restaurant. “There was a definite attraction to Colfax in the 1960s and 1970s. “It had a lot to offer,” he reminisces. “It was vibrant. I remember ice cream parlors and pancake houses and restaurants up and down the street.” His current business, the casual eatery Chicago Style Hot Dogs, has been in two different locations in the past 19 years, including 14 years in the present space at Colfax and Otis. Margotte credits the longevity of his hot dog shop to the influx of Midwesterners. “What we offer is different. We’re one of a kind down here. We bring people together from all over the [Denver] metro area, but 90% of those still have some connection to Chicago and that’s helped us to survive,” he explains. “We took a hit along with everyone else in 2008, but, because of the way we ran the place, we were able to last.”
Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design (www.rmcad.edu)
Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design (RMCAD) campus, located at 1600 Pierce, is just minutes from West Colfax and a 15-minute walk from the Lamar Light Rail station. “Our Fall 2014 enrollment was the largest in the college’s history,” explains RMCAD President Maria Puzziferro. “While this can be attributed to many factors, the ease of transportation provided by light rail has proven greatly beneficial to our students. We provide all of our students RTD passes and are seeing the usage increase as students take advantage of this method of transportation.” She notes that West Colfax is becoming increasingly diversified, so Colfax is no longer seen as only retail and automotive. “Lakewood is on the map and is fast becoming a cultural hub,” Puzziferro maintains. “The arts draw in food and beverage, nightlife, and ancillary businesses.”
What’s Next for America’s Longest Commercial Strip?
There’s something on West Colfax now not seen for some time: momentum. Major change appears to be on the horizon for this area again. The State of Colorado designated 40 West Arts District a Certified Creative District in June 2014. The JCRS shopping center, home of Casa Bonita, was sold earlier in the year and is about to be redeveloped as Lamar Station Plaza. The center’s new owners have announced the addition of Planet Fitness and are currently looking for other tenants to fill the 40,000-some square feet of retail space. And, of course, the West Rail Line (a.k.a. the W Line) began daily light rail operations in April 2013. Nina Rockley puts it most poetically: “There’s a kind of Phoenix effect happening here. We need to continue to burn the feathers and then rise with the Phoenix and do that over and over again.”
-by Leah M. Charney
Published by West Colfax Lately, February 2015.