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By Dawn Duncan
As a 21 year resident of Fort Collins, I have watched our city change exponentially since moving here in 1994. The rapid growth and expansion of Fort Collins is remarkable when I look back on it, remembering how we were called a “cow town” back in the day, and Old Town was still in a very transformative building and restoration phase when I decided to call this place home. One area that stands out in terms of change is Linden Street, and the past two years have proven to be some of the most significant evolutionary phases in the street’s history.
A year ago, I walked down Linden Street thinking about how exciting it was to have the Downtown Artery there, celebrating its one year anniversary. When the organization launched and opened its doors on the second level of their now newly completed building at the corner of Jefferson and Linden, just over two years ago, it kicked off a ramp up to that area we haven’t seen by comparison in several years. The recession of 2008-2012 took a lot out of the small business community in general, and Linden Street didn’t fare well in the aftermath of severe economic downturn. With tourism down, purse strings tightened, major financial losses in companies and people’s personal situations, rising rents, along with limited capital in many of the establishments, small shops couldn’t survive. Business closed and the street went dark, falling into occasional disrepair and often setting the stage for loitering and crime.
Now, as the economy continues to grow again and we’re in the mode of growth, Linden has quickly become the darling of Old Town, much like it was in its heyday of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It has always been a street of variety (including a brothel, back in the day, in the space that now houses Café Ardour), and it most certainly delivers on this level now. Joe’s Upholstery Shop is the Linden Street business in longest continual operation, having opened in 1945 when local businessman, Joe Cienfuegos, founded the company. The building, once referred to as 411 Linden, and eventually renumbered as 247, was opened as Hawley’s Auto Top Shop in 1938, after sitting vacant through the 1920’s and 1930’s. Joe ran his company until passing it on to his son, Richard, who recently retired and sold to a new owner.
Today, Linden is alive with promise and rapid development. This summer alone, construction has been ongoing on several properties in the area, mainly Galvanize and The Downtown Artery, as well as tenant finishes on new retail and bar establishments. Galvanize is a 14,300 square foot, two story space located at 242 Linden. As part of a collective spanning six locations, including two in Denver, one in Boulder, one in San Francisco, and one in Seattle, Galvanize is a co-working community of businesses, many of which are in the cutting-edge technology realm. The space is designed to be a modern, open, and creativity-centric working environment. The company has 1200 members nationwide, representing 700 companies. The Fort Collins location, currently home to 110 members and 35 companies, is led by seasoned businesswoman, Charisse Bowen, as the Campus Director. It opened its doors for its grand opening this August and had already reached 96% capacity before the paint on its walls was dry. At the time, there were two, six-person suites remaining and 15 “flex seats” left. All of the reserved desks were already sold out; however, more are set to arrive before the end of September.
“My vision for Linden Street is I see our block becoming one of the most vibrant and visited areas of Old Town,” said Bowen. “We are perfectly sandwiched between two beacons of light: New Belgium Brewing Company and Old Town Square. Linden doesn’t have the traffic of College Avenue, so it’s a better spot to hang out,” she added.
Bowen continued to remark on the surge of new businesses on Linden Street, and, with population density that Galvanize and The Downtown Artery offer, she remarked that, “it is difficult to not have six degrees of separation to someone who works and/or plays on this block now.”
Vibe is an important factor in what makes a city like Fort Collins unique. The college town environment is just one component that adds significantly to who we are; the community develops around this piece to a degree, but the downtown, the pieces of history, and the new guard of business people add a whole new layer to the richness of the city’s landscape. When we think of tourists coming here or new people moving to town, what is it that is attractive to them? Not the corporate “same old” businesses that look identical here versus Anywhere, USA. It’s the historic buildings that have been refurbished, reinvented, and repurposed, mixed with new and creative business offerings that are on point with what people want, what is trendy, and what fits the overarching needs of the people here. Linden Street continues to map to this very well.
“The vibe on Linden Street is almost vibrating with excitement,” stated Bowen. Everything being new has people coming out of the woodwork to find out what the buzz is about. People want to be part of what we are doing without even knowing what we’re fully about. People are also excited about the close proximity to one another. The businesses here just a few weeks have already said that being in this location has significantly impacted their business.”
That “vibe” Bowen talked about is echoed by William Knudsen, one of the mastermind’s behind The Downtown Artery’s inception and a current partner and director. Knudsen has grown up in Fort Collins and his mother, Lisa, worked on Linden for 24 years. His sister, Jessica, continues to work at Satin Camisole, across the street from the Artery, after 15 years there as their General Manager and Buyer. It seems Linden Street is in the Knudsen blood. “Seeing the area develop, intermingling old and new Fort Collins, it is very exciting,” William Knudsen stated. “There is a true sense of community here. We have been very positively received and we are into collaboration with our neighbors. We have already begun collaborative efforts with Galvanize and the feeling on Linden Street has shifted from being rather unstable at times in terms of businesses coming and going, to a street full of budding new enterprise, positive people, and intelligent use of space. I firmly believe that the way brick and mortar businesses survive is through collaboration,” he added.
The Downtown Artery has expanded at warp speed. Starting out with their second story art gallery, event space, and shared artist studios, along with a hostel offered to traveling musicians and artists, The Artery has become known as a hotspot for creativity, new ideas, and experiences. Lead by a powerhouse team of young entrepreneurs, all who fall within the parameters of the Millennial Generation, The Artery is now the heartbeat of Linden and poised to continue to be an even more significant fixture of the art and creative voices community in time.
In late June, The Downtown Artery launched its new café and music venue and now features shows nearly every night of the week. “We do an eclectic mix of programming,” Knudsen stated, “everything from music to visual production shows, dance performances, events, and youth showcases.” Music is being booked predominantly through Brandton Manshel and the GNU moniker. GNU Gallery was an underground art and experiential gallery space beneath Old Town Square. Several bands and artists that performed at “the old GNU” now have the opportunity to grace the stage in the brand new space within The Artery. On its grand opening night, Stella Luce opened for the 32-piece, experimental rock band, Itchy-O, providing the needed familiarity of a Fort Collins act to the pleasantly bizarre, engaging antics Itchy-O delivered. Those who were there will most likely never forget the dragon dancing through the crowd and the multiple drummers playing extended songs throughout the night.
“We are ready to launch a class series here,” Knudsen added. “We will be offering writing, art, music, and special topic classes, taught by Artery team members as well as selected people from the community.” Additionally, Knudsen stated, “We have the infrastructure and the people dedicated enough to build this right and who want to be a Linden Street fixture. I am very optimistic about Linden and our future.”
That same sentiment is echoed by Jessica Knudsen of Satin Camisole. “Nancy Johnson has had this business on Linden for 18 years. I’ve been here 15 of those. She has weathered multiple storms in the economy as well as the city’s growth and changes.” Eight years ago, Satin Camisole left their former space where Dryology is now located and moved next door to where the Walnut Street Gallery once operated. The expansion into the new space was significant, and offered the business an upstairs area for offices, a private dressing room and an area for bridal parties. “Besides Nature’s Own, Wright Life, Joe’s Auto Upholstery and us, there have been several (countless) short-lived businesses on Linden Street,” Knudsen remarked. “Now, with the revamping of Old Town Square and so many businesses coming into the area, almost every space is filled on this street, we have ‘anchors’ like The Blind Pig and The Downtown Artery here, and we are seeing a much greater offering in the retail arena. We have Sunday Supply, Lululemon, Encore Bridal….so much more retail than in previous years and we’re all seeing the foot traffic that Linden is bringing.”
She added, “At one time, we joked about the idea of “Come loiter on Linden.” The street was mostly vacant and only a few businesses were open. The transient population moved in and it had moments of being a pretty dismal area. Now, we say, “Come shop and eat on Linden.” There’s so much here now and we’re gaining a true presence,” said Knudsen.
Parking has always been a common complaint in downtown Fort Collins, not unlike most cities. However, as the city has grown, it has responded to this need in various ways. Two major parking structures, more parking spaces, the addition of MAX, more bike racks for cyclists to use, and a cultural stress on walking and biking have all contributed to the new mix that is the downtown way of transportation. “We are not seeing the parking situation, even with construction on Linden, affect us. People are now using so many different ways of getting around and of exploring Fort Collins; it isn’t something we hear about as much anymore,” remarked Knudsen.
So how can businesses continue to thrive on Linden Street, even if we do see hits in the future to the economy? “I think businesses that are thoughtful and conscientious when it comes to giving their community and customers what they want and need will always be stronger and more equipped to survive. I’ve also learned from watching Nancy Johnson be successful that being conservative in business operation is key. We pay very close attention to our customers and simultaneously to how we spend our resources. Social media has helped us to reach people for little or no investment in terms of money, while rapidly expanding our reach,” Knudsen said. “I am so confident and positive about the future of Linden Street. It’s getting stronger by the day and the people really are the ingredient that make it all come together.”