Neither unoccupied nor in operation, Pollinator Chocolate is renovating a space in the Red Rock Plaza for a sweet treat in the not-too-distant future. In this photo, Mark Burrows reviews his blueprint for the space. Catch the scoop in a later edition of The Sopris Sun. Photo by Raleigh Burleigh

In 2017, Sopris Sun reporter John Colson began an annual tradition by which to measure economic trends in Carbondale. Noting a lack of data in regards to the town’s commercial inventory, he set out to establish a baseline with an “admittedly informal, unscientific and quite possibly incomplete survey of the different nodes of retail and commercial activity.” The tradition was carried through the pandemic and in 2022 shows a rate of unoccupied spaces nearly as low as in 2019.

Clipboard in hand, Sopris Sun reporters cruised Main Street, Highway 133 (including Nieslanik Avenue, 12th Street, ET Plaza, Industry Place and West Main), Village Road and Buggy Circle, Cowen Drive, Dolores Way and the Third Street Center. Without distinguishing between rental and tenant-owned spaces, and treating multiple adjacent vacant units as a single space, our rough count approximated 368 commercial spaces, 92.6% of which are occupied.

The highest rate of occupancy according to our count was in 2019, with nearly 94% of spaces occupied. Last year, as businesses emerged from the pandemic, the count showed 88.81%. If anything, the data suggests demand for commercial space, to which Lynn Kirchner of Amoré Real Estate can attest.

“Rents over the past year rose 10% on base rent, based on the current CPI [Consumer Price Index],” she said. “As far as buying and selling, stuff that’s sold is going for a lot higher than it was four years ago.”

In 2017, Kirchner reported relatively high commercial rents between $22 and $30 per square foot per year. Nowadays, she puts the low end around $25 and the high end closer to $50 per square foot per year in Carbondale.

The Sun’s landlord, the Third Street Center is all filled up, with dibs called on the former home of Senior Matters, said Colin Laird, executive director of the nonprofit hub.

As noted by a reporter assisting with the count, establishing accurate numbers for businesses along Merrill Avenue, referred to as “Downtown North” in the draft Comprehensive Plan update, is difficult. According to Briston Peterson, one of the principals of the LLC that owns those properties, some 40 businesses currently operate there. By “peripheral observation,” our reporter counted maybe eight. “However, I think there are probably a lot of small entities in the deep recesses of the property,” he said.

Indeed, the vacancies are few, with City Market’s former building the most glaring. The Aspen Times reported last week that conversations are underway between LIFT-UP and the 45,000-square-foot supermarket space’s owner to possibly convert it into a regional food hub and distribution center.

Less visible trends are also underway. For example, Dri Liechti, owner of Craft Coffeehouse (689 Main Street), subleases her space to other entrepreneurs. Additionally, Sweet Cream Dreams now operates on weekends out of Craft’s building and is among other entities, like Shepherd Breads, renting the commercial kitchen. Craft also supports local artisans as an outlet for their goods.

“I’m a firm, firm believer in collaboration,” Liechti told The Sopris Sun. While helping Craft afford the rent, the model fulfills her vision for a “little community center” where everything from yoga on the patio to specialty dinners with guest chefs can occur. 

In addition to several new businesses, like Plosky’s and New York Pizza, the past year saw some established businesses transitioning into larger spaces with Independence Run & Hike moving to Carbondale Marketplace and Mana Foods skirting over to the Red Rock Plaza. The former restaurant space that housed Atina, meanwhile, has seemingly been absorbed by Sopris Liquor & Wine.

While the lack of available commercial space speaks to a thriving economy, business owners face many challenges, including a general lack of labor and rising costs. Andrea Stewart, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, said they’ve noticed larger offices being divided up into smaller office spaces in correlation with unemployment rates.

Despite the “help wanted” signs, the local workforce is evidently bigger than it’s ever been, Jessica Valand of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment told the audience at a “State of the State” business briefing hosted by local chambers of commerce on June 21. According to Valand, there are simply more jobs than available workers.

Also impacting businesses is the congestion of traffic. In particular, it is exceedingly difficult for pedestrians to cross Highway 133. With more development ahead for the Crystal River Marketplace properties, pressure is mounting for the town to install a second roundabout.

The Builders FirstSource project, approved in June of 2020, has submitted a building permit, and is yet to break ground. To stay in the know about incoming construction, keep an eye on

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