Study: Boulder retail strong but affordability, regulations remain concerns

BOULDER — Business is steady for Boulder retailers, but affordability concerns and evolving consumer behavior with regard to online shopping present challenges for city shops and restaurants.

That’s according to Boulder’s Citywide Retail Study presented by city staff to elected officials during a city council work session Tuesday evening.

“A lot of the retail businesses here have it pretty dialed in — they’re doing pretty well,” Councilman Sam Weaver said.

While the study found that Boulder’s “retail inventory and sales are strong and competitive,” sales tax revenues remain relatively flat. This trend signals the “need to be proactive and seek opportunities to better serve shoppers … and be ready for changes to consumer behavior,” according to the report.

The study included surveys of Boulder residents and business owners.

The city’s retail shoppers and shop owners express a similar sentiment as those who’d like to live in Boulder: It’s simply too expensive.

“Residents [are] calling for more access to affordable goods … [and] retailers calling for more city support and options for affordable space,” the report found.

The city’s retailers are buoyed by spending by non-residents such as visitors and workers who commute to Boulder. 

Business owners told city staff that workers and visitors were “almost equally as important to their survival” as shoppers who are city residents, Sarah Wiebenson, Boulder’s community vitality project manager, told city leaders Tuesday.

Councilwoman Lisa Morzel said she was “amazed” to discover that retailers were so reliant on out-of-towners and asked staff to investigate ways to reverse that trend.

Boulder’s citywide retail goal set has five prongs aimed at fostering sustainability, environmental stewardship, a sense of place and a diverse and welcoming environment.

“These considerations are not typical of retail studies,” Wiebenson said, adding that the wider scope of this study puts Boulder on the cutting edge of connecting business concerns with broader community issues. 

The study notes five objectives that, if successful, could set Boulder on the path to achieving those aims.

  • Address retail deserts by responding to shoppers’ desire for more affordable goods. All respondents to the city’s survey “expressed some level of dissatisfaction with the price of goods” and lower income residents had higher levels of dissatisfaction. One of the complaints from residents relates to lack of access to grocery stores and pharmacies. The study notes that “one-quarter of Boulder’s resident population lives outside the walkable three-quarter-mile radius of existing retail nodes with grocery.”
  • Monitor retail trends to address declining sales in top performing areas and remain attentive to evolving online sales tax collections. One of the city’s major shopping districts, the Twenty Ninth Street Mall, has seen a 6.3 percent decline in sales tax revenue since 2015. Improving food options in that area could help combat this, the study determined.
  • Optimize existing retail space by encouraging vacant space reconfiguration reducing impacts of large store closures.
  • Address reported challenges such as housing affordability and parking issues. Of the people who responded to Boulder’s survey, 62 percent reported feeling that it is getting more difficult to do business in the city.
  • Maintain affordable commercial spaces by reimagining the city’s role in supporting and incentivizing small businesses. The report suggests the city could help address affordability by expanding city-owned commercial spaces. 

“Regulatory [hurdles are] a big part of” why the city struggles to attract retailers in certain areas, Councilman Bob Yates said. Reducing land use restrictions in commercially zoned areas could help, he suggested.

“I don’t think there’s a week that’s gone by in my three-and-a-half years on council when someone hasn’t called me up to talk about how hard it is to start a business in Boulder,” Yates said. 

Councilman Aaron Brockett agreed, saying Yates’ analysis was “spot-on.”

He recommended the city streamline the permitting and licensing process and waive certain fees for small businesses.

City staffers plan to take feedback and develop a set of actionable tasks to address Boulder’s evolving retail strategy by the end of the year.

“Sometimes plans get finished and not implemented, but I hope this one we keep working on,” Brockett said.

Greeley’s Department of Economic Health and Housing also recently released a retail report. 

That study found Greeley’s west side is a high-potential area for future shopping districts. The report also suggests Greeley should take a more aggressive approach toward connecting with retailers by building a network of brokers in Northern Colorado and Denver, along with considering hiring a retail consulting firm to identify unfilled gaps in the local retail market.

BOULDER — Business is steady for Boulder retailers, but affordability concerns and evolving consumer behavior with regard to online shopping present challenges for city shops and restaurants.

That’s according to Boulder’s Citywide Retail Study presented by city staff to elected officials during a city council work session Tuesday evening.

“A lot of the retail businesses here have it pretty dialed in — they’re doing pretty well,” Councilman Sam Weaver said.

While the study found that Boulder’s “retail inventory and sales are strong and competitive,” sales tax revenues remain relatively flat. This trend signals the “need to be proactive and seek opportunities to better serve shoppers … and be ready for changes to consumer behavior,” according to the report.

The study included surveys of Boulder residents and business owners.

The city’s retail shoppers and shop owners express a similar sentiment as those who’d like to live in Boulder: It’s simply too expensive.

“Residents [are] calling for more access to affordable goods … [and] retailers calling for more city support and options for affordable space,” the report found.

The city’s retailers are buoyed by spending by non-residents such as visitors and workers who commute to Boulder. 

Business owners told city staff that workers and visitors were “almost equally as important to their survival” as shoppers who are city residents, Sarah Wiebenson, Boulder’s community vitality project manager, told city leaders Tuesday.

Councilwoman Lisa Morzel said she was “amazed” to discover that retailers were so reliant on out-of-towners and asked staff to investigate ways to reverse that trend.

Boulder’s citywide retail goal set has…