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Exporting Importers

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LAFAYETTE — Samm White is a big fan of the word “synergy” — which is what Cheese Importers has apparently found in their new Lafayette venture.

“It’s a very big opportunity for Cheese Importers — and beyond Cheese Importers — for us to move into Willow River Market, which is a goal we’ve been working toward for 30 years,” said White, son of the founders of Willow River Cheese Importers, one of Longmont’s longest-running locally owned businesses.

Cheese Importers, as the company is commonly known, is awaiting approval for the transfer of ownership of the Coal Creek Village Shopping Center, 400 E. South Boulder Road.

When approved — and it appears the Lafayette City Council will give the deal a thumbs-up — Willow River will buy the shopping center from the city, and the center will be re-named the Willow River Market.

Cheese Importers will act as the anchor store of the center, occupying the former home of Country General, and the center will will ultimately be filled with “synergistic” stores that compliment Cheese Importers.

The new space will double the size of the company’s refrigerated warehouse, triple the size of its available retail space and double its dry storage and office space.

“We want to expand our selection and there’s so many great items that we just see and want and that we don’t have space for,” said White.

Cheese Importers’ expansion into Lafayette won’t leave Longmont out in the cold, however. White said the company will still maintain a retail presence here, as well as a portion of its “street of cheese,” where customers walk through a section of the company’s refrigerated warehouse amidst large wheels and blocks of cheeses from around the world.

Lyman White, who founded Cheese Importers 27 years ago with his wife, Linda, has been talking with Lafayette officials for two years with an eye toward expansion.

“We’ve been busting at the seams here for eight to 10 years,” Samm White said.

Originally, all the discussion centered around the Albertsons building on the northwest corner of Public Road and South Boulder Road. Albertsons is building a new store just west of there and will be moving in later this month.

“We started working on that, but he started looking at (the Coal Creek center) and said, ‘Ooh, this is better,’” said Gary Klaphake, Lafayette’s city administrator.

Plans call for Cheese Importers to move into the Albertsons building until 2005, and then move across the street when the lease for Flatirons Community Church — which now occupies the old Country General space — runs out.

“That’s a pretty inviting space because when we bought that we kept all the coolers and the furnishings,” said Klaphake, referring to the old Albertsons.

That building was purchased by the Lafayette Urban Renewal Authority, which is also seeking to acquire Coal Creek Village.

The 101/2-acre center is owned by Western Centers Inc., and is listed at $4.9 million. With 83,835 square feet of retail space, the price is $58.45 per square foot.

Klaphake said the city is negotiating with the current owners of the center, and said if officials can’t come to an agreement the city will acquire the property through eminent domain.

“We call this our Cinderella City or our Northglenn Mall,” Klaphake said, “and we’re going to redo it.”

Plans are for Cheese Importers to attract other, complimentary retailers into the center, such as a wine shop and a bakery.

The center is currently home to a sandwich shop, a computer store, and a Chinese restaurant, among others.

“It’s not just a building, or a ‘spec’ building — it’s a vision for (White) to build a shopping center,” Klaphake said.

Plans also include removing a substantial portion of the parking lot bordering South Boulder Road and creating a grassy space and room for a farmer’s market.

“That whole area’s going to be totally redesigned,” White said, adding that his father has traveled the country studying other, similar retail environments, such as the Pike Street Public Marketplace in Seattle.

“I think it’s going to be something that a few locations have tried to achieve in Colorado and, certainly have, in other parts of the country,” he said.

Lyman White’s proposal to LURA has Willow River Market acquiring the property from the city for 50 percent of the price the city pays. The remaining 50 percent would be paid out over a period of years through a tax-based repayment plan.

Any tax receipts generated by tenants over a certain base — determined by taxes generated in the base year, calendar year 2002 — would be used by the city to retire Willow River Market’s debt.

“We don’t go backwards; we only go forwards,” Klaphake said. “It’s impossible for us to go backwards under that arrangement.”

He added that White’s vision of Willow River Market fit perfectly with Lafayette’s plans of luring a large “wholesale retailer” to the city.

“If you’re greedy, you would just pursue big box stores,” said Klaphake.

While White said his father would have loved to do the expansion in Longmont, he and city officials could not work out an agreement.

Cheese Importers current location, 33 S. Pratt Parkway, was originally chosen because Willow River started out as a wholesaler, with retail sales only coming later.

“Originally it was a price point — this worked great for our warehouse,” White said. “That’s really the main part of it for me. Wholesale we’re doing fine here, although we need more space.

“The retail aspect of it is key, I think.”

The traffic situation was only one of the issues that needed mitigating for an expansion to occur at the company’s current location at an odd intersection, White said. As it is, the new Lafayette space is already retail-oriented.

However, White said he is “90 percent sure” that Cheese Importers will continue its presence at the Longmont location, albeit in a smaller space.

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.