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8/8/2004

Too Gouda to pass up

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — Years of negotiations finally came to an end in July when Willow River Cheese Company signed on the dotted line to complete its purchase of the Coal Creek Shopping Center in Lafayette.

But while the wholesale and importing/distribution portions of Cheese Importers — as the business is better known — will indeed be moving south, the owners of this longtime local business want Longmonters to know they aren’t completely leaving town.

“We’re here until June 2005” — meaning the present location at 33 S. Pratt Parkway — “and after that our desire is to be here or move downtown,” said Clara Natasha White, daughter of Cheese Importers owner Lyman White.

Longmont’s Cheese Importers location will become a strictly retail operation, continuing to offer cheeses and a selection of European-themed cooking and gift items. The cafe will continue in Longmont as well.

“It’ll be a better space for retail because we’ll be expanding into (what is now) the production room,” White said.

The expansive cooler — with its “street of cheese” — will become about a third of the size it is now, as the building’s owner, Trend Technologies, formerly Plasco, takes over that space for its own expansion.

“The landlord needed the space like three months ago,” White said. “We’re committed to have our wholesale out by the end of September.”

White said customers often express regret that the business is leaving Longmont. It’s not, she stresses, but it might relocate to the downtown area if it can find the right spot.

The 28-year-old company has thrived despite its location in an industrial building not well suited to retail. White said she feels the business would be an ideal fit for downtown, an area she sees as having “huge potential.”

White said she has looked into the building on the southeast corner of Fourth Avenue and Main Street, which will soon house a nightclub called Club X.

“I would have loved them in my building,” said its owner, John Martinez, adding that although White and his broker toured the building, timing issues prevented any serious discussions from taking place.

“The other building I love is the (former) St. Vrain Glass building,” she said, referring to the building on the southeast corner of Third Avenue and Coffman Street.

She has done a walk-through at that building, too, she said, but with the move to Lafayette, the company’s energy is focused there at the moment.

Still, the downtown remains a definite possibility, White said.

“I have a couple of feelers out there,” she said, “but there’s only so much we can do in a 24-hour period.”

White said that ideally, Cheese Importers would anchor a building that could house other, specialty-type, food-oriented niche stores, such as a bakery, a wine shop or a butcher.

That will be exactly the scenario for Plaza Lafayette, which is the new name of the Coal Creek Shopping Center at the southwest corner of South Boulder Road and Public Road.

Willow River acquired the property from Lafayette’s urban-renewal authority for $4.7 million, half of which came from the city in the form of tax increment financing. The deal calls for Willow River to repay the city of Lafayette $2.35 million over a period of years through a tax-based repayment plan.

“The city has a lien on the property,” Lafayette City Administrator Gary Klaphake said. “That goes away if they generate sales tax over and above the base” — the base being the amount of sales-tax revenue the center generated when the deal was completed.

Tax receipts generated over and above the base will be used by the city to retire Willow River’s debt. If the center should fail for some reason, Willow River will still be responsible for re-paying the debt.

But Lyman White and his partners haven’t come this far to fail. Rich Jortberg, a real estate consultant and partner in the Plaza Lafayette deal, said he sees the project as a long-term endeavor.

“The Lafayette location offers a much more commercial-friendly facility for the business,” Jortberg said. “It opens up a whole other range of possibilities.”

Jortberg said that since the closing, he has begun serious discussions with potential tenants of the new plaza.

“Early in this process, I decided I didn’t want to be talking to people about what we are going to do,” he said. “I wanted to wait until we had something to say.”

Jortberg declined to be specific about who he was talking to, other than to say they are “food-type” and entertainment-related businesses.

Aside from talking to prospective tenants, Jortberg said he’s focused on getting the shopping center cleaned up and renovated. Plans are to rip out a sizable portion of the parking lot and install a park-like area directly in front of the center.

“We’re totally reinventing what we think are the weaknesses in shopping centers,” Jortberg said. One of those weaknesses, he believes, is traffic “stress areas,” where vehicles drive right by the front doors of shopping centers’ anchor stores.

Cheese Importers, which will occupy the former home of Country General, will build its own customized cooler — something likely to start within the next few weeks. Jortberg said it will probably be “late winter, early spring” before Plaza Lafayette is ready for occupancy.

Over time, he said, Plaza Lafayette will become a destination shopping center that should draw people from all over the Denver metro area — an attraction similar to Pike’s Place Public Market in Seattle. As White puts it, “A place where you can roam, lots of trees and flowers, where some of the selling can actually come out onto the walkways.”

In short, what Cheese Importers envisions for Lafayette is what it always wanted at its Longmont location but was prevented from doing because of space constraints.

As Lyman White wrote in an e-mail to the Daily Times-Call last year: “Find unique companies that may have wholesale/manufacturing operations as well as retail. Offer these companies a marketplace atmosphere where they can provide a shopping experience that is unique, an event, a direct connection between the shopkeeper and the customer.

“This would take on the kind of local and regional shopping experience the customer finds at Willow River.”

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