A Block in Denver’s COVID Economy: South Park Hill Has Its Backs on Local Businesses
The mall that occupies most of the 2200 block of Oneida Street was built in the 40s but has been revamped in recent years as investors sought to revitalize retail in Park Hill. The neighborhood still has a charm of yesteryear. Above the shops stands a sign indicating “Oneida Park” in retro ovals; cursive lettering tells customers to “ehave fun. Most of the buildings are painted plain white. A couple of goats live in a backyard to the north, just across from 23rd Avenue.
The block usually skips on hot afternoons, especially as students at the nearby Denver School of the Arts have started learning again in the classrooms. They eat ice cream on the lawn and buzz around the local cafe while the adults wait for lunch or dinner at the Thai or Philly cheese steak restaurants next door. Business is ramping up and none of the establishments have closed during the most difficult months of the pandemic.
We interviewed ten of the 13 business owners here as part of a larger examination of the situation of people who make a living in Denver. All ten said they were optimistic about the future, and many attributed their survival to a cohesive business community and a supportive neighborhood.
David Lopez, who runs the only auto store in the area, said word of mouth got him to 2020.
ATR Automotive was not eligible for any emergency COVID assistance, he told us, but the repair operation never lacked work. He’s been in business for about two and a half years, since he and his team quit their jobs at a local dealership and tried to make their own way.
Lopez said he spent money on advertising to attract new customers in 2020. He believed it could help during the strangeness of the pandemic.
“This is not the case at all,” he told us. “In this neighborhood, everything was word of mouth.
It was a common theme in our conversations with business owners. Whether it’s customers nearby who want to support local businesses, or homeowners helping other homeowners figure out how to apply for federal help, there is a palpable sense of connectedness in Southeast Park Hill.
Six of the ten companies we surveyed have obtained some form of pandemic support, mostly through federal programs. Another, Oneida Liquors, got a regular loan from the Small Business Administration after its owner, Raju Gautam, bought the place last June. But only three of ten business owners told us they got a break from their owner in 2020, making it all the more crucial that they get support in another way.
Justin Herd, owner of the local butcher next to ATR, said his business gained popularity after restaurants closed. More and more people were cooking at home, and it didn’t hurt that the local King Soopers ran out of meat as toilet paper and other basic items disappeared from its shelves. Like Lopez, Herd said many of his new clients over the past year have arrived by referral. Others found their way to the store through its online ordering system, which was operational before COVID arrived.
Herd’s other location, in RiNo Central Market, did not perform so well. The local butcher on Larimer Street usually relies on foot traffic, not necessarily loyal customers, who evaporated when things closed.
“We have kept our heads above water with our presence in the retail business,” he told us.
Across the street, Torpedo Coffee owner Kyle Wells had a similar story. He suspects his earnings have fallen by around 20% on Oneida. But his second business, a cafe that moved to a location near RTD’s Alameda station in 2019, has weakened to 80 percent. Close Quarters, its aptly named new location, had less of a place in this pandemic. Like the butcher RiNo, he leaned heavily on passers-by.
Wells said he had “huge appreciation” for the community around him at Park Hill, especially over the past 12 months.
Oneida’s businesses don’t just share a loyal neighborhood. They also share a fairly tight network.
Zen Den Pet Spa owners Wendy Miner and Lucinda Young also had a lot of work to do in 2020. Many dogs found new adopted homes as more people started working from home, and the Spa location next to Park Hill Vet was ready for new customers.
Young said business owners here are in regular contact. Many of them opened around the same time, right after the Oneida Park renovations were completed, which created common bonds.
“We all have pretty good communication, we see each other quite frequently,” she said.
She suspects these connections have helped build resilience here. The owners exchanged stories about how they were doing; they knew they were all going through the same things at the same time.
“Just knowing the personalities of the owners and their history and what they’ve been through as business owners, I think, kind of helps build that community,” she said. “We have a pretty good messaging channel. “
And although Zen Den was one of seven who didn’t get real estate cost cuts last year, Young said her landlord made sure she and her neighbors were okay.
Kylie Nichols, owner of the Beauty Bee Salon across the street, said she was grateful for the neighborhood’s small town vibe.
“It’s a nice and comfortable feeling,” she said.
Nichols has struggled through the worst of the pandemic. Beauty Bee was shut down for two months and she couldn’t get a loan from the Federal Paycheck Protection Program, despite trying to apply.
“It’s like any other job,” she said of seeking help. “It was a disaster.”
But Nichols, like his nine neighbors who spoke to us, said better days were ahead. She considers herself “lucky” to have made it this far.