Avenue Merchants’ show of support
Business owners, residents, cops, candidates talk about ways to stop crime

       Wondering about that ring of 40-some people in the Red Rock Center's Walgreens parking lot the afternoon of Feb. 4? It was an informal meeting of west-of 31st- Street business owners and residents, joined by several government officials as well as candidates in the April 5 city election.

During an informal meeting Feb. 4 in Walgreens' Red Rock Center parking lot, Mike Crepeau (back to camera) talks about issues faced by businesses along Colorado Avenue west of 31st Street. Opposite Crepeau in a yellow jacket is Robert Maez. The two co-founded the Avenue Merchants' group.
Westside Pioneer photo

       The get-together was organized by the Avenue Merchants. The group formed a year and a half ago to become a marketing force for businesses in that area along Colorado Avenue, but the effort has also meant dealing with crime issues.
       Mike Crepeau, a co-founder of the Avenue Merchants who had sent out invitations to numerous area leaders, said he thought the meeting “went great. I was really glad with the turnout. We had a pretty good number of businesses, and they all stated the same concerns.”
       Those on hand included Tish Olszewski, commander of the Gold Hill Police Substation; the three police officers on the department's “HOT Team” (which deals with homeless issues); and Rob King, the new commander at the Sheriff's Office.
       “We're probably going to follow up with a private meeting with the Sheriff's Office and the Police Department to see where we can go next and talk about strategies,” Crepeau said afterward. “We'd like to see an increase in patrols, but that's a challenge because of the budget cuts.”
       Crepeau (a motel owner) and fellow Avenue Merchants founder Robert Maez (a shop owner) said at the meeting that their goal is to make the area more inviting to business. Already working in its favor, Crepeau said, is its location between two historic districts (Old Colorado City and downtown Manitou Springs).
       The crime problem stems from transients living week-to-week or day-to-day in a few of the “derelict properties” up the avenue toward Manitou Springs, Crepeau summarized. They come down to the Red Rock commercial area, beg for money and get drunk, then proceed to harass customers, trespass, fight and/or steal. “They are causing grievious economic problems for our area,” he said. “You can't even leave a bucket outside overnight without it being stolen… They're so brazen, it's ridiculous.”
       His points were supported by several other attendees. George Barraza, owner of the La Unica restaurant, said he had been bothered by transients drinking, leaving trash and breaking in. “I've had to replace windows,” he said. “I've found them in their sleeping bags inside my restaurant.”
       Walgreens manager Todd Gillman told the group about a growing problem with shoplifting in his store, including a “huge” increase in the past year. “If I keep losing money every year, I'm going to have to close this business.”
       Mike Kwesell of the Strawberry Fields medical marijuana dispensary said he has called police because of “crackheads” partying in the business' parking lot.
       The residents north of the avenue have not been spared, either, commented Bonnie Lapora, a Neighborhood Watch captain in that area. Pointing to six break-ins in four weeks - including her own home - she said, “I have never seen crime so bad here.”
       In the midst of such serious talk, David Kim, owner of Red Rock Liquors, managed to draw a laugh when he commented, “It sounds like I'm the problem.” He went on to discuss steps he's taken with the transients, saying “I've cut a lot of them off [from buying alcohol].” Unfortunately, it's evident that such types are successful at times in convincing reputable people to buy booze for them, Kim said.
       One possibility for the Avenue Merchants is to hire their own private security company to patrol the area. “We think that's the best next step,” Crepeau said. “But it's not cheap.” It could be more affordable if the group's mostly small, privately owned businesses could partner with the larger, corporate-owned stores in the area (Safeway and Walgreens), he said. But such arrangements are still in the talking stage.
       Others at the meeting included Terry Brunette, an official with the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department and board member of the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN - the city-recognized advocacy group for the older Westside); Brad Collins, also a member of the OWN board; and the following candidates: Mayor - Brian Bahr, Mitch Christiansen and Buddy Gilmore; Council At-Large - Tony Carpenter and Brandy Williams; and Council District 3 (which includes much of the older Westside) - Lisa Czelatdko.
       No currently elected government officials were present.

Westside Pioneer article