“It was pretty desolate.”
That’s what Bianca Fisher remembers about downtown Greeley when she enrolled at the University of Northern Colorado in 2005.
“At first I didn’t even know there was a downtown,” she said. “It was tough. A lot of vacant storefronts. No new construction or development. Sleepy. Quiet. Eighth Avenue didn’t have much other than mechanics and tire shops. There wasn’t a lot of vibrancy whatsoever.”
What downtown economy there was, Fisher said, was “kind of a revolving door. Businesses would come, and they’d go just as fast.”
Old, timeworn and once bathed in the pungent aroma of nearby feedlots, Greeley’s reputation for oilfields and agriculture steered dynamic growth along the Front Range urban corridor largely west of Interstate 25 instead of toward the Weld County seat — a town that a century ago was the sweet spot of the nation’s sugar-beet industry and manufactured one-fourth of all sugar sold and consumed in the United States.
Few expected much out of downtown.
But much as our corn-husking neighbor state to the northeast is capitalizing on the perception of low expectations with its “Nebraska: It’s Not for Everyone” tourism campaign, Greeley boosters in 2012 decided that the slogan “Greeley Unexpected” might just be the key to fanning some hopeful embers of hope into flames of excitement and variety.
It worked. Greeley residents started bragging about things their city could offer, and nowhere were the signs of rousing from slumber more evident than downtown.
Fisher may have burst into tears when she first crossed the city limits, she told BizWest in a 2018 interview, “but soon after that, I was in. The community here is just so rich. There’s no air of pretension. There’s just something about this place.”
Art and live music blossomed. Craft breweries sprang up. Major investment in hotels and upper-scale residential buildings followed, spurred by an influx of people who wanted to live close to the building excitement.
Expectation turned into celebration — and anticipation.
And Fisher took on the job of helping expectations become reality.
She joined the Downtown Development Authority as an administrative assistant in April 2009, two months after Patrick’s Irish Pub opened at 909 Eighth Ave. “I think Patrick’s was really the start of it,” she said.
Suddenly, unexpected things began happening.
“There were ‘I am Downtown Greeley’ posters that started popping up in vacant windows,” she said. An Art Master Plan was developed that year, guided by an Art Master Plan that guided and supported the integration of art that contributed to Greeley’s identity.
Fisher said the biggest jolt of electricity to revive downtown happened in 2011, when a “Friday Fest” that had been held just four times a summer on a closed-to-traffic Ninth Street Plaza became a regular event, and the next season, the city created the state’s first New Orleans-style “common consumption area” where consumers can order an alcoholic drink in a “go cup” on Friday nights and then walk around with it. As a result, participating bars were no longer limited by seating capacity, and what developed was a free music festival.
“Currently we average around 22,000 people for the Friday Fest season, every Friday from the start of May through mid-September,” Fisher said.
The Greeley Creative District, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was founded in 2012 to enhance the city’s creative identity and spark economic vitality.
Besides the live music pouring out of taverns and eateries, downtown’s growing reputation as an entertainment mecca led to the opening of the Moxi Theater in 2013 and The Kress Cinema & Lounge five years later.
But Fisher likes to point out something special about the Moxi:
Remember how she said businesses used to come and go in the sleepy downtown of two decades ago? The Moxi is one of five businesses — along with 60+ Ride, the Bear Country Saloon, The Nerd Store and Art Werx Studio and Gallery — that opened in 2013 that are still open today. In fact, 110 businesses that opened downtown since 2013 remain alive and well.
The sudden renaissance of downtown Greeley left some business owners and residents alike in disbelief at first, Fisher said, but “now, people come from long distances” because the area is defying expectations.
To get it all off to a dynamic start, Fisher and the DDA had to battle “a lot of stigmas about downtown being unsafe, crime-ridden, full of gangs.
“We had to start correcting those misconceptions,” she said, “and show that downtown is just as safe as anywhere else in the city. It was a lot to combat — but people started taking the risk.”
By 2015, Bob Tointon, a Greeley business icon and downtown booster, was noting in BizWest that some projects downtown remained a struggle, but there was a growing confidence evident in officials and civic leaders.
That rising tide also lifted Fisher’s career at the DDA — from project coordinator to associate director and finally to executive director in January 2019.
By then, she and her husband, Neil, had bought three downtown buildings to keep their WeldWerks brewery in downtown Greeley with much-needed room to grow. That helped Eighth Avenue come alive as well, with streetscape improvements such as new medians and landscaping, plus investments in redevelopment by the Richardson family.
The Richardsons, the family behind developer Richmark Cos., at one point a few years ago pumped more than $5 million into the Eighth Avenue corridor in the span of eight months.
Further spurred by a boom in the energy sector, downtown began to draw investment by the municipal government in a new $10.6 million city hall and by the private sector in hotels and event spaces.
New arrivals this year include The Learning Source, Vale Snacks, Pinocchio’s Greeley, Early Birds, Pure Happiness CBD and the Crosswinds Paranormal Research and Development Society, ICON Barbershop, Peak Kitchen in the State Armory Building, Goal High School, and — on June 9 — Makers Mercantile and Studio.
“We’re fortunate to have so many experience-oriented businesses,” Fisher said, “We’ve built public facilities and the library and we’re finally getting new residential projects” such as the $50.6 million Maddie Apartments, 55+ Resort Apartments and a proposed $71 million, 194-unit residential building at 1024 Eighth Ave. that for decades was the site of Gallery Furniture — the single largest capital investment project to date in downtown Greeley.
“But we’re also fortunate to have so many experience-oriented businesses. It’s kind of a neat story of so many private-sector partners, and we’re fortunate that they’re largely local ownership. Greeley did it the right way.”
Major capital investments during the past 10 years have included the $44.3 million DoubleTree Hotel, the $21.4 million City Center South complex, and a major point of pride, the $28 million LINC, the High Plains Library District’s Library Innovation Center, which opened this year at a site once occupied by offices of the Greeley Tribune.
Some of the 55-block downtown area’s biggest projects got a boost from the DDA through tax-increment financing, and in April it asked the city council to reauthorize it for 20 more years beyond its otherwise sunset date, as well as funding mechanisms so it can complete the work envisioned in the 2032 Downtown Strategic Plan.
A new report from Denver-based consulting firm Progressive Urban Management Associates, or PUMA, told the city council early this year that downtown represents just 1% of the city and 3% of the city’s assessed value but that each downtown acre generates “three times more value than citywide land.”
Among the report’s findings were that the housing market and demand in the downtown “remains robust,” downtown’s industrial sector offers “a differential advantage” from other downtowns and that the low cost of office space makes it easier for entrepreneurs to locate there. Among other initiatives, it called for stimulating in-fill development, encouraging vibrant storefronts, diversifying housing, attracting more primary employers and luring a major grocer.
Perhaps the pivotal coming-of-age moment for downtown revitalization came in 2021 when artists painted a new mural on the Ninth Street Plaza to replace one that trumpeted the “Greeley Unexpected” theme.
It just goes to show that excitement and vitality in downtown Greeley is no longer “unexpected.” Now, downtown simply can’t wait to see what comes next.