Sean Maher, 53, sat behind his desk Wednesday morning a bit bleary-eyed and defeated.
Late Tuesday night he saw his seven-year push for a downtown Boulder arthouse cinema suffer defeat at the hands of Boulder City Council.
Council voted 5–3 against adding the cinema project to those city and nonprofit projects that would receive funding should Boulder residents vote to extend a 0.3 percent Capital Improvement sales tax for another four years at the polls in November.
Maher, the CEO of the Downtown Boulder Partnership whose nonprofit wing Downtown Boulder Foundation would have owned the four-screen theater airing first-run films and serving high-end food and drink at Pearl West just west of the Pearl Street Mall, is crushed two-fold: Boulder could use a multi-screen arthouse cinema space and such a venue would serve as a sustaining magnet for downtown Boulder.
Its funding proved controversial, however, embodying the increasingly stark dilemma Boulder residents must grapple with — how to sustain a vibrant, attractive and inclusive civic culture as demand, property values and commercial rents creep ever higher.
The theater would have been a posh downtown addition funded in part off taxpayers’ backs, but Maher says it also would have served as an attractive downtown magnet for years to come.
Maher says a high-end gym will likely take the Pearl West basement space that would have housed the cinema.
As he reflects on Pearl Street Mall’s 40-year history and looks forward, Maher frets about the ability to sustain downtown’s draw and characteristic local character. Maher and many others define local as a business with an owner who resides in Boulder County or very near.
With its charming mix of local businesses and walkable, diverse mix of food, drink and activities, Boulder’s downtown remains a beacon, but the winds of change are blowing.
Maher just doesn’t see competition for downtown Boulder revelers from Boulder’s eastern satellites Longmont, Louisville and Lafayette, who are building their own vibrant downtowns with attractive spaces and restaurants — such as Lafayette’s The Post Brewing Co. whose fried chicken and cold beer lures Boulderites east.
Local projects in the works could also bite into downtown Boulder’s area hub status. Boulder Junction, a 160-acre pedestrian-oriented mixed-use area the city is shaping into a regional transit and lifestyle core, has 30th and Pearl Street as a heart and prominent mixed-use developments as nearby arteries.
Renderings for S’PARK, REVE and the Google campus mixed-use developments (left to right, respectively) along Boulder’s Boulder Junction 160-acre plan centered on the Pearl St. and 30th Street intersection.
Maher ticked off a few of the latter in the works: the four-acre, $150 million Google campus with 330,000 square feet of office space in development at 30th and Pearl; six-acre REVE near the same intersection with 244 rental units, over 120,000 square feet of office space and 24,500 square feet of retail; and just a mile north, S’PARK, 9.8 acres of 100,000 square feet of office space, 40,000 square feet of retail and nearly 200 rental units.
This competition puts pressure on downtown to cultivate a vibrant, unique and attractive environment. Part of that answer involves maintaining locally owned businesses downtown.
Over 80 percent of downtown retailers and restaurants and the owners of approximately 70 percent of the roughly 150 downtown buildings are locals, Maher says.
However, maintaining a strong locally-owned downtown character may become increasingly difficult as demand, prices and new out-of-town owners make smaller, local retail and restaurants less feasible, promising.
For example, only one of the nine ground-floor, street-facing retail and restaurant spaces at Pearl West, downtown’s newest development, houses a local business, Alpine Modern.
Maher says the city and Downtown Boulder Partnership are working on ways to sustain downtown Boulder’s local character.
Getting to Boulder
Maher grew up in a small town in South Dakota. He visited Boulder during a high school road trip and fell in love. He handed the CU catalog to his dad who took one glance at the prices and directed Maher elsewhere.
After getting his undergraduate degree and having fuller control of life’s reins, Maher found his way to Boulder in 1988 as an MBA student at CU. He then served as a marketing consultant at Boulder-based marketing agency Sterling-Rice Group.
Maher’s father published his hometown newspaper and that connection to the local community Maher grew up with became an itch that work as a consultant at SRG, which primarily has national clients, didn’t scratch.
That led Maher to become a downtown business owner; he bought franchise rights to Ben & Jerry’s and opened a scoop shop on the corner of Broadway and the Pearl Street Mall in 1995. He sold that in 2002 to run Boulder’s Small Business Development Center and then became executive director of the Boulder Economic Council in 2004.
Again he missed downtown, so when the Downtown Boulder Partnership position opened in 2008, he jumped.