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Cortez’s new hot spot? A place to hang out

From coffee to basket weaving, local businesses are taking a community-driven approach to bringing in residents and visitors

Cortez business owners are trying to woo customers with something they’re hoping is more enticing than just cheap drinks and eats: a place to hang out and connect with the local community.

While bars, restaurants and fast food joints have long lined Main Street over the past few years, a crop of new entrants has emerged that aim to provide visitors and residents an experience more akin to what they might find in a bustling metropolis, whether that’s a concert with a local musician, a place to sit and work for a few hours or a fresh-pressed juice.

“It's clear that we have people moving from the big cities and they have a certain expectation of what’s available to them in a community,” Zu Gallery founder Jodi Jahrling told The Journal. “We have to be able to offer that to them or they're going to leave town every weekend and go somewhere else.”

Jahrling, 50, isn’t alone in recognizing the need to cater to Cortez’s changing population.

Meanwhile, after a drought in the market with the closures of The Spruce Tree, The Bean Tree and the Cortez Coffeehouse and Eatery, the options for a morning or afternoon caffeine boost are rebounding.

Already a popular spot for the evening crowds, WildEdge Brewing Collective will soon start opening its door in the early morning as Mesa Cafe, before it reopens in the afternoon as a brewery.

“In these rural communities, sometimes you can live your life without having a conversation with anybody all day long,” said founder Chris Giangreco, who is currently running a public fundraising effort to help support the opening of the coffeehouse. “We want to create a space for that.”

And a coffee bar recently opened inside the Cortez Cultural Center, complete with new seating and a rotating gallery of work from local artists to peruse.

Cortez Cultural Center Executive Director Shere Holleman oversaw the opening of a new coffee bar.

Along with providing a spot to meet for a midmorning or afternoon sojourn, the addition is also adding a new revenue stream that Executive Director Shere Holleman says is vital to keeping the decades-old institution running for the next generation of residents to enjoy.

Based on early results, it’s clear there’s a demand for such a spot.

“This place used to be just dead,” said Holleman. Now, “there's chatter and people are laughing. It’s lively.”

If you build it, they will come

While Zu Gallery is now a bustling community spot, that wasn’t Jahrling’s initial intention.

“There was never a solid place for artists to keep their stuff unless they were associated with a co-op. I wanted it to be a no-risk place for artists,” she said. “Then I realized this place could hold more than just art.”

Shortly after opening in September 2021, Zu Gallery held its first “listening room” session, a showcase for local musicians. Even with no beer or alcohol available because of a pending license, people showed up. Now a staple in the calendar, there’s a packed house almost every time, Jahrling said. And now, over two years later, it’s hard to keep track of everything Zu Gallery does in the space.

Alongside local art, patrons can purchase books from area authors and poets. Other events range from acoustic jams, singalong nights and basket-weaving classes, to “Lost Art of Random Conversations,” where people are randomly paired for 30-minutes chat. And patrons can now indulge with a snack, glass of wine or specialty drink, like “Moonstruck,” a new alcohol-free cocktail with spiced apple cider and ginger beer.

But it’s not just diversity in what Zu Gallery is offering that makes it successful, Jahrling said, it’s also about the diversity of the customers.

“Queer ball needed a space … and they rented the space,” she added. “On the other side of that, we welcomed the rodeo VIP party here. Two completely different audiences in a lot of people's eyes, and both comfortable.”

Others have equally grand ambitions. At her mother Diana Toms’ store The Abundant Life, Monique Alvarez is planning on hosting monthly community dinners at a new 12-person dining table, inspired by the weekly dinners she held since moving back to Cortez in 2020.

“I met someone at the Dolores River, I met someone at the grocery store, and I figured out they just moved here? I invited them,” said Alvarez. “I learned that people are really lonely. … They’re missing connections. They’re missing friendships.”

It takes a village – and a little financial creativity

For owners like Jahrling, new spots opening up aren’t competition. Instead, it’s an opportunity to work with neighboring businesses to increase the overall volume of visitors to downtown Cortez.

“You can't operate in a bubble, it has to be a collaborative effort,” said Jahrling. “It keeps that money in our community by keeping everything local.”

That’s particularly important in a town where taxes, largely sales tax, drive 77.9% of the revenue. As of the end of August, the city has collected $6.8 million in sales tax, a slight year-over-year decline.

A “good economy translates to good budget, bad economy translates to terrible budget,” Parks and Recreation Director Creighton Wright said at a recent event.

And it’s part of the reason why there’s been a focus among local officials and industry associations on helping other entrepreneurs open their own small businesses.

The Zu Gallery, for example, collaborates with the Cortez Retail Enhancement Association and area economic development departments to hold informational sessions about topics important to owners, like building an effective business pitch or keeping their Google listings up-to-date.

Mesa Cafe will soon open up in the morning at the WildEdge Brewing Collective. Joseph Williams/The Journal

Still, there are barriers that area entrepreneurs face that aren’t as easily addressable, like finding workers or affordable real estate. For example, Giangreco, 47, is subleasing the space for the Mesa Cafe from the owners of WildEdge.

“I would need 10 times the money that I'm going to put out to be able to do this if I wasn't doing this here with WildEdge,” he said. “There could be a way to change that … so you don't have to have the corporation behind you to make this happen.”

And while as a nonprofit the Cortez Cultural Center faces its own unique challenges, Holleman, too relied on the generosity of the community to get the coffee bar going.

“We had to build all these cabinets. We had to get an electrician in here. We had to get plumbers in,” she said. “Everything you see here was volunteer labor.”

Despite the hard work, local owners say the overwhelmingly positive response from the community makes it worthwhile. And ultimately, they’re all hopeful that the options only grow for those looking for that connection to the local culture.

“The more cool things happening downtown, the more people are going to come out,” said Holleman.

This article was re-edited and reposed on Nov. 30 to reflect that Diana Toms owns The Abundant Life store.