What’s not eating Colfax

“People want an experience,” Gonerka said. “They don’t really want to see a movie at the AMC in the suburbs.”

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AURORA | Every chef needs a kitchen.

There aren’t a lot of kitchens, however, in northwest Aurora’s art district, and so there aren’t many chefs or eateries in the neighborhood either.

And every arts district needs a foodie outlet, or two. Or more. And so has long gone a persistent East Colfax Avenue problem. Few buzzing eateries.

But the city has been on a mission to change that in the last few years with the Restaurant Incentive Program, a plan unique to Aurora that’s helping to build kitchens in available spaces with a goal of attracting interesting and trendy restaurant concepts.

That in turn could create a true arts district where people spend more time and more money, not just a spate of pawn shops and check-cashing storefronts that currently exist there.

Tim Gonerka, a retail specialist with the city of Aurora, said the goal of the program is to lure creative, young chefs into northwest Aurora by eating up some of the cost of opening a new joint. Making a space restaurant-friendly can be expensive, building a kitchen and getting the space up to code can cost anywhere between $250,000 and $500,000, he said.

It’s not just about adding appliances. A restaurant-grade kitchen needs an exhaust-hood and grease traps, water tap fees and more.

That deters a lot of people from exploring opening a restaurant, especially in an area where restaurateurs can’t just open the door and fill the cash register, he said.

Carolyn Livingston, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Restaurant Association, said any kind of incentive can be a big deal when it comes to the success of a new restaurant. Profit margins are typically only 3 to 6 percent for a restaurant, and a lot of newbies in the game don’t realize that in the beginning, she said.

While the association doesn’t keep statistics on how tight the market is in the metro area for spaces available to restaurateurs, Livingston said the industry has been steadily growing in the last eight years. Since 2010 the restaurant industry has grown 40 percent, she said.

In the entire metro area there are more than 5,000 eateries. There are 1,235 in Arapahoe County alone, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A lot of the spaces that have been identified in northwest Aurora don’t have kitchens or air conditioning. And they aren’t ADA compliant, as they range anywhere from 50 to 100 years old. But they’d be the perfect place for people to gather for a meal before heading off to a show in any of the five theaters in the arts district.

“People want an experience,” Gonerka said. “They don’t really want to see a movie at the AMC in the suburbs.”

Before the Stanley Marketplace opened there weren’t really any options for dining, he said. But now that’s all changed, and more restaurants in the area could capture more business and potentially anchor other retailers too.

The program is also designed to prevent money going to waste if a restaurant doesn’t take to the neighborhood. It’d be easy for another restaurant to move into the space, Gonerka said.

While the program was established with special funding in 2015, the city has only built one kitchen. It’s attracted a plethora of interest though, Gonerka said. And 10 other locations have been identified as potential spots for the program.

“We’d like to create a place where people can get good food for a fair price,” Gonerka said. “We want to change the image of what Original Aurora has been. We’ve seen that change with Stanley.”

The program itself is designed to be picky about who is chosen to move into the pre-conditioned spaces. Gonerka said the city isn’t looking for white tablecloth cafes as much as it’s looking for fun and funky.

Recently, a set of guidelines were established for the program — which included criteria such as supporting up-and-coming dining concepts and new chefs whenever possible, meeting the neighborhood’s food needs and attracting other like concepts. But at a recent study session, half of the council decided against adopting the guidelines.

The failed adoption doesn’t mean much for future of the program, Gonerka said. It’ll still be in place, but the guidelines will be reassessed.

Ward I council member Crystal Murillo wasn’t convinced the program serves the neighborhood, which tends to be lower-income.

“My concern is that the way its written and the spirit of the program isn’t going to benefit people that are in the community and live in the northwest part of Aurora,” she told the Sentinel. “It would be a great idea to develop more businesses in that area. However, how are we ensuring the people are from the community have access to the opportunities we are creating?”

Gonerka said he’s had several conversations with people in the district and surrounding neighborhoods, and wants to attract businesses that they want too. Like a pizzeria. Gonerka said he spoke with one nearby resident who can’t get a pizza delivered to his house because there aren’t any places close enough.

“I’ve had more conversations with pizza makers than white tablecloth chefs,” he said.

Murillo said she plans on having more conversations about what the people in that area want and whether the program is a good fit for her ward.

Gonerka said the program isn’t aiming to turn Original Aurora into Five Points, where growth took off and pushed existing residents out.

“It went from zero to 80 real fast,” he said. “We want to keep personality that’s why we’re not putting  the kitchens just anywhere. We’re trying to be strategic about where we go. Colfax and Dayton are original retail streets. There’s a lot of potential for interesting things down there.”

In the next month, Gonerka said he expects to present to city council in executive session about filling the kitchen that’s been built East of Colfax Avenue.