Pueblo’s historic Eastside was the city’s first neighborhood. Today, it’s a hub for small, family-owned businesses that have been in the area for decades — some have been open in the same location for 50 years. But in recent years, the Eastside has shown its age, and many business owners blame an apathetic city government combined with ongoing road construction and closure of a major grocery store for the area’s business woes.

“We lost about 30 percent of our business from traffic not passing by to go to Safeway [on 8th Street] anymore,” said Stephanie Ortiz, owner of the Eastside’s Chicken ‘N’ Pasta on 8th Street. She’s run her operation on the Eastside for 34 years.

Rod Slyhoff, president of the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce, said the area is in a funk and growth has stagnated.

“I would not consider it as growing. I don’t know that ‘stable’ is the right word, but I think it’s holding its own,” he said. “I’ve lived here since 1978, and I’m not sure that I can say the Eastside business community as I know it today is much different than it was back in 1978.”

Larry Atencio, District 2 city councilman for Pueblo’s Eastside, agrees.

“It hasn’t grown at all,” he said.

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A 2011 Eastside business survey conducted by the Thomas V. Healy Center for Business and Economic Research found businesses reported vandalism and burglary as issues. The survey identified improved police presence, more support from the greater Pueblo area and more pride in the appearance of nearby buildings as factors that would help.

Six years later, business owners say the city government needs to pay more attention to their needs and advocate on their behalf.

‘So much pushback’

The Colorado Department of Transportation is currently streetscaping 4th Street, the main artery of the Eastside’s business district. Its initial concept was supposed to improve traffic flow, expand sidewalks and add planters, benches and trees. But business owners fought it, according to Atencio.

Then the city wanted to put in traffic circles instead of turn lanes.

But most of the Eastside’s business owners didn’t want that either, Atencio said.

“When you get so much pushback and you get so much fight on things like that, after a while you just say, ‘Hey, OK. We can’t do anything to help if you don’t want it,’” he said.

But business owners said they didn’t oppose the plan’s wide sidewalks, a two-lane road or planters -— none of which are included as part of the current construction — but only the “bump-outs,” which are protrusions into driving lanes at crosswalks, making it easier and safer for pedestrians to cross the road.

Justin Fox, owner of Double J Meat Market on East 4th Street, said the Eastside has always been a good place to run a business, and he’s operated in the same location for 53 years. But he’s not OK with the bump-outs.

“We didn’t mind the streetscaping,” said Fox. “It was the addition of bump-outs. …[The city] kept pushing it and pushing it and didn’t listen.”

But the bump-outs have erased two parking spaces and have affected his deliveries, which are made by large tractor-trailer rigs.

“These large semis, in order to make the corner turns with these bump-outs in place, must take both lanes of Highway 96 and take up both lanes of the street they’re turning into,” he said.

“It’s dangerous and it takes up time for people held up behind the truck trying to make the turn, and it’s time-consuming for the driver.”

City not listening

The Double J isn’t alone in its complaints. Business owners created a petition in February 2015 with signatures from 15 Eastside business owners, registering their opposition to the design of the  area’s only east-west corridor, state Highway 96 [East 4th Street] between Erie and Joplin avenues.

James Popp, one of the owners of Plebian Pools on East 4th Street, said no one from the city seemed to care.

“We had business owners sign a paper,” he said. “We brought it to city council saying that we would like to have a little voice in what is going on here. They didn’t even listen to us.”

James Popp and his brother Norbert have operated Plebian Pools out of the same location for 36 years. Like Fox, they see traffic from large semi-trucks and fear that one day drivers could refuse to deliver products because of the narrow road conditions.

“We were not opposed to beautification,” James said. “We want it. We’ve been wanting it.”

But the construction changes won’t suddenly change the Eastside’s business mix, said his brother.

“I think they have the idea that we can make this area look like Union Avenue with the bump-outs and that we are going to get boutiques,” Norbert said. “The businesses we attract have to be for this area, and I don’t picture a boutique. This is a different part of town. It has different needs.”

Construction on the road and the addition of bump-outs began in early 2017. Since then, the Popp brothers said they have seen three nearby stores close — and they are also struggling.

“We’ve seen the Goofy Shack close. The store right next to us, One Love Garden Supply, they closed. And Ray’s Truck Plaza closed his building,” Norbert Popp said. “I don’t think we will get them back that easily. We’re struggling too. James found that we are down 50 percent on retail sales since construction started.”

The Popp brothers agreed that Safeway’s closure has also reduced traffic in the business district.

They don’t plan to be silent: Norbert Popp has written several letters to city councilors, the city planner and a district attorney to voice his concerns about the project, he said.

‘Good things coming’

Atencio said he recognizes the Eastside has different needs. He says he has been working on multiple projects he believes will be beneficial to his district.

“The Eastside is situated so that it is separated from the rest of the city geographically by Fountain Creek and I-25. It’s separated ethnically, economically and culturally from the rest of the city,” Atencio said. “Not that it is a bad thing. The cultures on that side of town are very vibrant. … I can see their reluctance to change anything. [But] some [businesses] are barely making it now as it is. I can understand that.”

Atencio is working to bring a five-diamond softball complex for the Eastside, recruit another grocer to fill Safeway’s void, set up a solar garden and design a program called “flip-a-block” to give properties new paint and landscaping.

“There are going to be some good things coming to the Eastside,” he said.

The Pueblo Urban Renewal Authority also identified a project area along East 4th Street in 2011, but could not begin work due to lack of resources. The authority will “blow the dust off some of those plans now that the economy is a bit better,” said URA Director Jerry Pacheco.

The URA’s initial focus was on aesthetic improvements to the streetscape, installing a video surveillance system and creating a community safe zone so more people perceive the Eastside as hospitable. Those initiatives are being re-examined now, Pacheco said.

“We need to leverage and continue aesthetic improvement post CDOT’s improvements,” Pacheco said. “We need to partner with the city of Pueblo and the business owners to develop a sustainable strategy to achieve those goals.”

For now, business owners say they will hang on.

“Throughout this project, even though we were given lemons … we made lemonade,” Fox said.

“We worked with the construction company to make the process … as easy for them as possible because we understand that the easier it is for them, the sooner they are going to get done.”

According to James Popp, small businesses like his are crucial to the success of Pueblo as a whole.

“I don’t feel like they [Pueblo city representatives] have been business friendly to us,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a long time before we see a turnaround. They’ve got to talk to us and be open with us.”

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