“What up, Leadville!” shouted a bike messenger whizzing by as my husband and I were walking down the street in San Francisco a few years ago. I looked over at my husband, wearing what I have come to think as the only shirt he owns, his now paper-thin mustard yellow and grey Melanzana hoodie. This simple fleece sweatshirt has become synonymous with Leadville, a city of under 3,000 people located at an elevation of 10,000 feet at the base of some of Colorado’s highest mountains.
Only in their store on Main Street in Leadville. Melanzana has developed somewhat of a cult following in the outdoor gear world. In part because they are a high-quality, colorful, versatile article of clothing and in part because they are all handmade in the store by locals. The shop, which was expanded a few years ago, is filled with rows of sewing machines usually with a few dogs roaming in between, surrounded by huge rolls of fabric. Up front there are a few racks of picked-through merchandise, which sells nearly as quickly as they can produce them. Not enough supply to meet demand? At Melanzana that’s okay—it’s part of the allure.
The owner, Fritz Howard and 20-year Leadville resident, has made some intentional choices—sometimes sacrificing profits—to be (and remain) a local Main Street business. As a result, Melanzana has become part of the local identity of Leadville. By producing a mountain product in the most rugged of mountain towns, employing local outdoor enthusiasts who mountain bike on their lunch breaks, and using a fleece fabric produced in America, they generate a truly authentic mountain vibe. This vibe has extended to other local businesses as well, encouraging improvements along the Main Street and creating momentum for new restaurants, businesses and placemaking projects.
A healthy Main Street is the sign of a healthy community. It is both a destination for visitors and it is a source of pride for local residents. As such, small towns throughout Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West are looking for ways to strengthen their historic Main Streets and support local businesses. Melanzana exemplifies how a single local business can contribute to the identity and culture of the entire community. This is what matters in small towns and we want more of it.
The lesson here is that there is a strong connection between local business and place. Great businesses create great places: great places attract great businesses. Such as, when a simple fleece sweatshirt, handsewn in an extreme little mountain town is recognized by a complete stranger 1,000 miles away as ‘Leadville’—that’s a powerful connection to place.