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An abandoned aviation center turned bustling marketplace

A barbed-wire fence strewn with signs reading “Keep out” once served as the dividing border between Stapleton and Aurora, Colorado. That fence came down with the arrival of the Stanley Marketplace project, a development that transformed an abandoned, 140,000-square-foot aviation building into a thriving marketplace of independently owned Colorado businesses. From handmade empanadas to a gymnastics studio to a cooking school, the marketplace’s corridors are now lined with over 50 vendors, all under one spectacular roof. 

We spoke with Bryant Palmer, chief storyteller at Stanley Marketplace, to hear how a group of neighbors—with no development experience—came together with a vision and created a community gathering place, featuring one of the most unique collectives of small businesses in the country. 

Stanley Marketplace south entrance

What’s the history of the building? 

Stanley Marketplace is in a refurbished building called Stanley Aviation that was built in 1954 by an aviation pioneer named Bob Stanley. He was the first American to fly a jet plane and invented several different kinds of ejection seats and pods. This building was the epicenter of the aviation industry in Colorado for decades and a thriving place of innovation. Stanley and his team employed more people in Aurora, Colorado than anywhere else in the 1950-60s. It was sold to a different company in the 1980s, and then the building was left sitting here empty in the late 2000s. 

How did the idea for Stanley Marketplace start? 

Back in late 2013, early 2014, there were a handful of neighbors who wanted to open a beer hall. They started looking for a building but were having a really hard time finding one. The city of Aurora heard about this plan and said, “Hey, we’d like to show you a building.” So they brought the team over to Stanley Aviation.

At the time, the neighbors were looking for about 2,000-3,000 square feet—this building was 140,000 square feet on 22 acres of land. Their first reaction was that this would be the biggest beer hall in the history of the world. 

But they really loved the building, were inspired by it, and started thinking; Well, what can we do here? Maybe if we opened a beer hall on the corner, put a coffee shop inside it, added a yoga studio, then we could rent out the rest of the building to a company or something. As they started putting together this plan and talking to other folks in the neighborhood, there was a lot of interest in doing something cool in this building. The plan eventually evolved into what became Stanley Marketplace. 

What kind of background did you and the founding team come from? How did that transfer to this project?

There were a lot of people back in the day who thought this project was wild and impossible. We were breaking a lot of the rules of real estate development. The things that we did not know about what it would take to turn this abandoned building into a thriving marketplace could fill a thousand books.

We started with no development experience whatsoever. Our lead partner was a social worker, another was an engineer, and I was a teacher. What we did have was community building experience. All of us in our [previous] jobs had focused on bringing people together for a particular mission or a cause, and those principles, notions, and skills played a part here. Our team was made up of a bunch of knuckleheads who had a vision and wanted to do something really special. So we found partners who were knowledgeable in this area and who were able to give us guidance to figure out how to take this abandoned building and turn it into something special, the Stanley Marketplace you know today. 

What was the founding vision? 

One of the first things we did in 2014 was have this big discussion about what we wanted Stanley to be. We put that into a manifesto, called the Stanifesto. It has since been our guiding vision for what Stanley Marketplace is and aims to be. It’s a document that lays out our vision for being a community gathering place, for putting a lot of positivity into the world, for supporting locally owned businesses, and for giving people a place to live their lives.

What kept you going in the challenging initial phases of the project? Were small businesses even interested in this plan? 

Anytime we were having doubts or facing a big obstacle, we would go back to the Stanifesto and think about the businesses who had already signed up. [Luckily], we had a lot of yeses for this project before we closed on the building. We had a lot of small business owners who were really excited about coming here, and that enthusiasm became infectious. 

The first retailer we signed was this woman named Shauna of a place called True. “All right, I want to open a shop here, but I cannot be the only boutique in this building because a standalone boutique is not what I’m trying to do,” she said. “We need this as a shopping destination.” She gave us names of people that we could go talk to—to see about coming in. 

We had a lot of business owners that did that, that became recruiters for the project and helped us create what we call #stanleyfamily. Basically it refers to the family of businesses and the family of small business owners that we have here. We knew this project would only be successful if we did it together and made collaboration a real focus. 

What’s an example of a vision from the Stanifesto and how has that impacted the local community? 

One of the first lines of the Stanifesto is that we believe in bringing people together and making them happy. We’re in a really interesting spot in between two neighborhoods that, before our project, really did feel separate and had an actual fence between them. We looked at Stanley as an opportunity to bring together these two communities, to take down some fences, and have people get to know each other. 

We made sure that we created a welcoming space, the kind of place that you would come without a plan and just enjoy. We’ve got a really big building and celebrate the nooks and crannies here, so walking around and exploring the building is fun in and of itself. We really love the arts, so we made a point of working with a bunch of local artists. We’ve got more than a dozen murals by Colorado artists here at Stanley and a lot of collaborations with other arts organizations. We’re always hosting something that will celebrate the arts, food, and drink. 

What has the community response been? 

Stanley’s become a significant part of many people’s lives. We have folks who live in this neighborhood who said they moved here to live near Stanley. We just got a message last week from a couple who were moving to a different state for a job and said one of the things they’re going to miss the most is being close to Stanley. 

And that’s really special here, knowing that people think of this place as part of their lives. It’s what we set out to do. I still can’t really believe we made it happen, but it’s really wonderful to see the way that people respond to Stanley and the way that people treat our marketplace as a part of their community too.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photos from Stanley Marketplace

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