Centro emerges in vacant spot

Array of businesses will fill space once occupied by Alpine Experience in Olympia

rboone@theolympian.comApril 2, 2014 

Former Olympia City Councilman Joe Hyer didn’t waste any time getting back into business after the longtime outdoor store Alpine Experience, which he co-owned, closed last month after 18 years.

Downtown’s Alpine Experience closed on March 9, but less than a week later, Hyer and his former employees emerged with a new venture called Centro.

It occupies about half of the former Alpine Experience space on Olympia Avenue, which measures 20,000 square feet.

Centro will be familiar to some customers because the Bike Stand, a business Hyer acquired when he bought Olympic Outfitters in 2008, is part of the new venture.

But more ideas are to come, Hyer said Tuesday.

Some of these ideas include The Olympia Footwear Company, a specialty shoe store; a cafe serving wine, beer and light foods; and an “urban living, outdoor-inspired” apparel area, where customers can shop apparel or buy it online and have it delivered to Centro.

A tablet computer will be made available for those customers, Hyer said.

Centro, too, is home to the swim store Just Keep Swimming, which has occupied space on a temporary basis so that it can “get back on its feet,” Hyer said. It previously was based in Tumwater, he said.

Just Keep Swimming owner Jeff Pearson could not be reached Tuesday.

But that relationship — providing temporary digs to a business that needs a little help — has spurred another idea: opening a retail incubator at Centro where small business owners could learn the craft of retailing and avoid the pitfalls that some small business owners encounter.

It’s not a near-term idea, Hyer said, but it’s one he would like to explore, and Centro has the additional space.

And Hyer has learned from the market as well, deciding to structure Centro in such a way that it has opened its doors to community investment and shareholders.

“We are seeking community shareholders now,” Hyer said.

Alpine’s six former employees have joined Hyer at Centro and they also are on the board of the new business, he said.

“In lieu of bank financing, this is far more successful,” Hyer said about his new approach to business, adding that the lending environment still remains a challenge for small businesses.

Alpine Experience closed last month after 18 years for several reasons, he said. His parents wanted to retire, but the business also encountered some financial challenges.

Among them: Alpine bought Olympic Outfitters, another downtown retailer in 2008, just as the economy unraveled. And the business could not ignore the competitive pressures applied by REI, which opened at the mall in west Olympia and then dug into Alpine’s sales.

A retirement and liquidation sale at Alpine helped to pay off and reduce some outstanding debts, he said. But Hyer also takes pride in what the business accomplished.

He summed up Alpine’s 18-year history this way:

 • $45 million in sales.

 • More than 200 employees.

 • $8.3 million in wages paid — and the business never paid minimum wage, he said.

 • $860,000 in cash community donations.

Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403 rboone@theolympian.com

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