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Creative Energy Charging Forward in Downtown Fort Collins

The historic Avery Building on Old Town Square.
 

The Downtown Fort Collins Creative District encompasses one of the most vibrant city centers in the state. How can advocates harness the energy for future artists and creatives?

It's a warm summer morning. A steady stream of customers wander into the Wolverine Farm Letterpress & Publick House in Fort Collins' booming River District.
 
An outgrowth of the nonprofit Wolverine Farm Publishing, the establishment sells books, craft beer, coffee and locally made goods.
 
On the wall adjacent to the staircase, a mural declares, "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship . . . build a wall, set a bone, take orders, comfort the dying, take orders, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer . . . and die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
 
The same could be said for the surrounding Downtown Fort Collins Creative District (DFCCD). Certified by Colorado Creative Industries (CCI) in 2016, the district encompasses about 100 blocks.
 
Take a quick tour of the area, and you'll see newly and nearly built apartments, parks and trails along the Cache la Poudre River, craft breweries, galleries, and music venues, as well as railroad tracks and just enough grit to give it a sense of place. Bicycles are everywhere. So is public art: Brick walls, transformer boxes and pianos are clad in colorful paint as part of the city's Art in Public Places initiative and other programs.

Transformer boxes have become canvases for local artists in Fort Collins' Art in Public Places program.

 
Across the street from Wolverine Farm, adaptive reuse is underway at the historic Northern Colorado Feeders Supply building, soon to reopen as Ginger and Baker pie shop, amidst a mix of old industry and new buildings. Just south of the River District, the heart of downtown is Old Town Fort Collins, a vibrant retail and dining district with activated alleys and other pedestrian areas. Another five blocks south is the Music District, a new creative hub that's emerging as a national model, and the Colorado State University (CSU) campus is just beyond the district's southern border.
 
The amount of creative energy and innovation between CSU and the River District is a bit staggering. Is there such a thing as too much of a good thing?
 
"We're not lacking in programming," says Peggy Lyle, the DFCCD's director. "We've got lots of festivals, lots of events, our music scene is through the roof. That's not the challenge. The challenge is trying to connect those things as one creative sector. There's no centralized hub."

Peggy Lyle is director of the Downtown Fort Collins Creative District. Pictured transformer boxes painted by Lisa Cameron as part of Art in Public Places.

 
The city doesn't have an arts council, and the Larimer County Small Business Development Center, the Downtown Business Association and other local organizations aren't focused on creative industries, she adds. "We want to be a clearinghouse for all that information and an advocate for the arts."
 
"Those entrepreneurs are writing themselves off as not good at business," says Lyle. "A lot of times, creative endeavors have trouble getting recognized as a legitimate business."
 
That's a focal point for Lyle, and she's made inroads in her first year on the job. Case in point: In February 2017, Fort Collins Startup Week had 100 sessions, and a third of them were geared toward creative industries, including music.
 
It's all about making people -- both creatives and their customers -- understand that Fort Collins' creative industries are a major economic driver that collectively represent the third-largest source of jobs in the city, after CSU and UC Health.

2014-2015 data from the Downtown Fort Collins Creative District.


Within the boundaries of the creative district, Lyle sees opportunity for new synergies, but fostering consensus is easier said than done. "The cool thing is it's a bunch of independent business owners," she says, "and one of the hardest things is it's a bunch of independent business owners."
 
A time-tested model
 
Trimble Court Artisans opened its gallery in Old Town in 1971. Diane Findley joined the arts and crafts cooperative five years later. "This is home," she says with a grin. "It's like heaven on a stick. It really is. Pinch me."
 
Stocked with the works of 50 local artist members, the shop is located in a pedestrian-only, activated alley off of Old Town Square. Members now pay an annual $75 fee, and the co-op collects a 35 percent commission on works sold at the shop.
 
Trimble Court Artisans is located in an activated alley just off Old Town Square.

When Findley first set foot in the shop in 1976, "It was like discovering electricity," she says. "I walked in and just went, 'This is great. This is where I belong.'"

 
Today, 41 years later, Findley still sells her paintings and pottery at the co-op. She's plenty of change in that time.
 
"Old Town used to be a little rough and tumble, with some naughty taverns and dogs sleeping in the streets," she remembers. "It was sleepy and a little bit rugged. Now you can bring your grandma here. People get married here."
 
What's driven the area's evolution? "Maybe it was just Fort Collins' time to bloom," answers Findley. The lack of pretentiousness doesn't hurt.  "We're very cool, but we're not too cool for you."
 
Old Town is an authentic place, unlike "alien" shopping malls, she adds. "Our floor squeaks. We love our squeaky floor. It's real."
 
Through it all, the shop has long had the support of landlords. Martha Trimble owned the building in the early days, and only charged the cooperative $1 a year in rent. The current owners are likewise "benevolent," says Findley.
 
But community and collaboration have also helped drive success at Trimble Court Artisans. "We inspire each other, we encourage each other, we all sell each other's work so we know each other," says Findley. "We're all so proud of it and we're proud of each other. When somebody sells a big-ticket item, we all jump up and down. We're all doing belly bumps and high fives."

Amy Bradley is co-founder of the Downtown Artery. 

Findley's foremost goal is continuing the tradition. "What I want to do is keep Trimble Court Artisans going for the next 100 years," she says. "I want to bring the next generation in. . . . We're always looking for that next great member who can carry the mantle. You just never know who's going to walk in and go 'Bingo!' like I did."
 
Findley cites the Downtown Artery and the Music District as examples of youthful arts catalysts in Fort Collins. "Let the kids take over. I'm okay with that."
 
She points to local illustrator Allie Ogg's work on the shop's wall. "She quit her job as a bartender to become a full-time artist," says Findley. "That's what happens: They get a taste of what can be here and get serious about being an artist."

Allie Ogg's mural decorates the wall of Equinox Brewing in Old Town.

 
Enter the Music District
 
Formerly a touring musician with These United States and Ark Life, Jesse Elliott settled in Colorado and consulted for CCI on catalyzing the state's music industry before taking the reins as director of the Music District in 2016.
 
The Bohemian Foundation-funded project is meant to make a good thing even better. "It's always worth reiterating: Fort Collins has always had a really great music scene," explains Elliott. "What we're trying to do is pull together the different threads and act as a central hub for this great grassroots scene we have." The "three pillars" of the mission are art, business, and community, he adds.
 
The Music District encompasses a campus of five buildings, four of them from the early 1900s, that total 32,000 square feet in all, including office, retail, rehearsal, instruction and performance space. The rates for the rehearsal and other spaces aren't profit-driven due to the philanthropic support, but they are pegged to the market. "We don't want to undercut any of the cool DIY businesses that were already here."

Little Kids Rock at the Music District. Photo courtesy the Music District.


For the same reason, there is no in-house recording studio, as was originally planned. Elliott says the Music District is instead partnering with existing studios like the legendary Blasting Room. "There are like 12 great studios in Fort Collins," says Elliott.
 
Other cities are taking note. "We're tracking it pretty closely, not just for us, but for others," says Elliott. "It is early. We don't want to get up on the deck of the battleship and declare 'Mission Accomplished' yet. But it's been going very well."

Cumulative data from September 2016-June 2017 from the Music District.

The Music District is a microcosm of the broader Downtown Fort Collins Creative District. How can it support, catalyze and bring together the local music community? What can the broader creative population learn from the Music District?
 
In Elliott's mind, the creative district is brimming with potential. "I'm amazed," he notes. "The amount of energy per capita in a town of 160,000 people is amazing. It's like taking five or 10 of the coolest neighborhoods in Denver and putting them next to each other. It blows me away how much is going on for a town of that size."

Affordability and sustainable economics
 
For creatives and the broader population of Fort Collins, affordability "is the single biggest issue," says Elliott. "All of the big institutions in town are taking the affordability question very seriously."
 
The population of Fort Collins is projected to double to about 300,000 by 2027. "Real estate prices are going up," says the DFCCD's Lyle. "What does that mean for artists?"
 
There's no single silver bullet, but Artspace could play a role. The Minneapolis-based nonprofit is working with CCI to develop several affordable housing projects for artists across the state. "We're partnering with Bohemian Foundation, the City of Fort Collins and our Downtown Development Authority to help advance an Artspace residential project," says Lyle. "We're in phase two right now."
 
But population growth and the resulting change in the urban landscape of central Fort Collins makes for a bit of a moving target, she adds.  "We're trying to see into the future, which isn't the easiest thing to do."

Fort Collins' fabled quality of life is a big draw for transplants.

 
The city-owned Community Creative Center at the Historic Carnegie Building, located within the district's boundaries, featuring gallery and studio space, is a prime example. "We view it as the hub for our creative community," says Lyle. "It's a beautiful historic building."
 
A multi-million-dollar renovation is on the drawing board to better leverage the space and make it friendlier for events. "That's five to eight years out," she says. "What is our city going to look like in five years? There is some urgency."
 
But Lyle is the only DFCCD employee, and there's a need for more resources. "We're working hard to make the creative district self-sustaining," she says. "Figuring out the economic model has been the biggest challenge."
 
She also doesn't want to produce new events, citing the success of FoCoMX, an annual spring music festival that featured 200 bands in April 2017, and the Bohemian Nights free concert series. "We don’t want to be redundant," Lyle says.

Thursday Night Live is part of Bohemian Nights' free concerts in Old Town. Photo courtesy Bohemian Nights.


Beer meets art
 
It's difficult to understate the impact of craft beer in Fort Collins. Beer-related tourism recently overtook whitewater rafting as Northern Colorado's top draw for visitors. "Fort Collins produces 70 percent of Colorado's craft beer," says Lyle. "It's definitely a big part of our culture."
 
New Belgium, Colorado's largest craft brewery, is on the outskirts of the creative district, as is third-largest Odell, and there are six breweries currently operating within the district's boundaries.

Equinox Brewing opened in a former Old Town gallery in 2010.

 
The proprietor of Equinox Brewing in Old Town, Colin Westcott considers brewing something an art form, where raw materials and an idea intersect in a final product that's defined by creativity. "I'm very passionate about brewing," he says. "It hasn't lost its magic."
 
Westcott has no plans to package Equinox's beers, and only deliver kegs to local restaurants via the brewery's pedal-powered trike from local maker YendraBuilt. "We go about six blocks," he laughs.
 
Since Equinox opened in a former art gallery in 2010, he's supported local arts with exhibitions of artists on the walls that change every month -- taking zero commission of sales -- and live music. He says collaboration is a key ingredient in Fort Collins' thriving craft brewing industry as well as its arts scene. "Get like-minded people together and good things happen."
 
Two blocks to the northwest, Marcy Oliver bought Old Town Art & Framery in 1995 and launched the Gallery Walk a year later to promote a similar collaboration between galleries. "No one thought of Old Town as having an art community," she says. "It's grown quite a bit, and Old Town has benefited."
 
Oliver says the framing has been key to her business' longevity, and that it's difficult to make ends meet with a gallery alone. "We need people to open up their billfolds," she says. "I think it's really hard to make it as an artist in Fort Collins. . . . There's a lot of stuff to do, and maybe that's to the detriment of the arts. People are not starved for entertainment. It's all around, and a lot of it's free."

Marcy Oliver at work at Old Town Art & Framery.

 
As a working artist and muralist in Fort Collins, Chris Bates knows this all too well. He grew up in the city and returned to raise his two kids in 2001 after he "ski-bummed around" the West for about a decade.
 
To launch his career, Bates leveraged his lifelong network to market his skills as a muralist to local businesses. He also got involved in the city's Art in Public Places program, painting 11 transformer boxes to date, and teaches local kids art skills. "Artists need to diversify," he says, echoing Oliver. "You've got to figure out your niche."
 
Bates adds, "In general, it's been pretty tough. People love art, but they don't support it financially. I feel like I'm an anomaly. It's better to be an arts administrator or an owner of a music venue than being a musician, an artist or an actor."
 
Fort Collins' increasing cost of living makes it difficult for young artists. "We were lucky," says Bates. "We bought a house 10 years ago. If we didn't buy a house 10 years ago, we wouldn't be living in town."
 
Likewise, rising rents make it difficult for creative businesses downtown. "This was a gallery back in the day," he says of Equinox Brewing, the site of his interview with Confluence Denver. "It's hard to make it work."
 
But Bates also signals his hope for the future. He says artists are increasingly getting a seat at the table, and notes that planners sought his input for the recent Fort Collins Downtown Plan

"We're creative people," he says. "There are creative solutions to these problems. That's why we are who we are -- we can see past the obvious."

Public art decorates Old Town.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn except where otherwise noted.

Graphic design by Matt Megyesi.

This story is part of a series about Colorado's Certified Creative Districts. Support for this series is provided by Colorado Creative Industries.
Q&A with Amy Bradley, Downtown Artery
Q&A with Amy Bradley, Downtown Artery
Co-founder Amy Bradley opened the Downtown Artery in Old Town in 2013. Located in the oldest commercial building in Fort Collins (built in 1868), the space includes a gallery, cafe and bar, store, performance venue, art studios, office spaces and three Airbnb short-term rental apartments. A graduate of CSU's printmaking program, Bradley is also one of the founders of the nonprofit Fort Collins Mural Project.
 
Confluence Denver: Tell me about how the Downtown Artery came to be.
 
Amy Bradley: My father is a doctor and my mother is a nurse, yet they spawned three creatives.  My younger brother is a musician and a producer, I'm a visual artist, and my older brother is a visual artist and a writer, so they were kind of forced into recognizing and appreciating creativity.
 
I was getting my BFA in printmaking [at CSU] when we started the business, I was a junior in college, and my father was getting an MBA at DU. He was constantly pitching me ideas and, to be quite frank, I was constantly shooting him down. Then he pitched this idea of having shared studio space. At that time, as a junior, I had such a strong printmaking community, and I was starting to recognize, once I graduate, I might not have this kind of community and these kind of opportunities.
 
We started formulating a business plan and looking into getting small business loans. We started on Mulberry in a home that got converted into a commercial space. There were a lot of variations from what we do now, but it was the same overall concept of a shared space.
 
Being a visual artist, I wanted to have shared studio spaces for predominantly visual artists. We were homeless as a business for about six months looking for the perfect space. At that point, we were looking for leasable spaces not a building to own. But I walked into this building and immediately fell in love. I just remember having this whole vision about how amazing this could be and how perfect it could be for what we wanted to do.


 
CD: What's your mission with the Downtown Artery?
 
AB: Providing a vibrant, accepting, accessible space that celebrates creativity, and invites artists and also people who appreciate the arts. I feel there are a lot of people who don't think about setting foot into a gallery or going to shows, but having a very accessible space where people can come and experience creativity can change that.
 
CD: How has business been since you moved into your current building in 2013?
 
AB: We're not only a startup, we're an art center startup in Fort Collins, a very small city. So there are struggles of course that were to be expected.  We have our eggs in a lot of baskets. Because of that, we've been able to succeed, but, certain aspects, we're struggling a lot.
 
We've had growing pains and we've evolved a lot and I think that's really important to be able to accept change and roll with the punches, and recognize what's working and what's not and evolve from there.
 
CD: What about the Fort Collins Mural Project? How did that come to be and what is it?
 
AB: The Mural Project officially got its 501(c)3 status at the very end of 2015. My co-founder, Lindee Zimmer, is my art director at the Downtown Artery and basically my right-hand woman. We are both extremely passionate about street art: It's so accessible, everybody benefits from it, it just beautifies and increases the vibrancy of a community. It creates a destination and therefore affects the economy, even indirectly.
 
We have to get permission from the owner of the building, then we put a call out for artists and they submit their concepts. Once we receive all the concepts by the deadline, the board votes anonymously. The top three designs then get presented to the building owner, and they make the decision. That's about all that they do, because we do not breach that weird line of the business user using the mural as advertising.
 
We've done three murals so far. We have about 10 buildings so far where we've gotten permission from the building owner. Now we're just waiting for funding. Artists are paid a minimum of $3.50  per square foot, and we pay for their supplies.
 
CD: What's your take on the Downtown Fort Collins Creative District? What are its strengths and needs?
 
AB: I think there are many strengths. One, we're such a close-knit community. It can be frustrating sometimes how few galleries there are, but there are so many music venues, and music is such a strong suit.
 
The same things that can be frustrating but they can also play to our benefit, because we're so close. We support each other -- a lot. And we're working hard to advocate. Everybody I know who's involved in the creative realm is so passionate and so driven, we're oftentimes on the same page, which is kind of rare.
 
The cons are that we're still a really small community and we have a long way to go, but it's kind of exciting. It's exciting how many possibilities there are. I feel people are really starting to recognize the importance of arts.
 
There's still a lot of education that needs to happen when it comes to people recognizing the importance of supporting the arts financially. Costs are skyrocketing, taxes are skyrocketing. But it's also very easy to think it's just happening here. It's not just happening here. It's like an epidemic.