Colorado's Creative Districts: A Series of Special Reports

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In 2011, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill that encouraged the formation of "Creative Districts" to help catalyze economic development in communities across Colorado.

By identifying and supporting these hotbeds of artistic and entrepreneurial activity, the reasoning went, the state could make a good thing even better.

Colorado Creative Industries (CCI), the state arts agency and a division of the Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade, manages the program. Certified in 2012, the Salida Creative District and Denver's Art District on Santa Fe were the first such districts, and there are now 18 certified Creative Districts across the state.

Colorado's first 12 Certified Creative Districts.

In partnership with the Boettcher Foundation, CCI provides seed funding and professional expertise to certified districts. The legislature established the Creative District Community Loan Fund in 2014 to increase access to capital. CCI also annually awards previously certified districts competitive grants of up to $10,000. "Our role is to find every pool of funding available," says CCI Director Margaret Hunt.

The next application period for certification opens in late March and will close in April. The process now takes two years, and applicants won't be considered again until 2018.

No two Colorado Creative Districts are alike. It follows, says Hunt, criteria for certification is not set in stone. "We're constantly changing the program," she says. As of 2016, CCI is "raising the standards for certification," she adds.

The million-dollar question is aptly about money. "Do they have a real budget?" Hunt asks. "Where does the funding come from and is it sustainable? There's an advantage if they have a business improvement district, or a general improvement district, or a membership, or a line item in a city budget. It can be any of those things. We don't tell them what structure they have to have, but we really look at sustainability."

Paid staff is a new certification requirement. "Most of them started out as volunteer-run organizations, and as with all volunteer-run organizations, you have incredible turnover," explains Hunt. "That's part of the sustainability question."

Hunt says there's also less tangible qualifications, or "the 'it' factor, which is hard to define."

She's quick to note that the dynamics are constantly changing -- as are the state's Creative Districts.

"RiNo, when they first applied for certification, we just didn't see it," she says of the increasingly vibrant district, certified in 2014. "It was a huge footprint. We said, 'It's just too big.' You can see how far they've come."

Live-work communities
A drone shot from Greeley's Guinness Chalk a lot event.

"One of the challenges with Creative Districts we're discovering is artists move into a neighborhood because it's affordable," says Hunt. "Then it becomes hip and cool, and then property values go up and they're forced out."

It follows that catalyzing affordable housing and preventing "over-gentrification" are key tenets of the Certified Creative Districts program. CCI's Space to Create initiative likewise seeks to alleviate the state's ongoing housing crunch; a demonstration project is in the works on a city block in downtown Trinidad.

Hunt sees the project casting a wide geographic net. "If you look at where Trinidad is situated, close to Taos and Santa Fe, it's going to draw artists from a region," she says.

Hunt says CCI largely serves as a connector and facilitator for artists and housing developers. "Our role is to find every pool of funding available, locally, statewide and nationally, that could be put into a project," adds Hunt, citing low-income and historic-preservation tax credits, CHFA funding and Energy Impact funding from the state. "Philanthropy is coming at the end to fill the gaps."

She cites Loveland's ArtSpace campus, with 30 housing units occupied by artists and creatives and a waiting list of 165, as a sign of the demand.

A big impact
A gallery on Santa Fe.

At 5 percent, annual job growth in Creative Districts has easily outpaced the state average of 2 percent in recent years.

The first two districts almost need no introduction, but officials from both Salida and the Art District on Santa Fe say their 2012 induction as Certified Creative Districts gave them an immediate boost.

"Achieving Creative District certification can be a tremendous financial kickstarter," says Amy Phare, president of Denver's Art District on Santa Fe. "You get a significant grant the first year and it eventually discontinues. It encourages communities to be self-sufficient."

It's the old sum is greater than its parts story, or a high tide lifting all boats, she adds. Critical mass is a key to sustainability.

"When you get shared interest in the same region, it provides the opportunity for business to flourish," Phare says. "There's definitely something larger there."

Michael Varnum is program manager for the Salida Creative District and director at the SteamPlant Event Center. He calls the district a creative and entrepreneurial ecosystem. "It's not just about the art, it's about the creatives," he says, citing J2 Softwear (a clothing manufacturer) and Wood's High Mountain Distillery.

Wood's Distillery in Salida.

And Salida always needs help getting the word out, he adds. "Tourism supports all of us."

In this context, certification was a big deal. "It was instant credibility on the Front Range," says Varnum. "CCI's been great and the resources they have are great. Their professional network has been very helpful."

It's hard to dispute its success. "Since the Creative District was established, sales taxes have been up every month," Varnum notes. Likewise, lodging taxes are up and historic downtown Salida -- the heart of the district -- is enjoying 90 percent occupancy of its commercial real estate, he adds, and new residential and retail development is underway.

A snowball effect has since brought more creatives and artists to town, and the cost of living has risen with the boom. The price of real estate was "the real reason people came here in the '70s," says Varnum. "It was affordable. They came up from Santa Fe and Taos. It isn't as affordable now." He's hopeful the Salida Creative District can leverage Space to Create to catalyze development of live-work spaces in the district.

Districts rising
A Pueblo laposada dancer.

A mile-wide swath of downtown, the Pueblo Creative Corridor was certified in 2014. Executive Director Susan Fries says certification stabilized finances and generated "community buy-in." More than 30 new businesses opened in the district in the first year after certification.

That's especially crucial in Pueblo, a.k.a. The Steel City. "Pueblo's economy has been based on steel manufacturing," says Fries, who also serves as executive director of the Pueblo Arts Alliance. "It's so volatile. There's a big need in our community to change our economic base."

She sees creative industries as a big part of the solution. "We see an impact with an industry that needs to grow and is really diverse."

The organization is now based in an 1891 building in the district it bought and renovated into Arts Alliance Studios in 2015. It now features a gallery and studio and manufacturing space on ground level, and 12 studios on the second floor. (All but one are currently occupied.) Fries is now looking for a craft brewery as a tenant for an adjacent garage space that came with the main building. 

Fries says Arts Alliance Studios is a direct result of the Colorado Certified Creative Districts program. "We used the technical support for the planning of this building," adds Fries.

Noting that $100,000 for the $500,000 purchase also came from the Creative District Community Loan Fund, she adds, "We would not have been able to do this building project without access to the state loan fund."

In Lakewood, getting certified served as "a supercharger for our momentum," says Bill Marino, executive director of 40 West Arts, also certified in 2014.
“Hear the Train a Hummin” mural by Bobby MaGee Lopex.

Marino uses the same word as Varnum to describe the impact of certification: credibility. "It gave us credibility with our community that we were really doing something right," he explains.

"It was a wonderful differentiator as we go out for grants or funding. It's definitely a feather in our cap. It demonstrates to funding agents that we can execute."

Accordingly, the budget of 40 West Arts has grown from about $60,000 in 2012 to more than $200,000 in recent years.

And that's helping key a comeback on West Colfax Avenue, the erstwhile U.S. 40, that's at the heart of the district. "Our particular stretch of Colfax has its own unique story," says Marino, noting that westbound travelers unavoidably cruised the strip. "It was the gateway to the Rockies."

But I-70 offered a speedier route to the high country, and West Colfax hit hard times when the interstate was completed through Lakewood in the 1960s. In the last five years, the trend has reversed, and creative industries have helped spur the revival. "There's been a clear renaissance," says Marino. "West Colfax is back."

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.

Margaret Hunt, Colorado Creative Industries
Margaret Hunt, Colorado Creative Industries
Margaret Hunt is director of Colorado Creative Industries, the state agency that oversees the Colorado Creative Districts program.

Confluence Denver: What's the history of Colorado Creative Districts?

Margaret Hunt: The program started in 2012 and two districts were immediately certified that first year. They were the Art District on Santa Fe Drive in Denver and Salida. The interesting thing about those two is that over 80 percent of the property within those districts is owned by artists and creatives.

That's not only history, but the future vision. We want to see deep roots put into these neighborhoods.

CD: What do you look for in districts who have applied for certification?

MH: We think it's really important that we see evidence that the district is recognized and supported by local government. It really is an economic development strategy. You've got to have a really interesting mix of people at the table who understand that.

If economic development isn't at the table, something is missing. Your local housing authority should be at the table, development folks should be at the table, transportation should be at the table. Somebody from the local elected government should be on the board. We really look at the board structure.

CD: What are the benefits of certification?

MH: They receive some funding from us and our partner, the Boettcher Foundation, which we administer on their behalf. They get a leadership award. They get CDOT signs at the two gateways to the districts, and they get invited to all sorts of professional development and technical assistance training. We convene them once or twice a year.

CD: What's the program's focus moving forward?

MH: We're going to focus more now on helping certified districts with very specific tools for real estate and property development, and then less time with communities trying to be a community district.

We're going to put everything we've developed so far in the last three years into an online toolkit, Call Yourself Creative. It'll become a learning environment for any neighborhood or community that wants to go down this path.

CD: What's an emerging creative neighborhood in Denver you've been watching?

MH: Keep your eye on Sun Valley. I just took a tour of it last week with the Denver Housing Authority. They're doing land swaps with the Broncos folks and it will become this whole makers movement type of area.

CD: How about beyond city limits?

MH: Breckenridge. Breckenridge is not in the program now, we turned them down, but they've got six staff and a multi-million-dollar budget. They've created the district by moving historic buildings downtown.

Mancos is another interesting one. Their unique authentic story is: "Where the west still lives." They've got Nathaniel's, the hat maker. People come from all over the world to get custom hats made. They've got the Mancos Common Press, with the original Cranston press that was left in the building.