Special Report: In Grand Lake, building year-round momentum powered by creatives

Grand Lake wants to build on its tradition of supporting creatives by providing them with economic opportunities and - if things go as planned - affordable housing. Can the town keep its warm weather spirit going over the long winter?

Folks in Grand Lake like to joke that their town is a gateway to paradise in the summer.

But in the winter it’s a dead end.

That frank assessment is due to its very unique position on the world map. Grand Lake is perched on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park and provides easy access to Trail Ridge Road, the scenic highway that allows 4.5 million visitors to enjoy the park’s sky-high views of jagged peaks and bighorn sheep each year. Many of those tourists make a stop in the tiny town, where they grab a bite to eat, do a little shopping, or maybe squeeze in a bit of sailing on Grand Lake itself, the region’s visual centerpiece and Colorado’s largest, deepest natural body of water.

In the colder months, though, the snow comes and the road closes leaving the park largely inaccessible. Anyone who travels the curving byways into Grand Lake at that time of year will find the only way out is to turn around and go back — unless they’re driving a snowmobile. And “winters” can be long, from late October to early June.

That can make it difficult for residents who live and do business in the town to make a steady income, especially creatives who rely on visitors to consume their art, music, food, plays and crafts.

Laura Kratz is a painter. She runs Studio 8369. Photo by Daniel Tseng.
To be sure, the town has a grand art tradition, enough that in 2018 it won certification as an official Creative District from Colorado Creative Industries, a division of the state’s Office of Economic Development & International Trade. It was a nod to a century of hard work that has helped make the place a warm-weather destination.

But that has only fueled a local desire to explore ways that might keep the place viable year-round for painters, gallerists, restaurateurs, pastry chefs, brewers, actors, singers and all of the other creative citizens that help to enrich the community and push it forward.

“You know, it is hard to survive here sometimes,” said Laura Kratz, a painter. “And you don’t want a ghost town, a town that dries up and is gone.”

So, now Grand Lake is tackling a new challenge. Shortly after emerging as an official Creative District, it was selected as the fourth location for Colorado’s Space to Create, a program that aims to develop affordable housing for people involved in a broad range of creative efforts. The program is already backing innovative projects in the municipalities of Paonia, Ridgway and Trinidad.

Each of those places has their own needs and opportunities, and that goes for Grand Lake, as well, where creatives are such a part of the local buying and selling that advocates openly refer to Space to Create as “workforce housing.” It’s a notably diverse labor pool, creatively speaking, drawn largely from the town’s 504 full-time residents and those in the surrounding rural area.

One example: Peggy Mann, who works there regularly as a singer, writing her own music and fronting bands that play in the saloons lining Grand Avenue, the main commercial street where an old Western, planked boardwalk, dating back to the 1880s, still serves as the sidewalk.

Another: Ken Fucik, who operates a one-of-a kind boat school that teaches the craft of restoring the sort of vintage, wooden boats that have taken people onto the lake for decades.

Grand Lake's economy is based on summer tourism. Photo by Daniel Tseng
A third: Laura Kratz, who makes her art, and her living, there, taking off on her snowmobile in winter to paint the constantly evolving landscape, and operating the Studio 8369 gallery in the central business district. She supplies art to tourists from “all over the world who want to take a little bit of the mountains with them when they go.”

Additionally, there are scores of part-timers — the actors who come for the summer season of the long-running Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre, which “brings Broadway to the mountains,” or the chefs that arrive to help prepare food in restaurants, like the popular Squeaky B’s. “There's this undercurrent of creativity,” said Kratz. “Those artists that are your waiters and waitresses in some of the restaurants that say, well, you know, in my spare time I take photographs or I make jewelry, that kind of thing.”

Space to Create backers see the housing as a chance to keep those people in town year-round, or to free them up to make more art or to put on public performances in the off-season, maybe at the historic Grand Lake Community House right in the middle of downtown.

A home for the future

The Space to Create initiative is currently in the R&D phase with a survey in progress to determine the scope of the creative community and how affordable housing might best serve the town’s needs. But you don’t have to look hard to see the region’s enduring creative energy and what it adds to the cultural life of Grand Lake.

Graphic: Daniel TsengArtists, like Mann, have labored long and hard to build careers. She can work up to several times a week, combining performances in town with gigs across the region. She’s known for her sincere, country-tinged songs delivered with a pure voice and an upbeat stage persona.   

“Grand Lake is one of those places where everybody comes for vacation and I get to live here full-time,” said Mann, who has recorded her own music on seven albums. “It’s not so hard for me to find work because I've been playing here for a long, long time and I've got a pretty good reputation.”

But she does have to make it happen, marketing her music online and in-person and combining appearances at places like the Community House, which holds a couple hundred people, with intimate house concerts that keep her schedule filled. Within the Creative District, there are events that get people out for the party, including a new Constitution Week barbecue competition and music festival where participants are encouraged to eat, dance and engage in the friendly give-and-take politics that define a purple state. “We have Democrats, Republicans and independents there,” she said.

She sees the new Creative District, which supports an increasing number of local cultural activities, along with the Space to Create effort, as positives steps for the town. They’re motivators, she believes, and they show that the town values its artists as much as its innkeepers, fishing guides and tour operators.

The two programs could also help keep the town more interesting for full-time residents on a day-to-day basis,  other supporters say. Millions might pass through when the weather cooperates, but Grand Lake can be as sleepy as it is cold the rest of the year. Annual snowfall easily passes six feet.

Ken Fucik teaches a timeless craft at the Rocky Mountain Boat School. Photo by Daniel Tseng.
“Summer takes care of itself — we’re overloaded in the summer,” said Fucik. “What we need are people in the winter time.”

Everything slows to a comparative crawl then, even his Rocky Mountain Boat School. In the summer, it’s a busy place, with students and workers restoring boats from the ages. The school lot, located in a field around an old stable on the edge of town, is filled with historic, aquatic specimens: sail boats, big and small, made of cedar and pine, some dating back a century, many in a state of disrepair waiting to be saved with hands-on craftsmanship. “The idea is that we say to someone, ‘hey, buy this boat from us for $300 or $400 dollars and we’ll show you how to restore it,’” said Fucik.

The school is a labor of love more than a profitable enterprise, but it honors a creative tradition that has long helped to defined a special sort of regional pride that’s closely connected to the lake and the abundant nature that surrounds it. “If you want performance, buy a plastic boat, if you want something you can have pride in, get a wood boat,” Fucik likes to say.

The school is pushing that idea forward. Recently, it joined forces with the nearby high school, developing a program where young people can learn the craft, linking them to their own history and giving them access to a pastime that’s gone from a crucial part of area's social scene to a pricey leisure sport for tourists and part-timers who maintain summer homes along the shores.

“The kids up here, most of them don’t get the opportunity to get out on the lake and sail,” Fucik said. “Not only do they learn to build a boat, but they learn to sail it and then they can get into competitive sailing.”

With affordable housing in town, bolstered by Space to Create, he envisions a place where the young actors and singers who have been performing musicals at the Rocky Mountain Rep for the past 50 years hang out instead of heading out in August, and where a teacher at his school might be able settle in and raise a family in an area where most rents are set at resort rates.  

In addition to housing, Space to Create could become a social center, hosting a black box theater, or a gallery, or a shared kiln, and that would spark a whole creative surge in the town. Woodworkers, metal workers, glass blowers and others could come be a part of the community and their energy could raise up the rest of the town, and lead to things like a full resurgence of the Community House.

Grand Lake is Colorado's largest, deepest natural body of water. Photo by Daniel Tseng.
“We want to bring in these talented young people and give them chance to build their resumes — and it helps us,” he said.

A place takes shape

Space to Create, introduced in 2015, is the nation’s first state-sponsored initiative for developing affordable housing for creatives. The program is guided by Colorado Creative Industries and it hopes to establish nine projects across Colorado by 2024. Its partner on the plan is the non-profit development company called Artspace, a pioneer in the field of live/work housing.

Artspace completed a preliminary feasibility plan for a housing project in Grand Lake in April. The 29-page study’s main finding: Possibility.

Through a series of meetings and informal talks, many residents told the developers they would welcome the project and they helped to determine its highest goals. Among them were preserving housing affordability, promoting tourism and creating a sustainable year-round economy.

Focus groups also suggested other uses for the property, including a maker space that could be widely available to the community and a gallery or display space that could host exhibits and performances.

The talks produced a list of six possible sites, including, at the top of the list, Grand Lake Center, a former elementary school owned by the town that now serves as a community center, and the parcel of land that currently holds Putt-Putt Mini-Golf, an aging entertainment attraction right in the center of Grand Avenue.

Graphic: Daniel Tseng
Which of the potential sites is best? That will be determined by the Arts Market Survey now taking place. How many housing units should be included? What rents are appropriate? What broader roles might a live/work space take on? The survey, due in a few months, should provide answers.

In the meantime, all of the parties involved — the developer, state agencies, local government and community leaders — will explore sources of funding. Local municipalities are expected to share costs in Space to Create endeavors, though they can do so in a number of ways, including the contribution of land.  

Space to Create, if it happens, won’t be massive. The feasibility study suggested that 15-20 apartment units might be enough for the town, if it was accompanied by amenities that could serve a wide constituency. But there’s hope that even a small project could lead to grand things.

“What we want to be is an incubator for the arts,” said Fucik. “This is a wonderful place for people to come and create because it is inspirational. We’ve got some unique thing going for us here."

Signup for Email Alerts