In Greeley, Creative Economy Defies Expectations

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A dance mob. Photo courtesy Greeley Creative District.

The burgeoning arts community dispels preconceived notions of the agricultural hub, but local creatives also embrace the city's authentic cowtown heritage.

On the way from Denver to Greeley, a 60-mile drive northeast on U.S. Highway 85, I see my first cow in Platteville, an agricultural enclave with an industrial farm supply. There are about 50 cows, actually, spotted and somewhat listless in the mid-afternoon sun.

"Hi, cows!" I yell, cranking up "Danger Zone" as it comes on Kool Oldies, the strongest radio signal from Denver. The song feels appropriate: I'm a city girl heading into the heart of Weld County, one of the seats of Colorado's ag economy, ready for some rural action: Red barns and windmills, grass, grain and manure. Trump signs.

But that one cluster of cows? That's all I see. By the time I pull into downtown Greeley, past the beautiful, historic University of Northern Colorado (UNC) campus, I've seen murals, an East African market, an artists' co-op, a bookstore, a bunch of metal trees -- and not a single cowboy.

"We don't have feedlots in town," says Becky Safarik, laughing. "People still have that image, but you're not going to see cows walking down the street, unless it's the Fourth of July parade."

Uptown Trees. Photo courtesy Greeley Creative District.
Safarik is the assistant city manager for Greeley, a city of just over 100,000, anchored by the university and a handful of major manufacturers, including Leprino Foods, the second-largest producer of cheese in the United States, and multinational meat producer JBS Swift. A lot of meat and cheese comes out of the area, no question. But so do a lot of musicians. UNC's programs for jazz and classical music are some of the best in the country and have long been a feeder system for Denver's music scene. Of the university 12,500 students, more than 10 percent are enrolled in programs for theater, music and visual arts.

"We're really a performing arts town, that's our niche," Safarik says. "But we're also a barn-raising town; that's part of our cultural heritage. If something needs to be built and someone needs help to build it, people here pitch in. You can see that in our creative culture, too. The arts here aren't a passive event. They're part of life."

Shattering stereotypes

In 2012, the city launched Greeley Unexpected, a marketing campaign to counter the perception, held and perpetuated by urbanites like myself, that Greeley is a sort of permanent stock show. This town is not what you think, was the explicit message: It's hip, growing and affordable -- making it a very good place to be a musician, a painter, an entrepreneur, a maker.

"Young people who grow up here or come to college here are staying here, falling in love with it," says Pam Bricker, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority; she also runs the annual Greeley Blues Jam with her husband, Al. "We have several young entrepreneurs who chose to stay here and open challenging businesses downtown. That just never happened before.

"Now, I can go out to a bar in downtown Greeley, in the middle of the week, even when the university is not in session, and it will be filled with young people. That is a game changer, and it has a lot to do with the creative scene here."

In 2014, the Greeley Creative District was officially certified by Colorado Creative Industries, part of a statewide initiative to catalyze the arts as an economic force. The district (one of 18 across the state) spans three neighborhoods between downtown and UNC and some gorgeous architecture, especially the Weld County Courthouse, built in 1917, as grand and maybe even more beautiful than anything in Denver.

The Greeley Unexpected kickoff lived up to its name. Photo courtesy Greeley Creative District.

Greeley also has some ragged edges, some wear. There are some empty storefronts and peeling paint. It's still weird, and weirdness is that ineffable quality that artists love and can scarcely find these days in spit-shined Denver -- or even Fort Collins, Greeley's slightly bigger brother, 35 miles away.

"Greeley feels to be almost like a teaching space," says Dan Cobble, who is opening a craft coffee operation, Keynote Coffee, in partnership with artist Armando Silva. "It feels fresh, happening. We're on a creative path. When I go to a city like San Francisco and I say, 'Man, I wish we had this stuff in Greeley,' I can come back, and we can start to make it happen here."

Embrace your roots

Colorado Creative Industries initially rejected Greeley's application for Creative District designation; it didn't feel authentic, they said.

"They were very interested in the cultural heritage piece," says Safarik. "They wanted us to celebrate it. At first we were a little shy about doing that, like, 'Oh, we're just a cow town.' We didn't want to reinforce it. But then we realized, we don't need to hide the fact that Weld County is in the top 10 for agricultural production in the country. We're a food basket, and food brings people together."

Photo courtesy Greeley Creative District.

Greeley was developed, in part, by well-to-do, educated people from the East Coast who heeded Horace Mann's call to "go West" in the 1860s. Greeley was an experiment in utopia -- the "Athens of the West" -- where culture was highly valued. Sophisticated settlers built the city's institutions, including the university and the courthouse. They started a newspaper and formed the Greeley Philharmonic, the longest-surviving orchestra in Colorado.

"These educated people came out here and learned how to be farmers," says Bricker. "It's amazing they survived, really."

After some soul-searching, and with $20,000 in funding from CCI, Greeley embraced both its oddity and its agrarian roots. In 2014, it created AgriCulture Fest & Feast, an outdoor arts festival and multi-course community meal prepared by local chefs, using locally grown food. In its first year, AgriCulture Fest & Feast won the Governor's Award for Outstanding Community Tourism Initiative. (This year's Fest & Feast is coming up August 27.)

AgriCulture Fest & Feast. Photo courtesy Greeley Creative District.

Greeley is working to engage culturally underserved segments of its population, which is which is 40 percent Latino, with a growing number of immigrants from Burma, the Sudan and other parts of Africa. Arts organizations can apply for grants to ramp up outreach and increase access to these groups. The night I visited Friday Fest, a series of free concerts that run from May to September, families pulled up lawn chairs, couples danced to a lineup of all-Mexican music.

"They said, 'Why don't you ever book anything that our community wants to come to? So we said, well, why don't you help us with that?" Bricker worked with a Spanish-language radio station to program the concert, which she hopes will be the first of many.

An economic catalyst

Support from CCI has helped Greeley claim the creative industries as a major driver of economic activity. In 2015, they generated almost $164 million in revenue and attracted nearly 730,000 visitors.

"Greeley has three major partners that are just a natural fit -- the city, downtown and the university; we've all worked together to build things up," says Susan Nelson, a visual artist who served as the community arts director at UNC for two decades. "But community organizing kind of ebbs and flows. When the the state took an interest, it provided some context for the work; it really brought it all together."

The Colorado Model Railroad Museum. Photo courtesy the Greeley Creative District.

Some visitors come for traditional fare such as the Greeley Stampede, the UNC Greeley Jazz Festival, and the Colorado Model Railroad Museum. The Greeley Philharmonic, founded in 1911, draws about 10,000 to the Hensel Phelps Theater every season. Others come for the annual Arts Picnic, which showcases works by more than 100 local artisans every July.

But others now come to check out WeldWerks Brewing, named the country's best new brewery by USA Today, and to The Nerd Store, a paradise of fandom downtown. Shows at the Moxi Theater, a 425-seat venue that opened in 2013 in a former dinner theater, bring crowds three to four nights a week.

"Greeley has been a bit of a vacuum, a blank canvas, but I think that's changing," says Ely Corliss, Moxi's owner and the publisher of BandWagon, a music publication. "Things are kind of filling in, and you see the potential for more growth."

Corliss is a Denver native who graduated from UNC in 2011 and stayed in town when the concert promotions business he started in college started to take off. He now gets calls, he says, from bands that want to play a lively, small market.

"I didn't ever once think about uprooting," he says, "because the relationships and connections I was able to make here allowed me to learn the whole business of putting on shows. We've been developing this for a while now, and there's a strong local scene. There's a feeling that we're coming onto the radar; things are starting to click."

Art in Greeley connects people to place and to each other. Uptown Trees, a collection of metal sculptures commissioned from local artists, lines 8th Avenue near the university. Eventually, the trees will lead all the way to downtown to visually link the two areas and, it's hoped, draw students off campus and into the city center.

In Sept. 2015, Greeley's Chalk-A-Lot set a Guinness record for the Largest Continuous Chalk Pavement Art in the world. More than three miles long, it was created by more than 3,500 volunteers. In March, a flash-mob style "Crosswalk Dance" broke out at the large District 6 art show, an exhibition of 900 works by K-12 students.

Art Alley. Photo courtesy Greeley Creative District.
Downtown, Art Alley, a collection of murals by local artists, brings vibrant, visually arresting life to a thoroughfare once considered an eyesore. There are works by first-time muralists and pros of the large form, established artists and up-and-comers. They're all colorful, alive, united by a theme of music, one of the major threads that ties the creative community together.

"There's a really great exchange happening," says artist Susan Nelson, who created a large installation of a dancing couple for Art Alley. "It's the right time, with the right people. The music, the visual arts, it all spills over."

Adds Nelson, "It's a wonderful passing on of energy, of ownership of the arts in Greeley. There are a lot of people in queue, filling it up, to keep it going. It's a wonderful feeling."

Photo courtesy Greeley Creative District.

Photos courtesy Greeley Creative District and City of Greeley.

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.
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Q&A with Armando Silva, Art Man Do
Q&A with Armando Silva, Art Man Do

Armando Silva is everywhere in Greeley. A huge mural of Albert Einstein, painted in just three days, sits colorfully, enigmatically, on 9th Avenue, across from the old library. A video of Armando dancing as he paints, a style that elevates the energy of the process as well as the finished works, is featured on the city's website. And in 2014, he was tapped to curate a series of public artworks in Art Alley, a former dead zone that connects two bustling streets.

Armando was born and raised in Greeley, the son of Mexican immigrants. Though his profile is raising, he's putting roots even deeper into his hometown. He's opening Art Man Do downtown, in partnership with friend Dan Cobble of Keynote Coffee. The space, in a pleasingly cavernous building beneath the Downtown Development Authority, will be many things -- a classroom, Silva's studio, a gallery -- but it's above all a symbol of Silva's embrace of Greeley as an incubator for his life and work.

Confluence Denver: What's going to happen here?

Armando Silva: When I decided to do this, I knew it had to be three things. First, it had to be a place to work. Second, it had to be a place to build more community, to educate. It's important to bring in and host small workshops. We'll have guest speakers and other artists from inside and outside of this community. It will be like a think tank. And third, it will be place for artists to show and share their work, without that kind of high-end gallery feel. Ultimately, I don't really want to be selling from here; I want to be shipping out to bigger markets. But I want others to feel it's their space.

CD: How was it, taking the leap and committing to a space of your own?

AS: Once I started to learn the steps I needed to take, it sort of took away the monster. You have to know: It's easy if you understand it's going to be hard. It does take time, patience. You have to understand it's not going to revolve around you. That's where the education piece comes in. We have really good people here in Greeley, who help strip that down.

CD: You had to do a lot of work to get it ready. What's left to be done?

AS: I'm not going to much more to the space. I want to let it be what it's going to become. I've been peeping down here since 2011. I can't say I know what's going to happen here, once we start cross-pollinating and working.

CD: So, Greeley for life?

AS: Right now, I'm trying to be the person I would want to be around when I was growing up here. And it's pretty awesome to live here. It's friendly, diverse. It's trying to become more inclusive. Some people think it's about being afraid to leave Greeley. I don't think it's that. I think it's about feeding where there is hunger. There is hunger here.