Change is afoot at the Mancos Opera House.
In southwestern Colorado, the Mancos Creative District aims to reinvent its small town's economy by balancing regional traditions with outside-of-the-box thinking.
Bookended by Mesa Verde and the La Plata Mountains and surrounded by rangeland, Mancos is a gem in plain sight. "Magical" is a term that gets thrown about a lot here.
Two blocks south of U.S. 160, the compact downtown of century-old storefronts includes the stately Mancos Opera House and, across Grand Avenue, the divey Columbine Bar, each dating to 1910. A block south is the Mancos River from which the town takes its name; Mancos, meaning "one-armed" in Spanish, is said to have earned its moniker when an early explorer hurt his hand while crossing it.
It's a definitively Western place, with horseshoes embedded in the sidewalks and a long history of farming and ranching. Cattle drives come right through town twice a year, and it's not unheard of for a cowpoke to ride a horse into the Columbine.
But an ongoing, slow-moving, and organic transformation is underway in this town of about 1,500, as the cowboy culture melds with and gives way to that of the artists who have increasingly moved here from Durango and elsewhere. It's no surprise that Colorado Creative Industries (CCI) officially certified the Mancos Creative District in 2016.
As of the 2018 spring equinox, there's a sense of old and new in downtown Mancos, with a yoga studio, galleries and a wine bar in historic buildings, and the new Fenceline craft cidery in a former cabinet shop just across the river. A block west, a grant-funded makerspace is in the works at Alpacka Raft's headquarters.
North via footbridge, an old gas station has been repurposed as Fahrenheit Coffee Roasters. Across the street, the Mancos Inn & Hostel has been welcoming guests since the late 1800s; the nonprofit Painted Turtle Studio and Gallery now inhabits the ground floor.
Timeworn institutions are being revitalized: The local Mount Lookout Grange, once all but abandoned, has a growing and increasingly youthful membership. The Mancos Common Press is restoring a hulking 1890s letterpress that was long mothballed by the now-defunct Mancos Times. The opera house has new owners looking to return it to its former glory as a performance venue.
Then there's "the hole in town" at 115-119 W. Grand Ave., a big chunk of a block that burned down in a 2003 fire and has sat vacant ever since. It was recently on the market for $170,000, but the listing was withdrawn before the property sold.
A 2014 CU Denver study envisioned a pocket park with outdoor seating, a path running down to the river and public art instead of new development. Other locals see it as a good spot for live/work housing for artists, or a boutique hotel.
On the east side of "the hole" is the historic building that houses Absolute Bakery & Cafe and the Artisans of Mancos cooperative. Just across the street from that is another, much larger undeveloped riverside parcel that could accommodate overflow and bus parking on either side of a performance park.
A vision is coming together, but there's also an urgency among local economic developers: In May 2017, another fire destroyed the plant of the town's largest private employer, wood-product manufacturer Western Excelsior.
With the CCI certification in hand, the creative district might provide a new tentpole. "The mission is to develop the economic vitality of the town through the arts," says Sarah Syverson, co-director of the Mancos Creative District.
Sarah Syverson is co-director of the Mancos Creative District.
"It's a bedroom community," she adds. "I always call it Durango's little kid sister -- or Durango's more affordable little kid sister. . . . Here you can buy a house."
Also co-producer of local storytelling series The Raven Narratives, Syverson focuses on marketing, while her co-director, Carol Mehesy, is a grant-writing guru.
There's a built-in customer base. "We get a huge amount of tourists who go to Mesa Verde and drive right by," says Syverson. The Mancos Creative District offered a lure to hang a right and explore the town.
So Syverson invested in a radio ad campaign with the district's tagline, "Mancos: At the Intersection of Art and Adventure," and started leveraging social media to promote local activities and events.
It's starting to pay off. "There's this buzz about Mancos," she says.
Authenticity is a big part of that buzz, but Syverson says so is the flexibility to think outside of the box. That means "appreciating the heritage of the community but being innovative with it," she notes. "That's what makes the difference: young and old working together. Both of these things can coexist."
The long haul
Betsy Harrison, former president of the Mancos Valley Chamber of Commerce and current point person for the Mancos Common Press, was one of the local retirees who helped lead the charge for the Mancos Creative District. "It's come a long way," she says. "Everything before the creative district was really volunteer."
For example, the murals on fencing between the sidewalk and "the hole" were one of Mancos' first creative placemaking initiatives, says Harrison. "It was paint by numbers."
The town's size is a plus for such efforts, she adds. "We're small enough we all know one another. People really pitch in. It's a group effort."
Regardless, Harrison says the district's certification was a major step forward. "Being certified brings a certain level of professionalism, training and funding. Now the creative district has at least part-time administrators."
The Mancos River flows by Absolute Bakery & Cafe.
Harrison highlights a challenge for Mancos' economic development. "The hardest thing for us right now is we're a small community and we'd like to get more diversity in terms of businesses," she says. "But if it's a retail business, there's not enough people to support it."
But creative businesses casting a wider geographic net are a great fit. Take T.J. Zark. She moved her marketing and advertising agency, HelloZark Studio, from Silicon Valley to a century-old building in Mancos in 2014.
Zark and her partner had owned a second home in town for several years before that. "The vacations got longer and longer and longer," says Zark. "You have a hard time [in Silicon Valley] connecting with nature and connecting with community."
In Mancos, it's almost the polar opposite. "We picked Durango over Mancos because everything you do here matters," says Zark. "If you buy groceries, it matters. If you pump gas, it matters."
Her business had thrived since the move. HelloZark landed one of its biggest accounts ever, Monetary, a data-centric point-of-sale startup in Durango, and other unexpected local clients. Zark also designed the Mancos Creative District's cowgirl logo, featured on stickers and signage plastered all over town.
HelloZark designed the Mancos Creative District's cowgirl logo.
"Colorado is the most fascinating state I've lived in, in terms of supporting communities," says Zark, giving CCI's creative district program especially high marks. "I've never seen another state invest in such an abstract concept for economic development." But abstract doesn't mean ineffective: "It's absolutely fostering the growth of businesses here."
She sees the potential to take a similar strategy to the rest of Montezuma County, places like Dolores, Yellow Jacket and Cortez. "This county is rural and poor, but there are so many artists here," says Zark. "Art is a way of tying this Colorado outback together."
It's also a way to remake Mancos for a new generation, she says. "While I think there's going to be room for young artists here, it is the 30- to 50-year-olds that our doing the heavy lifting to make it happen. They have money."
She adds, "There's a specialness to living here, but it doesn't come without really having to stretch. We're still carving it out of the wilderness."
Local galleries have been a big part of that push: Veryl Goodnight Gallery, Kilgore American Indian Art and Artisans of Mancos occupy the heart of downtown, and more are springing up in other areas.
Bronze sculptor Veryl Goodnight opened her eponymous gallery on Grand Avenue in 2017.
A massage therapist by day, Sarah Allen started the community-run Painted Turtle Studio & Gallery in 2010, moved it to the first floors of the Mancos Inn & Hostel in 2013 and bought the building three years later with her wife and business partner, Amy Brand.
They've since invested plenty of time and money fixing up the historic lodging, as the Painted Turtle offers a regular schedule of art workshops and activities. Allen also owns Elouisa, a 1957 Chevy school bus that's been converted into an overnight rental with a kitchenette and bath that's popular among visitors to Mesa Verde.
Allen is characteristic of what Syverson calls Mancos' "get 'er done” mentality. As Brand puts it, "Sarah, she is amazing. She gives back to this community tenfold."
A real Western town
Before becoming a blacksmith in the mid-1990s, Steve Williams worked in construction and as a cowboy. He took a three-week course with Frank Turley in Santa Fe in 1995. "The first day in his blacksmithing shop, I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life," says Williams. "Something clicked."
He apprenticed with a pair of local smiths, opened his own shop just east of Mancos and now teaches blacksmithing classes as Cowboy Forge.
Steve Williams works in his shop.
In 2015, Williams was involved in the launch of the Mancos School of the West. Inspired by the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, the School of the West offers workshops on subjects ranging from fly-tying to mosaics. He sees it as a great partner for the Mancos Creative District.
Williams was also one of the founding members of the Artisans of Mancos cooperative in 2003. Downtown was pretty sleepy in those days. "It has changed a bunch," he says. "There really wasn't a whole lot going on."
The slowdown coincided with Walmart arriving in Durango and Cortez in the 1990s. Williams sets the stage: "Thirty years ago I was in Mancos, and we had a hat shop, we had a saddlemaker, we had a wagon-maker. It was a real Western town. They got to the point where they couldn't make a living. Old age caught up with them."
That era ended several years before Artisans of Mancos opened, when the slow pivot to a creativity-fired economy began. "It's taken us 16 years to get here from where we started," says Williams. "It's not growing too fast, but it's growing. We're building a foundation that's going to sustain a little bit better than if it happened overnight."
As of 2018, the page has turned, and the new mix of locals is proving a catalyst for local businesses. "You've got the cowboys, you've got the farmers, you've got the New Age people -- but they all work together," says Williams. "It's kind of interesting to see. Everybody melds together and works together."
The view from inside Artisans of Mancos.
But that cowboy legacy remains integral. Patty Russell, a jewelry maker and cattle rancher, has one boot in each of Mancos' dominant cultures. She moved to a 170-acre ranch outside Mancos with her husband in 2006, and has served on the boards of the chamber, creative district and historical society in the years since.
Come spring, Russell splits her time between calving heifers and selling her Born to Bead Wild Jewelry at Artisans of Mancos. She credits former Town Administrator Andrea Phillips as "the driving force" behind the legitimization of creative industries in Mancos.
From a table at the Absolute Bakery & Cafe, Russell motions to a large undeveloped parcel on the other side of Main Street. It's a critical location, and has mostly been used for heavy equipment storage and auxiliary parking in recent years.
"That lot is the keystone of this town, and it's for sale," says Russell. "We lease it for $1 a year for overflow parking. My idea is sloping lawns down to the river and a gazebo." A central performance park, she notes, would leave plenty of room for a pair of permanent parking lots on either side, critical in order to attract the tour buses that frequent Mesa Verde.
Russell says Syverson's marketing efforts are reaping rewards, but she's wary of too much growth. "People are coming in and saying, 'I've heard so much about Mancos,'" says Russell. "That's great. On the other hand, whoa!"
But she's also quick to note that most newcomers get along with the old timers just fine. "We have so many people coming into town, and they get it," she says. "Once people see success, they want to hitch their wagon to a star, and I think that's what's happening here."
Reasonable housing costs, a small-town vibe, and the sense that something is starting to snowball in Mancos is proving a draw for a new generation of creatives.
Kate Nickols is one of the recent transplants. "I teach in Durango full-time and I have this jewelry thing on the side," she says.
Nickols and her fiance, paramedic and firefighter Nate McGrath, moved over the hill from Durango in 2017 when they bought a two-bedroom fixer-upper in Mancos proper for about $200,000. "Durango is pricing everybody out," she says, describing an alley house they considered there. "It was $395,000 for a box."
Kate Nickols' jewelry often features turquoise and silver. Photo courtesy Kate Nickols.
Like Nickols, McGrath is a creative craftsperson, sewing bikepacks as Soly Threadworks, and shares a garage studio with her at their new home. The certification of the Mancos Creative District "is definitely something that brought us," she says. Phil's World, a 60-mile network of mountain biking trails between Mancos and Cortez, was another lure.
"There's a shift happening," says Nickols from a stool at the Columbine Bar, bedecked with cattle brands. There's a parallel challenge: "We want to keep it like it is. Look at this bar -- look at these brands! . . . I don't want to change Mancos, but we want to see it grow. That's a tall order."
She says she's interested in getting more involved with the community and perhaps finding a teaching job in town, but she's got an eye on growing her jewelry into her main gig and maybe opening a brick-and-mortar business with McGrath. "We want to potentially build a hardware store and bike shop," says Nickols. "What really excited us about Mancos is opportunity."
There's a similar influx of new blood into local agriculture. Sam Perry, co-founder of Outlier Cellars, the parent of the aforementioned Fenceline Cider, moved to the Mancos Valley after graduating from college in 2006.
Perry learned about grafting from college friend Kanin Routson, a geneticist who's a bit of a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, then planted an apple orchard on a ranch that cost him roughly the same as a townhouse would have in Durango. "I loved irrigation, I loved cattle and land was affordable down here," he says.
For the last decade, Perry has been grafting and growing heirloom apples on his spread south of town. His orchard now features more than 100 varieties.
There's a legacy of apple orchards in the valley, but the fruit has largely gone to waste for decades. "There are literally hundreds of thousands of pounds of apples that rot on the ground here every year," says Perry.
He and co-founder Neal Wight hopes to reverse the trend, and Fenceline's early returns are good: The opening of Fenceline's tasting room in early 2018 attracted an overflow crowd.
The interplay between generations extends to the galleries on Grand Avenue. Chandler Bruce, 28, moved to Mancos from Durango to help with his family's gallery, Kilgore American Indian Art, in 2017. He brought some tech savvy to the business, utilizing drone photography and social media to promote "the lifestyle of the Southwest," he says.
That's indicative of a broader trend in the Mancos Creative District. "They're starting to harness this untapped potential this unique town has," says Bruce.
It largely comes back to Mancos' reasonable cost of living. Younger creatives in Durango have to work two or three jobs to keep up with their bills. "We'd call it the Durango shuffle," says Bruce. "Out here, it's doable."
Steve Williams of Cowboy Forge.
Photography by Jerry McBride 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.