Photo by Mel Aman.
On the Arkansas River in southern Colorado, Pueblo's innovative and imaginative blueprint for a creative economy is reaping early rewards.What does change in a city feel like -- in the early stages, when the potential is still mostly latent but coming into bloom?
That's the question of the moment in Pueblo, a former steel-mill town 110 miles south of Denver where the past is on constant display: Remnants of a mostly gone industry dot the downtown landscape like large-scale salvage art -- the foundations and rusty spires of old blast furnaces from abandoned plants.
But this city of 108,000 displays signs of new life, too. The Robert Rawlings Public Library, designed by Antoine Predock of Albuquerque, is an architectural marvel and a community pillar. The vibrant Riverwalk on the Arkansas River, with bike and walking paths, lots of green space and an amphitheater, has spawned a lively shopping and entertainment district on Union Avenue. On Santa Fe Avenue, the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center, built in 1972, is programmed with exhibits, performances and classes year-round.
Increasingly, the presence of creative forces -- and the fruits of a growing community of connected artists, musicians, designers, performers and entrepreneurs who live, work and create in Pueblo -- is impossible to ignore.
In 2014, the Pueblo Creative Corridor -- which runs contiguously along Union Avenue, Main Street and into the Mesa Junction neighborhood -- was designated a Colorado Certified Creative District, placing it among the second round of municipalities to be so named by Colorado Creative Industries (CCI). It's a happening place. On Central Plaza, huge cement Tiki heads double as plant holders. Stencil arts pop up on utility boxes, street medians. The Pueblo ARTery Alleyway Walking Tour, a trail of street art and murals, snakes through the city center, displaying works both whimsical and grand.
Like the other creative districts in the state, Pueblo is seen as a place where arts, culture and creative businesses provide intangible benefits like civic pride, a sense of place and a unique cultural identity. They also provide jobs and a meaningful boost to the local economy, which Pueblo needs. A full 30 creative businesses opened in the district the first full year following certification.
Folklorico connects Pueblo to its cultural heritage. Photo by Susan Fries.
"Traditionally and historically, the Pueblo economy was based on one manufacturer, the steel mill," says Susan Fries, executive director of the Pueblo Arts Alliance, a nonprofit organization that connects members to the city, local business and each other. "It's always a struggle to find the transition to something new in the economy. You have to find the right balance -- something that keeps our young adults invested. The creative industries have been identified as that tool. They're much more diversified, they're interesting and they're sexy."
Fries works with the City of Pueblo and the local urban renewal authority to keep the arts at the center of conversations about development and investment. Since the Alliance was formed 11 years ago, it's been an easy sell.
"The business community, those folks are on board," she says.
CCI certification helped stabilize finances and generate "community buy-in," Fries adds.
She says that earnings from creative industry businesses grew by more than a $8 million between 2012 and 2014, to more than $52 million. In 2014, the sector represented 2,574 jobs. "Our organization is always at the table. We're never an afterthought, because we can show that the creative industries increase both jobs and population in this area."
Pueblo has a lot of things that creative types like. Its neighborhoods bear distinct cultural markings, many of which have been in place since waves of Italian and Eastern European immigrants made their way west for factory jobs in the early 1900s. The Latino influence is strong, (and so is the inventory of tasty taquerias and green chile joints). There are beautiful historic buildings and a quaint downtown, with a main street, a train depot, lampposts, architecturally interesting storefronts. Rarest of all in a rapidly expensive regional housing market, there are affordable places to live. Kiplinger recently named Pueblo the second most inexpensive city in the United States.
In 2015, after years of planning, fundraising and searching for the right location and deal, the Pueblo Arts Alliance opened Arts Alliance Studios, with working, gallery and retail space on Grand Avenue. Its 17 studios are all designed to be affordable, with common areas for collaboration. Fries' vision, which was informed by a needs assessment conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, was to attract both makers and buyers of art.
"One of the concerns of the Creative Districts is to consciously provide affordable space, in order to retain people who will work and remain active in the district," she says. "We've been working on this project for six years, knowing that we needed an anchor for creatives. No one in Pueblo is able to fill a building like this. We've had realtors knock at our door, asking, 'What's your magic formula?' It's years of hard work, having a great network, and understanding what the community needs."
Arts Alliance Studios has emerged as a hub for Pueblo's arts community. Photo by Mel Aman.
The Creative Districts certification was a key to opening Arts Alliance Studios, Fries adds. "We used the technical support for the planning of this building," she explains.
The building is now 95 percent occupied by 40 working artists and has become the hub of an arts scene that can be felt across the city, especially downtown. Every First Friday, when the Creative Corridor becomes an open air art festival, the building is abuzz with open studio shows, performances and live artmaking.
"The kind of actual material changes that the Alliance and Susan [Fries] have made, like finding studio space, have been been huge in centering the art community," says Anne Scott, a, Pueblo native and a multimedia artist who works out of one of the facility's studios. "It's given me different thoughts on collaboration and how to work with different people. I've had the chance to collaborate with a screenprinter, people who work with leather. I've found people I would never have known existed."
As hoped, the arts scene in Pueblo is attracting new people -- like Cristine Boyd, a well-known ceramic artist who moved from Denver in 2016 and now operates a studio and gallery in the Alliance building, drawn by the inexpensive rent and overall ease of life in Pueblo. The husband-and-wife team behind Formulary 55, a small-batch organic bath and body line, moved their base from Seattle to Pueblo in 2014.
Ripe for opportunities
Daniel Levinson was born in Durango and lived in Denver and New York before moving to Pueblo in late 2015. In Denver, Levinson was involved with the nascent gallery scene in RiNo, including the Wazee Union collective on upper Larimer Street. In New York, he lived in Brooklyn and earned a MFA from Pratt Institute. He and his wife moved back to be closer to his wife's ailing parent; they're staying for the high quality of life and opportunities in the cultural scene.
"It's sort of the classic big fish, little pond scenario," says Levinson, a painter and visual artist who serves as the part-time associate director of the Pueblo Arts Alliance. "I feel like my ability to have a presence and an influence is so much greater in Pueblo than it was in New York, or even Denver. Pueblo is ripe for opportunities. There's not as much bureaucracy or barriers. Here, I can talk to members of city council by walking right into their office. From a creative point of view, that's exciting, because it makes it possible to do all sorts of projects."
Pueblo artist Daniel Levinson sees Pueblo as a place where artists have a voice.
Locals say there's more to do and more to be a part of in Pueblo these days -- and more of a sense of ownership. Street murals are less likely to be tagged or messed with. Art is showing up all over the place, not just in galleries or museums, but on the walls of cafes, restaurants and city buildings.
"Maybe it's because I'm now an adult, but it feels like Pueblo is standing up for itself a little more, starting to want to get rid of the stigma that it has had in the past, that it's not worth anything," says Anne Scott. "I see Pueblo finding its voice, and people here wanting to take some pride in it. At least, that's the kind of community that I've seen here in the arts.
"The right group of people are here having effects on each other," she adds. "It's been interesting to see over the past few years how people are learning how to be neighbors with art, and how it's getting them to start thinking and talking about about how we address some of our problems in our city. The arts are helping to bring happiness and interest to the community."
Many old redbricks in the Pueblo Creative Corridor are seeing new life. Photo by Mel Aman.
Photos by Mel Aman and Susan Fries of the Pueblo Arts Alliance.
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.