Space to Create Ridgway: Taking the squeeze off creative entrepreneurs

For tiny Rigway, Colorado, population 960, the goal of an affordable housing complex is to keep artists and others living locally.
Colorado’s Space to Create initiative has a singular goal across the state: To develop affording housing for artists and other creatives in rural and mountain communities where strained economies make it difficult for them to flourish.

But each city and town where Space to Create will locate has its own dreams for how the livable spaces can make their municipality more viable in the long term. In Trinidad, where the program’s demonstration project broke ground last month, the hope is that a lively apartment complex will revitalize a struggling downtown. In Paonia, the second site, the plan is to create jobs and to make a stop at local galleries, wineries and organic farms more appealing to tourists.

And in Ridgway, the third location so far, civic leaders are looking to make the town more hospitable for the creatives already there. Lower-cost housing will take the pressure off of painters, writers, beer makers, chefs, musicians and others who are feeling the squeeze of rising property values.

Ridgway's Community Initiatives Facilitator Diedra Silbert is working with Colorado Creative Industries and the nonprofit developer Artspace to bring affordable artist housing to the town. Photo by Daniel Tseng.

“A big part of what we’re doing with the creative sector is trying to help people stay here, to help people find ways to make a living and to improve whatever they are doing so they’re able to produce more or sell more,” said Community Initiatives Facilitator Diedra Silbert, who is coordinating the effort locally.

No doubt, Ridgway, population 960, is in transition. Like a lot of remote municipalities, it was hard hit by the 2008 recession and continues to recover. It has also had to contend with Southwestern Colorado’s larger economic shifts as traditional industries, such as mining, have aged out of existence and tourism and tech has grown, changing the ways people earn a living.

These days, Ridgway is moving ahead in significant ways. The town recently accomplished a major goal of paving its main streets (many were actually unpaved for a century). There is a fresh energy accompanying physical changes, such new public art and whimsical, artist-designed benches in the downtown. The major performing arts venue, the historic — and formerly shuttered — Sherbino theater, just underwent a total renovation, supported by local donations.

And there are new residents. Located in the San Juan Mountain region, with abundant green spaces and wildlife and breathtaking views of the local geography, the town is drawing a new breed of settler, including retirees and professionals who work remotely and can live wherever they choose.

That’s put a squeeze on the housing stock, a problem augmented by the fact that a growing number of tourism industry workers are eyeing Ridgway as place to live; they can’t afford rents and real estate closer to their jobs in popular, nearby destinations, such as Telluride.

“It’s just such a struggle right now for some people to stay in the region because they have to cobble together so many different ways of making a living,” said Patrick O'Leary, a community activist who has been crucial to the Sherbino’s rebirth.

Ridgway recently dressed up its downtown by commissioning artists to create benches. Each one is unique. Photo by Daniel Tseng.

That’s especially true for creatives, he believes, who don’t have steady jobs as a rule, but who contribute greatly to the well-being and soul of communities.

“Artists go where they can afford it — until they can’t afford it anymore,” he said.

That’s where Space to Create comes in.  The program, which will eventually have nine sites, is administered by Colorado Creative Industries, a division of the Office of Economic Development. The effort recognizes that artist are an important part of the economy as small businesses who make and sell goods, pay taxes and create jobs.

As a rule, they tend to be active in the community, and magnets for investment in the areas where they live. Helping them thrive in places like Ridgeway could be beneficial on several levels.

The program has multiple sponsors in state government including the Department of Local Affairs and History Colorado. There are also private backers, such as the Boettcher Foundation, which has provided seed money for research into the quantity and types of housing that places need.  

The developer for all of the projects will be Artspace, the national nonprofit that has overseen numerous artists housing efforts in cities large and small.

But Space to Create is really locally driven. The towns that host the projects do all of the work on the ground, investigating sites, researching zoning, and selling the idea of subsidized housing to citizens who don’t all agree that it is necessary.

That’s one of the reasons Ridgway was selected to participate in a very competitive process. Local leaders, both in government and the cultural community, vowed to step up.

“We sat down with them to make sure they really understood the heavy lifting it takes on the part of the community to make a project work,” said Colorado Creative Industries Executive Director Margaret Hunt.

Integrated Arts

Another reason Ridgway stood out is that it has an unusually active creative community that includes, not just visual artists, but also metal workers, designers, culinary workers and candle makers. The nonprofit Weehawken Creative Arts, which provides classes and other art opportunities to Ridgway, Ouray and Montrose, headquarters in Ridgway because that where’re the demand for its services is the strongest.

Ashley King runs Weehawken Creative Arts, which brings art opportunities to local residents and coordinates programming for the Sherbino theater. Photo by Daniel Tseng.

And there are offbeat and unexpected creative businesses. Interestingly, the Grammy Awards statues are all made there by Billings Artworks.  Downtown, there is a shop, called Panji Bags, that makes cases for the drum-like, musical instruments called handpans. The ecologically-forward cases are made from cardboard boxes, egg crates, office paper and pizza boxes collected right in the community. They are shipped around the world.

Owner Hanna Pernefeidt said Ridgway’s welcoming attitude toward small, art-related business was the reason it moved last year into an old building located in a district so historically preserved that the 1968, Western movie True Grit was filmed there.

The town has been so supportive,” said Pernefeidt. “We really do put an effort into sourcing materials locally, hiring locals for certain tasks, and we want to support the local economy.”

And at the center of the arts scene is the Sherbino, operated by the nonprofit Ridgway Chautauqua Society, now enlarged to an arts complex — and a lively space for music, theater, movies and more. Locals pack the place for the weekly Open Bard poetry nights that feature, in the first half, readings from a visiting poet, and in the second half, an open mike for people who want to share their own work. Things can get personal, intimate, revealing; poetry is one way people in Ridgway authentically communicate with one another. That’s not something you can say about many towns.

The plan

Ridgway is still in the process of figuring out how Space to Create will look, how large it will be and where it will be located. So far, two feasibility studies have looked at needs, opportunities and potential locations. An empty lot on the corner of Clinton and Laura streets downtown, recently purchased by the town, is by far the leading candidate.

The studies cover a lot of ground, and some of the ideas might be controversial. Surveys of residents in Ridgway and surrounding towns suggest the project could support as many as 30 live/work spaces — a combination of studios and apartments. The rents would be below-market rate so that creatives could afford them.

The project could bring a slew of amenities to Rigway: Galleriess, a flexible performance venue, community gathering places.

Patrick O'Leary, who was instrumental in bringing back the Sherbino theater, says "Artists go where they can afford it — until they can't afford it anymore.

And thinking bigger: a maker space, where creatives could share pricey, art-making equipment like 3-D printers and kilns; a commercial kitchen that could incubate new businesses and serve as a classroom; a housing set-up for artists-in-residence working with the Sherbino and Weehawkin, who could import fresh ideas into the community. The studies paint an optimistic picture that has Rdgway seizing the moment.

Fitting all that into one complex though, could mean putting up a three-story structure. That would make it the tallest building in the town. If the proposal moves forward, and likely it will, there will be a lively debate over what that means for the future of Ridgway, Not everyone wants it to change, though nearly everyone understands the need for more roofs in the region.

“I think the need for affordable housing will eventually assuage people's concerns. At least I hope it does,” said Silbert. Though, she acknowledges “I don't know.”

But momentum continues to build for the effort in Ridgway. Space to Create is happening, even if the details need to be worked out. This is a town that has long supported its creative side and residents say they recognize that Space to Create offers a chance to keep Ridgway moving forward.

“Where artists live communities thrive,” said O’Leary. “And that's what this is all about.”

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