Space to Create Paonia: A small town bets big on creatives

The Western Slope municipality edged out its neighbors to win Colorado's backing for affordable housing for artists and other creatives. Can it build a sustainable economic model for rural areas across the state?

Winning the state’s backing to build affordable housing for creatives is a highly competitive endeavor, pitting one ambitious municipality against the next. A town needs to prove it will take the initiative and run with it, doing the research, raising the money and seeing the project through to completion.

And that’s exactly what gave Paonia the edge.

The Western Slope hamlet is one of the first communities taking part in Colorado’s Space to Create initiative, which will foster below-market rental units for artists, chefs, brewers, writers and others in the creative field.

Statewide, there will be nine projects initiated over the next two years, but Paonia was determined to get in early.

“As soon as they announced the application, we jumped on it,” said Elaine Brett, one of the residents leading the effort.

Susie Kaldis Lowe is board president of the North Fork Valley Creative Coalition and an early supporter of Space to Create.

The North Fork Valley Creative Coalition, a nonprofit that supports the viability of arts across the region, rallied the persuasive powers of its membership to the cause, working for six months behind the scenes, building support from residents, the business community and, eventually, the local government.

“I don’t think I was on the job here for six hours before they were in my office talking about it,” said Town Administrator Ken Knight, who officially took the position on Feb. 1, 2017. He got on board right away.

Paonia submitted its successful bid to the state a few weeks later and learned it had edged out other hopefuls in September (sorry Crested Butte and Carbondale, two very close runners up). The town is now doing feasibility studies to determine how much housing creatives need and where the project should be located.

In truth, Paonia had a compelling argument for Space to Create that reached beyond local enthusiasm. The state — which is overseeing the program through the Office of Economic Development’s Colorado Creative Industries arm — hopes to settle its residential projects where they can have the most impact on their surroundings.

And that was Paonia’s second advantage. The town has faced economic instability due to the decline of the mining industry, which had powered the the region for more than a century. As the major mining operations closed over the past decade, jobs were lost and tax revenue declined. The town isn’t exactly flowing in cash these days and citizens remain unsure of how the area will rebound and reshape itself.

At the same time, Paonia is a unique and desirable place to live, a quaint outpost in the most beautiful part of the state, centered around a small downtown with vibrant, historic storefronts and ringed by forward-thinking, organic farms and wineries making the most of the area’s unusually mild climate.

Paonia's population has grown, but it remains below 1,500 residents.

Instead of the population decline everyone expected when the mines went bust, Paonia actually lured new residents. The town upped its broadband capabilities, opened its doors to creatives and became a destination for people who wanted to escape big-city living in places like Denver, four hours away by car.

Everything is relative, of course, the town still only has fewer than 1,500 residents.

But keeping those creatives around, and attracting others to spark revitalization and create jobs is now a priority. Colorado Creative Industries believed it could assist by putting a Space to Create development there.

“We came to the conclusion that both Carbondale and Crested Butte have the resources to do a project like this without our help,” said Colorado Creative Industries Executive Director Margaret Hunt.

But Paonia needed a boost.  

“In that community a project like this will be transformational,” Hunt said. ”Even though it’s going be more challenging from a financial resources perspective.”

Sophisticated charm

People fall in love with Paonia the minute they pull into town and, culturally speaking, it loves them back. They can eat at one of  downtown restaurants or coffee shops, like the Cirque Cyclery, check out an exhibition at Blue Sage Center for the Arts or enjoy a concert at the Paradise Theatre. They can sip chardonnay in a tasteful tasting room on the edge of town or shop for pottery direct from its maker. There’s lots to do; it’s surprising that way.

In many aspects, the town has emerged as the cultural hub for the entire North Fork Valley, a portion of which was officially  designated a Colorado Creative District in 2016, a move that paved the way for Paonia’s choice as a Space to Create location.

Though, like a lot of small towns, there isn’t a lot of economic might to go around.

Elsewhere Studios has been welcoming artists-in-resdience from across the globe since 2010.

“Nobody is moving here to get rich,” said Susie Kaldis Lowe, who leads the Creative Coalition.  

But there are hiking trails and beautiful views, reasonable real estate prices and fresh, locally grown produce in the summer. Nobody does a farm-to-table dinner better than the folks in Paonia

“That’s what we’re trying to support, a quality of life that feels good and is sustainable,” said Kaldis Lowe.

Still, people need jobs and housing and that’s been a challenge. Space to Create holds the potential to alleviate both concerns.

Paonia is enjoying an uptick in residential redevelopment, but there hasn’t been enough new construction to house recent arrivals, and it can’t really handle those who might come in the future.

“Not only is there a shortage, but prices have gone up, too,” said Board of Trustee member Barry Pennell.

The housing stock that does exist tends to accommodate larger families. There aren’t many options for couples or singles who want to relocate or empty nesters who want to stay after their children are grown.

“People are stuck in houses that are too big for them because there is nowhere to go,” said Knight.

The region has been working hard to bring in tourists, using its open spaces and trendy agriculture as a lure. That’s been good for local business but bad for housing. Many property owners are now renting their places as temporary shelter — AirBnB-style — depleting the availability of roofs for locals even more.

Paonia is taking a progressive approach to its housing shortage, mirroring efforts in bigger cities. It’s fine-tuning zoning rules in a way that welcomes infill housing, smaller structures, so called “mother-in-law” units and even tiny houses. A new co-housing development, with trimmed-down dwellings that are individually owned but on communal lots, sold out quickly.  

Could a Space to Create project, with 20 or 30 affordable units alter the market? It sound like a small number but Paonia is a small town.

That pared-down math applies to the possibilities of Space to Create to prop up the job market, as well.

Viewed as small businesses, painters, cheese makers and distillers struggle. They can find a lot of inspiration in the North Fork Valley, but not a lot of local customers.

“They have to hustle. They have to have an online presence and a social media presence. They have to go to Denver and Aspen and get their faces out there,” said Kaldis Lowe.

But creatives have found a place in Paonia and in multiple forms. Elsewhere Studios, an artist-in-residence program that officially began taking in artists from across the globe in 2010, has given the town a creative reputation well beyond its borders. At the other end of the spectrum is the more recent Edesia Community Kitchen, a maker  space for chefs, which has become the center for a diverse dining scene that reflects a changing population. Local entrepreneurs have used it to establish specialty-cuisine nights — pizza on Wednesdays, Caribbean food on Thursdays and Indian on Sundays.

The activity helped inspire the town to begin envisioning creatives as a force, as a business segment that could drive growth, especially if it is coordinated with the local recreation and farming industries.

The Blue Sage Center for the Arts is a hub for the visual and performing arts in Paonia.

“Artists have been considered a superfluous segment of the population, not really as people who can make a difference in community development,” said Kaldis Lowe. Not lately, though, in Paonia.

What would it take to make that difference? Not so much, really.  

“If we got five to ten new businesses that over the course of the next five years each employ five to ten people, that would grow our economy and it would add to the sales tax base,” said Knight.  

Space to Create wouldn’t guarantee their success, but it would give creatives a leg up as they developed their businesses. It could encourage entrepreneurs to take a chance.

Looking ahead

Paonia has a long way to go in making Space to Create a reality. But there are several influential partners, with considerable resources, assisting in the effort. Three Colorado agencies are backing the plan — the Division of Local Affairs and History Colorado, along with the Office of Economic Development.

The Denver-based Boettcher Foundation has already contributed $250,000 to get the idea going and the lead developer will be Artspace, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit developer that specializes in affordable housing for artists.

A preliminary feasibility study set the groundwork for what comes next, identifying potential sites, sources of funding, and overarching goals. Early estimates called for 25 apartments.

A more formal survey is now in the works that will determine a specific plan of action. For that, organizers are reaching far and wide, connecting with other municipalities in the region to see how Space to Create can serve the entire valley.

Then it’s all about dreaming. What can a Space to Create project bring to the town that it currently lacks? Perhaps it could include a community center, exhibition and performance space, retail opportunities for artists to sell their wares and for tourists to drop into. There could be equipment — printers, computers, studios — that artist could share.

And it could bolster the town’s reputation as a creative destination, attract professionals and young families, push Paonia, officially and securely, into its post-mining age.  

“For a little town, we’ve got an amazing amount of resources and we are learning to leverage those,” said  trustee Pennell. “We understand it’s a process, but we are doing it.”
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