Finding common ground for creatives |

Finding common ground for creatives

Taze Henderson

Looking up and down the dusty streets of Steamboat Springs 23 years ago, local artist Wendy Kowynia witnessed a different kind of scenery than she sees today.

“I know the struggles of artists and galleries,” said Kowynia who has worked in textiles since 1985 and spent most of her time in the 1980s living in Denver searching for a place to call home within the arts scene there. “When we moved here, it was kind of empty.”

Showing the artistic character of Salida, these kayaks are along the wall near Stephen Smalzel’s gallery.
Taze Henderson

However, it wasn’t long until Kowynia “found her people” — a group of artists who moved here to find a limitless source of inspiration.

A creative district is

◗ A geographically contiguous area

◗ Distinguished by physical, artistic, cultural resources that play a vital role in quality of life and livability

◗ Have a concentration of artistic and cultural activity

◗ Be engaged in the promotion, preservation and educational aspects of arts and culture

Benefits of becoming a Colorado Certified District

◗ Eligibility to apply for competitive Colorado Creates grants (up to $10,000)

◗ National and statewide marketing, advertising and social media opportunities

◗ CDOT signs marking Certified Creative Districts on state highways

◗ Technical assistance from professionals for district-specific identified needs

◗ Customized economic impact data from the Creative Vitality Index provided by Westaf

◗ Training webinars by world renowned consultants

◗ Assistance with community asset mapping by ESRI

◗ Access to capital through OEDIT funding and CCI community loan fund

◗ Ability to leverage funding for additional funding and partnerships

◗ Mentoring and coaching from other Colorado Certified Creative Districts

Colorado Creative Industries goals

◗ Increase funding for creatives

◗ Increase exposure to professional development

◗ Promote Colorado as a creative hub

◗ Increase access to arts and education

◗ Increase government support for creatives

Certified districts

◗ 40 West Arts, Lakewood

◗ Corazon de Trinidad

◗ Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe

◗ Denver’s RiNo Art District

◗ Downtown Colorado Springs

◗ Greeley Creative District

◗ North Fork Valley Creative District

◗ Pueblo Creative Corridor

◗ Ridgway Creative District

◗ Salida Creative District

◗ Telluride Arts District

◗ Longmont Creative District

Candidate districts

◗ Aurora Cultural Arts District

◗ Carbondale Creative District

◗ Crested Butte Creative District

◗ Crestone Creative District

◗ Evergreen Creative District

◗ Ft. Collins Creative District

◗ Mancos Creative District

◗ Manitou Springs Creative District

What it takes to become a certified district

◗ Go through the three-phase application process and have community buy-in, description of district characteristics in addition to management and planning with a strategic plan that includes staffing.

◗ Go through a two-year intensive technical assistance program as a candidate.

◗ Must match $5,000 grant from Colorado Creative Industries with non-state funds such as: local business,government or foundations, membership, donations or grants for each of the two years of candidacy (total match of $10,000 from District over two years)

◗ Must attend two Candidate District meetings annually (paid for by CCI).

◗ Complete 30 hours per year of technical assistance with CCI’s Professional Advisory Network of Consultants (paid for by CCI).

◗ Collect value measures including: participation and visitors district characteristics (number of creative jobs and businesses), activities available to visitors, leverage through new partnerships and new sources of funding.

◗ Promote creative district status on all electronic and print media.

◗ Communicate with local elected officials.

“What is it about Steamboat? You tell me what that unique Steamboat thing is that we all love,” said Kowynia, current Steamboat Springs Arts Council vice president. “I can’t put a word to it, but I know it exists. Perhaps it’s our unique story; we’ve got this sense of continuity and depth, and maybe we move a little slower than some towns, but that’s a good thing because whatever it is, we’ve got it.”

Although the town may be known as a ski destination, with its Champagne Powder or as Bike Town USA, with its world class bike trails, there is a piece of Steamboat Springs that often goes unrecognized.

“Arts and culture is part of the fabric of our life,” said Jane Blackstone, Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association economic development director. “Steamboat Springs is defined by what it was 100 years ago still today. There is an authenticity to the western heritage that is evident. That legacy is alive. It’s not on a shelf; it’s alive and it’s an inspiration even in the art that is created here. It usually draws from the place. This place is an inspiration.”

To bring arts and culture to the forefront, the Steamboat Springs Arts Council has started the process of becoming a Colorado Creative District. Engaging all sectors of the community together — tourism, economic development, government advocacy, business, artisans and nonprofits — the designation will bring creatives together through state funding, professional development and community support.

Steamboat Springs was ranked No. 14 on the Arts Vibrancy Index published by Southern Methodist University’s National Center for Arts Research. The index highlights metropolitan areas throughout the U.S. with thriving arts and culture scenes.

This ranking can be attributed to the plethora of galleries and programs that thrive here, such as the Steamboat Springs Center for Visual Arts, Steamboat Art Museum, Yampa River Botanic Gardens, Emerald City Opera, Strings Music Festival, the Free Summer Concert Series, the Steamboat Symphony Orchestra, Steamboat Dance Theater, the Chief Theater, Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School— the oldest in the country— and more.

Steamboat Springs was recently recognized by Smithsonian Magazine as No. 4 on the publication’s list of the “20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2014,” and the ranking acknowledged the cultural essence of Steamboat.

The article read, “Steamboat’s big claim to fame is the dry light snow that creates ‘champagne powder,’ but something else is in the air: music. What other town this size has symphony and chamber orchestras, an opera and a world-class summer festival that brings first chairs from all over the country to perform in a smashing new concert hall at the base of a mountain?”

Despite this national publicity, many in the local arts community still believe Steamboat’s arts scene often goes unrecognized.

“Steamboat has the arts and culture, but it doesn’t have the visibility and organization,” Kowynia said. “We are known as SkiTown USA and BikeTown USA, and everyone who lives here knows and participates in our artistic and cultural heritage, but all this cultural power flies under the radar. It’s just a little bit invisible.”

A wave of change

“We can do so much more together than each of us individually,” MainStreet Steamboat Springs Executive Director Tracy Barnett said. “Many artists here are all on their own, but once they are united under this umbrella (of creative districts), they have more power and a voice to advocate.”

The Colorado Creative District designation is one that communities throughout Colorado have begun to seek. The program was created in 2011 when HB11-1031 was passed by the Colorado legislature and Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the bill into law.

Facilitated by the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, Colorado Creative Industries — formerly the Colorado Council on the Arts — is a creative districting program offering communities grant money in addition to professional assistance in marketing and/or networking, depending on the needs of a specific community. The ultimate goal of the designation is to spark revitalization, boost local economies, increase tourism and attract creatives.

“A lot of creative people talk about sense of place, and one of the things that is really big with CCI is this rise of the ‘creative class‘ — a concept from Richard Florida,” Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association CEO Jim Clark said. “One of the things we learned is that, these days, what employers are really looking for is to attract talent or to go where there is talent. In order to do that though, you need to have things that that talent appeals to.”

An author and an American urban studies theorist, Florida wrote the book “Rise of the Creative Class,” which gives evidence to the growing curiosity of business leaders and city developers who are increasingly recognizing creativity as a desirable and necessary factor of a thriving community.

Beyond artists, the creative sector includes designers, architects, chefs and foodies as well as coffee shops, breweries, music venues, museums, galleries, performing arts programs, historical programs and cultural heritage sites.

“There is a synergy that takes place,” Clark said. “Creatives want to be where other creatives are.”

According to a study commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts, Colorado ranks fifth among all states for concentration of creative occupations, including architects, artists, writers, designers, directors, performers and photographers. Over the next 10 years, creative occupations are expected to grow by 30 to 45 percent in Colorado, far exceeding the projected state average growth rate of 25 percent. In addition, Colorado has 10 of the nation’s top 25 non-metro counties in concentration of creative occupations.

“I think it’s an incredible opportunity to brand the state of Colorado for its creative and cultural assets,” said Margaret Hunt, executive director of Colorado Creative Industries. “Colorado is a magnet for creatives to gather, live, work and contribute to the economy of the state.”

The Colorado Creative District concept

In order to earn the creative district designation, Hunt said candidates must complete a number of requirements that ensure there is community-wide buy-in and commitment.

“The Boettcher Foundation felt strongly about having quality over quantity,” Hunt said. “There was not interest in having 70 communities designated, but rather having quality districts who could be financially sustainable with long-term strategies.”

CCI partners with The Boettcher Foundation to distribute matching grants of up to $25,000 to certified districts.

The road to certification, however, is rigorous and takes time.

Over the course of two years, a review panel will evaluate applications and conduct site visits. That evaluation is based on how potential districts reflect local culture and how they are integrated with community systems such as tourism, transportation and safety is like. There must also be support from local governments.

The two-year “incubator-style” program allows districts to receive $5,000 in state funding and $5,000 from The Boettcher Foundation, granted there is capability to match those funds over time. Professional assistance such as technical training, networking workshops and other specialized training is provided by CCI. At the end of those two years, candidates will have the opportunity to apply for certification and then will be eligible to obtain $10,000 to $20,000 in funding.

“The application process has become more competitive over the years,” Hunt said. “That unique, authentic story has become more important than it was in the beginning.”

In northwest Colorado, there has yet to be a designated district.

“We would love to have Steamboat in the program,” Hunt said. “It seems to be a community with incredible assets. I’m encouraged by the things I’m hearing because it sounds like there is real momentum there from the feedback I’m getting, which is great.”

Currently there are 12 certified creative districts in Colorado and eight designated candidates. Some of the designated districts include Denver, Corazon de Trinidad, downtown Colorado Springs, Greeley, Pueblo, Salida, Telluride and Longmont. Fort Collins and Crested Butte are among the eight candidate districts.

“You can feel a certain vibe in these communities,” Kowynia said. “Arts and culture are front and center; it’s visible and organized.”

Alive with art

Upon arrival in Salida — one of the first towns to be certified as a Colorado Creative District— the historic downtown seems to reverberate with art, from storefronts to galleries to shops and everything in between.

Stephen Smalzel strums a few notes on his banjo outside his gallery of work inspired by the natural elements of the surrounding valley and mountains. Meanwhile, shop owners wave hello to friends biking by, visitors marvel at handmade jewelry, while others follow the savory scent emanating from a nearby restaurant.

“There is no divide between the old and the new here, it’s very authentic,” Smalzel said. “It’s just a very authentic place with a beautiful downtown.”

Smalzel and others agree that it’s hard to determine if the creative district designation or word of mouth is what helped the town become the arts mecca it is today, with 21 artist-owned galleries and events like the summer Fine Arts Festival, which has grown in artist numbers and attendees over the years.

“It was a progressive change, and took a bit to figure out what a creative district was and what that meant to us,” said Michael Varnum, director of the city-owned SteamPlant events center and a member of the initial steering committee that worked to get Salida’s creative district designation. “We knew we had something, it was just figuring out what the next step was. We spent a lot of our efforts since being designated trying to provide resources for the local creatives to help them grow.”

Varnum said free monthly classes were offered to anyone who wanted to attend. Workshops included how to write a business plan, how to expand business using social networking sites and how to use WordPress and Etsy.

“I think the designation has given us the chance to do more outside promotion to the community of people in the Front Range so they can be more aware of what we have here,” said Geraldine Alexander, owner of the CultureClash jewelry shop.

And according to those involved in earning Salida’s designation, it takes more than a committee to become a creative district.

“It’s not just one group who can do it all,” said Marilynn Leuszler, one of the steering committee members who helped get the recent designation for the Corazon de Trinidad Creative District. “It’s a whole community who needs to work together. We don’t run the show as steering committee; it’s about celebrating what others are doing.”

A community commitment

With a creative district designation, communities will receive increased exposure to professional development, increased funding for creatives, national and statewide marketing, signage, access to economic impact data, mentoring, coaching and consulting on strategic planning, marketing, branding, community engagement, history and heritage.

“It’s really multifaceted to work on a whole number of levels,” Blackstone said. “I think that is part of the power of doing this, that it does fulfill multiple goals and roles for a community, so it’s worth putting that energy in because you will get something out.”

In Steamboat, Kim Keith, executive director of the Steamboat Springs Arts Council, is spearheading efforts to garner support for pursuing a creative district and has organized monthly committee meetings with representatives from MainStreet Steamboat, the city of Steamboat Springs, the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association, local artists and the Tread of Pioneers Museum.

“This goes beyond our normal events and programming,” Keith said. “It’s helping the entire artistic community in the bigger picture scheme of things and makes a difference in the lives of people we serve.”

The window to apply — January 2016 — is very small, Keith explained, but it gives the committee time to garner community support and create a foundation to create sustainable programs for the long term.

“It does seem like it takes a long time, but it takes awhile to build a foundation and to make sure all of your ducks are in a row,” Barnett said. “If it’s done too quickly; we could (have) missteps, and it takes time to acquire community buy-in.”

Before sending the letter of interest — the first step in the application process — Keith said Steamboat has to work hard and be ready to show strength in areas that include providing evidence of community support, showcasing the quality of arts and cultural programming within the district, being financially sustainable, having a clear plan to support current creatives in the community and showing a commitment to attracting more creatives to town.

In addition, there must be communication and understanding about Steamboat’s unique and authentic story and the willingness to address community needs, like affordable housing through the creative district pursuit.

In upcoming months, the steering committee plans to engage community discussion through focus groups, public meetings, interviews and surveys. There is also the need to obtain a clear resolution from the city to incorporate creative district goals into the master plan, Keith said.

“We are not inventing an arts community; we are a community that already has that rich depth of arts and culture,” Blackstone said. “We are a creative district, small c, small d, but now we want to be a creative district with a big C and a big D. I personally, as a resident, would be proud to say that Steamboat is one of the communities that has earned this designation by being who we are.” ◗

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