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Making Space for the Arts in Blue-Collar Pueblo: What Southern Colorado Can Learn From Statewide “Space to Create” Program

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Pursuing a career in the arts has always garnered a certain amount of criticism in modern society. One of the most commonly asked questions of creative individuals is: “How are you going to make money?” The arts is a relatively niche market, and options for people working in them have grown more and more limited.

Not to mention the trope of the “struggling artist” has assigned various negative connotations to creative people throughout history, labeling them as lazy, unmotivated, or suffering from some sort of either alcoholism, addiction, or mental illness (thanks Hemingway, Coleridge, Van Gough etc.). One word above them all, though, has come to characterize the modern day artist: unrealistic. To endeavor in creative pursuits nowadays is to be branded an outcast.

In reality, opportunities for artists and other creative-minded people are more prevalent than the majority believes. In Colorado alone, the creative sector comprises the state’s 5th largest employment cluster with approximately 8,000 businesses and 186,000 jobs, according to the Colorado Creative Industries Division (CCI) – a state agency within Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

Still, the problem that most people working in creative industries face is affordability. Most people working in the creative sector, unless hugely successful, can’t afford to pay 100 percent of their living costs on the inconsistent income of their creative endeavors alone. Over time, these people’s “day jobs” take more and more precedence over their creative work in order to make ends meet. As a result, the creative presence in communities where the arts aren’t actively prioritized steadily declines until it all but fizzles out.

Nomadic is another term often associated with creative people, and for good reason. Increasing rent rates oftentimes price artists out of the communities where they live – forcing them to move around or migrate to larger cities where employment opportunities may be greater, but affordable housing options are just as if not even more limited.

In 2016, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper announced a potential solution to this affordable housing crisis that would also act as an economic revitalization effort for many struggling small-town rural and mountain communities across the state. In collaboration with CCI and a number of other state organizations, “Space to Create” was launched. The mission of this first of its kind state-led initiative is to provide long-term, affordable housing and work spaces specifically catered to artists and other creative workers.

The Space to Create initiative was modeled after a similar affordable housing effort made by the city of Loveland, Colorado. Volunteers in Loveland worked to preserve the city’s historic Feed and Grain building in hopes of restoring it into artist housing. They contracted Artspace: a Minneapolis-based nonprofit real estate developer specifically dealing in providing affordable and sustainable space for artists and art organizations. Using low-income tax credits, Artspace aims to ensure that artists aren’t priced out of their communities. Since Artspace retains ownership of the properties it develops, the organization is able to control the rent rates of these properties.

Although Artspace ultimately determined the Feed and Grain building in Loveland unsuitable for housing, the organization worked with volunteers and city officials to renovate the historic building into a shared community space instead. They also erected a brand new building adjacent to the center with 30 affordable live-and-work space units for artists dubbed “Loveland Lofts.” The project transformed a neglected downtown city block into a community asset, while making it possible for preexisting creative sector workers to remain in the city and contribute to the now flourishing arts scene.

Artspace has since been brought on board the Space to Create initiative to provide market feasibility and predevelopment consulting services. Space to Create hopes to have nine projects initiated in eight different regions of the state by 2020 – the first of which is currently underway in Trinidad, and will include 20 live/work spaces encompassing three different historic downtown buildings: the Toller, Aiello, and Franch.

Regions are prioritized as sites for Space to Create development based on factors like that region’s readiness, public will, commitment of local resources, and housing demands. Ridgway has been named as the site of development for the Southwest Region of Colorado, while Paonia will host a Space to Create facility in Colorado’s Northwest Region. Grand Lake is the program’s most recent announcement, representing the Northern Mountains Region of Colorado.

Once the region is determined, the community therein is selected based on criteria such as: concentration of creative sector workforce, availability of historic buildings for adaptive re-use, availability of developable property, commitment of local resources by local governing body, and a demonstrated ability to execute community-based projects like the Main Street and Creative District programs. Each project is customized according the needs of that particular community, determined by a preliminary feasibility study administered to the local population – creative and non-creative alike.

While Space to Create focuses mainly on communities with populations under 50,000 people, I can’t help but think of Pueblo as a prime candidate for similar artistic-driven development. Pueblo exists somewhat in a constant state of in-between – we’re not quite a big city, not quite a small town. We lack a sense of active creative community, but we certainly don’t lack for artistic and creative-minded individuals.

Based on the criteria detailed by Space to Create, Pueblo is overqualified to be a leading arts/culture community in Southern Colorado. An array of galleries showcasing the work of local artists, reputable performing arts centers, and floor-to-ceiling murals decorating nearly every corner of historic downtown are all evidence of the existence of a high concentration of creative sector workers here in Pueblo.

Pueblo’s old Water Tower Place is one example of a historic building available for reuse. There’s been talk already of it being converted into an event/community center over the next couple of years. Dispensaries and marijuana grow facilities have sprung up all over Pueblo since legalization, indicating the vast amount of developable property available here. And Pueblo has demonstrated its ability to execute community-based projects – the Pueblo Creative Corridor having been an official Colorado Creative District for almost ten years now – even if it’s also demonstrated its ability to let other such projects fall through the cracks (e.g. the Orem Owlz incident of 2018).

So why then, when Pueblo checks so many boxes for creative potential, is its creative voice largely absent from the narrative of what draws people here to live or to visit? Does the creative voice of a larger community like Pueblo simply get lost in the hustle and bustle of daily working life? Pueblo is notoriously blue-collar, and that has been a source of pride to the members of this community for generations. But is that mentality stifling our potential to be a leading arts district? Are the two workforces mutually exclusive? Or is it just a matter of prioritizing one over the other?

One thing is for sure: Space to Create is proving that a strong creative presence within a community lays the groundwork for effective economic development. If you give creative workers proper resources, they will flourish. And if the Loveland Arts Campus is any kind of testament, the community will flourish too.

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