Transforming Colorado’s Creative Rural Communities
Space to Create
Main streets in rural Colorado are getting a jolt of creativity and economic vitality thanks to an innovative partnership between the State of Colorado, philanthropic funders, local leaders, and a nonprofit housing developer. The Space to Create Colorado initiative, launched in July 2015, is transforming rural communities throughout the state by providing affordable housing/workspace as well as community spaces for creatives. And though the nine-project effort is still in its early stages, it is already sparking additional investment and redevelopment in communities that had struggled to reinvent or diversify their economies.
“We knew the power of the creative sector to drive economic development and create catalytic change in communities,” said Margaret Hunt, executive director of Colorado Creative Industries, a division of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, the state office that leads and administers the Space to Create Colorado initiative. Equally important is the power of the creative sector’s impact with triggering a greater sense of community engagement for residents. This has been especially powerful in smaller and more remote communities.
Space to Create Colorado is modeled after similar work done by Artspace, a nonprofit developer based in Minneapolis. Artspace has developed affordable live-work housing for members of the creative sector since 1979. The bulk of the organization’s work has historically been in urban settings, with properties spanning from Seattle to Chicago to New York. Artspace’s work caught the attention of the Boettcher Foundation, one of Colorado’s oldest and most well-known philanthropic foundations. Founded in 1937, the $300 million foundation invests in the promise of Colorado and the potential of Coloradans. Its senior leaders saw the potential in Artspace’s development model and wondered if a similar model could work in rural communities.
“As a foundation, we view our work through a lens of convening and collaboration,” said Katie Kramer, president and CEO of the Boettcher Foundation. “We saw an opportunity to serve as a convener, bringing a variety of partners to the table to come up with a solution to some of our communities’ most pressing needs. We’re honored to have helped bring together the many partners in this transforma-tional project.”
As a statewide funder with a strong interest in rural communities, the Boettcher Foundation’s staff travels extensively through the state and frequently engages in discussions with nonprofit and community leaders. Many of their conversations centered on the need for economic development and affordable housing.
“We were eager to explore whether we could connect a successful urban nonprofit development model with the needs of our rural communities,” said Julie Lerudis, director of finance and operations at the Boettcher Foundation. “We knew that if we could bring the right parties to the table, we could create a partnership that would help rural community leaders solve some of their toughest challenges.”
The Boettcher Foundation helped provide grant funding for Artspace’s Loveland Arts Campus in northern Colorado in 2014, and its leaders quickly saw a need for similar projects in rural, small-town, and mountain Colorado communities. They soon brought Artspace together with Colorado Creative Industries, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, History Colorado, Gates Family Foundation, El Pomar Foundation, and other funders. The group, which included government officials and potential funders, toured a handful of Colorado rural and mountain communities, where state and local leaders were eager to show off their communities’ historic main streets and burgeoning creative communities.
“We were impressed with how visionary and collaborative the group was and how willing they were to come together to create a new model for rural economic development,” said Kelley Lindquist, president of Artspace. “We realized that with such willing and creative partners, we could create a rural development model that had the potential for replication in other communities.”
The group eventually arrived at a model in which Colorado Creative Industries would manage the initiative, and Artspace would serve as the lead consultant and developer. In addition to low-income housing tax credits from the state, funding would be provided by local communities and the philanthropic sector to help to get the projects off the ground. When it was announced in 2015, the model they created was the nation’s first state-driven initiative for affordable creative and general workforce housing.
The group agreed that a demonstration project would be completed in the southern Colorado town of Trinidad and that another eight communities would be selected — one from each of the state’s eight economic regions — through a competitive application process. Communities with fewer than fifty thousand people that were geographically distant from urban areas were invited to apply, with selection criteria to be based on
- concentration of a creative-sector workforce,
- availability of historic buildings for adaptive reuse,
- available property for development,
- commitment of resources by the local governing body, and
- demonstrated ability to execute community-based initiatives.
Projects were prioritized based on readiness, public will, commitment of public resources, and housing demands.
In addition to its role as a convener for the project, the Boettcher Foundation committed $2,250,000 toward the initiative, with $250,000 to be allocated to each of the nine projects planned for construction.
“We were captivated by Artspace’s model of combining housing for artists and creative entrepreneurs with community space and arts space. We approached Artspace about adapting its model to rural communities because we saw an opportunity to help rural Colorado towns revive their main streets while tackling issues of affordable housing,” said Tim Schultz, who served as executive director of the Boettcher Foundation when the project was announced by then-governor John Hickenlooper at a press conference at the Artspace Loveland campus.
It wasn’t the first time the Boettcher Foundation and the Colorado Office of Economic Development had partnered to harness the power of the creative community to propel growth and prosperity. In 2012, they teamed up to help communities promote their creative sectors through the Colorado Creative Districts program, which certified creative districts and provided funding and technical support. As part of their partnership, the Boettcher Foundation awarded technical assistance grants of $25,000 to each certified Creative District. This designation and funding helped certified communities achieve an administrative structure, funding streams, community engagement, and strategic planning and establish a staff structure to provide for long-term sustainability.
Colorado Creative Industries currently boasts twenty-three certified Creative Districts. The office, which was created to foster and support Colorado’s creative sector to drive economic growth and quality of life, notes that Colorado is known for its creative class population and ranks first in the nation for the percentage of adults engaged in creative pursuits. In addition, research shows that arts and culture represent 4.3 percent of Colorado’s GDP, employing 219,000 people in the state.1
“The Colorado Creative Districts project helped to prove the power of the arts to drive economic development,” said Hunt of Colorado Creative Industries. “Space to Create felt like the next step in our evolution of helping communities to harness the creative sectors to propel economic growth.”
The first project in the Space to Create effort broke ground in 2018. Split between two sites in Trinidad, a former coal-mining town just twelve miles from the New Mexico border, the project includes both adaptive reuse of a historic building and new construction. It will result in forty-one affordable live-work housing units for creative and general workforce households, and 20,000 square feet of commercial and community space.
On the day of the groundbreaking, city officials and Space to Create partners celebrated the new step in the city’s evolution. In true creative style, local artists collaborated to bring their own unique touches to the hard hats and shovels used in traditional groundbreaking ceremonies. Leaders from the partnering organizations and local dignitaries donned hard hats with everything from flowers to furry bear heads as they turned a ceremonial dirt pile in front of the historic buildings. Despite the soaring temperatures, numerous residents of the city of roughly nine thousand came out to mark the occasion.
While the groundbreaking marked the official launch of the Trinidad project,2 its effects had been felt long before the first shovel was turned. Following the announcement of the project in 2015, the number of real estate transactions in the city more than doubled from 147 in 2013 to 325 in 2016, while lodging tax revenue spiked. Similarly, building permits rose 58 percent between 2015 and 2016, and downtown occupancy rates increased 29 percent.3 In addition, legendary Denver developer Dana Crawford, best known for preserving historically significant buildings in the city’s Larimer Square area, recently purchased ten buildings in the Corazon de Trinidad Historic District, and her company is planning to revitalize the city-owned Fox-West Theatre.4
“The Space to Create project is bringing a new sense of momentum to our community,” said Trinidad mayor Phil Rico. “There’s a new energy and interest in Trinidad. People are moving here and talking about how it’s going to be the next big thing in Colorado.”
And while the construction is still ongoing at the Trinidad demonstration project, other sites in the Space to Create pipeline are moving forward with similar momentum. The southwestern Colorado mountain community of Ridgway was the second town selected as a Space to Create site. Located near the San Juan Mountains, the town of 1,016 served as the backdrop for the 1969 film True Grit and boasts an eclectic artistic community, which led it to become a certified Colorado Creative District.
“Ridgway has always valued and stewarded its creative community, and it is a key part of our economy,” said Ridgway town manager Jennifer Coates. “When we first learned about the Space to Create Colorado initiative, we knew that it was a perfect opportunity for us to build on the work we had already done and help to ensure that the artists and other creative sector workers who represent a very significant portion of our population and help make our community unique can afford to continue to live and work here.”
While economic development is a big reason that communities are drawn to the Space to Create model, its focus on affordable housing for artists and creative workers makes it especially attractive to communities whose creative industries make them attractive destinations. While affordable housing is often thought of as a challenge faced by big cities, rural communities and mountain destinations face a similar challenge of providing affordable housing and have far fewer resources and capital to effectively address the complex and expensive affordability challenges. Towns that rely on their creative sectors to drive economic development can become victims of their own success if the artists that helped put their cities on the map can no longer afford to live there.
The Ridgway Space to Create new construction development will provide twenty-six studio, one-, and two-bedroom units of low-income workforce housing/creative work space, as well as 3,000 square feet of community space, in the town’s downtown core and certified Creative District. Coates noted that the project aligns with the town’s clear goals for affordable housing production, Main Street economic development, and added density and volume. The project is expected to start construction in 2020.
“One of the things that excites us most about Space to Create Colorado is that it provides a model for local development that is thoughtful and tailored to individual community needs,” said Chantal Unfug, director of the Division of Local Government in the Department of Local Affairs. In addition to providing funding for the projects as the initiative spreads across the state, the Department of Local Affairs is also providing technical assistance to help communities ensure that their projects are viable and sustainable.
The third community in the Space to Create lineup was announced in March 2018. The town of Paonia — population fourteen hundred — in northwest Colorado has completed its feasibility study and market analysis, and the project team is now scouting for a site to host the project.
“Having felt the devastating effects of two mine closings and a recession that has lasted a decade, we are thrilled to have been selected for a Space to Create project,” Charles Stewart, mayor of Paonia, said when the project was announced at the town’s annual mountain harvest festival. “The creative industries are becoming a major part of our economy, and the Space to Create project is a substantial step forward in developing this resource and moving us toward a sustainable financial future.”
The fourth project in the Space to Create lineup was announced in November 2018. The mountain community of Grand Lake recently launched its feasibility study and market analysis. Town leaders say that in addition to providing workforce housing and creative community space, they hope it will help to expand Grand Lake’s seasonal economy and bring more stability to the town of five hundred’s winter and shoulder seasons.
“The goal is to diversify and expand the year-round economy and to provide some workforce housing,” Jim White, Grand Lake’s town manager, told Sky-Hi News when the project was announced. “All of that will help Grand Lake in the long run a great deal. We are excited.”
The team behind the Space to Create project says they hope that the initiative can serve as a model for other states that are trying to tackle the dual challenges of affordable housing and rural and mountain economic development. They note that such projects require a strong sense of collaboration across government, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors as well as within local communities but that the effort can pay off.
In addition to their hopes that Space to Create Colorado can serve as a model for other states, partners in the project note that the ongoing nature of the initiative means that they con-tinue to seek partners interested in harnessing art, culture, and creativity to support new solutions for community needs.
“We are so proud to have helped convene the Space to Create Colorado effort because it is a model for community development that represents strong collaboration among its partners and dedicated local leadership,” Katie Kramer, president and CEO of the Boettcher Foundation, said. “We welcome other collaborators to the table and hope that this effort can serve as a model for future development.”
Kristi Arellano is director of communications at the Boettcher Foundation, a Colorado-based philanthropic foundation that invests in the promise of Colorado and the potential of Coloradans. She is a former reporter and editor for the Denver Post, and she serves on numerous nonprofit and professional organization boards and committees, including Philanthropy Southwest, the Communications Network, and the Community College of Denver Foundation. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Denver, which she attended on a Boettcher Scholarship.
- Colorado Creative Industries, Snapshot of Colorado’s Creative Industries, 2019, https://coloradocreativeindustries.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/cci_onepager_012419.pdf.
- Video from the 2018 Trinidad groundbreaking, https://vimeo.com/275873709.
- Ray Mark Rinaldi, “Colorado’s Ambitious Space to Create Experiment Stakes Its Claim in Trinidad,” Confluence Denver, June 2018, http://www.confluence-denver.com/features/space-trinidad.aspx.
- Steve Block, “Denver Developer Expresses Love for Trinidad,” The Chronicle-News, February 15, 2019, http://www.thechronicle-news.com/local/denver-developer-expresses-love-for-trinidad/article_7dfb0494-3181-11e9-a543-0f7daed2c292.html.