Nearby towns and cities like Mancos, Telluride and Grand Junction recently established art districts to cultivate rich, vibrant communities. It begs the question why Durango – home to an active arts center, talented local actors and galleries – hasn’t done the same.
Local First, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting local businesses, with the help of artists and other Durango businesses (the city of Durango, Chamber of Commerce, the tourism office, Durango Arts Center and many others) are in the beginning stages of establishing one.
“(The idea) is to quite literally be put on the map as a destination for arts and creativity and be known as a community of makers,” said Hayley Kirkman, Local First’s creative arts and special projects coordinator. “It would be really great marketing for Durango.”
Creative districts are established by a certificate from Colorado Created Industries through invitation only. If certified, CCI provides seed money, resources and marketing tools to help make the district a success. Invitations will go out in fall 2019, which gives the members involved time to plan. (Kirkman said that in 2008, the city tried to establish a creative district but wasn’t able to do so because of lack of staff.)
“They want to see that your town is ready; you have your goals in line and your narrative,” Kirkman said.
Those goals include: determining the city’s cultural, historical and creative assets; proposing boundary lines; figuring out how to provide a self-sustaining entity; and recommending the best legal framework to support the plan.
“It takes time to cook the pot,” said local artist Cheryl Roberts, who has been helping with creative district planning. “People come with all their individual ideas, and the stew has got to be collaborative. It takes time.”
As a way to help the cause, Roberts and other artists are hosting their third annual art show through the month of January. Opening night for their “Local Artists Supporting Local First” will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday at the Smiley Café. in the Smiley Building. Twenty-five percent of each sale will go to Local First to help its efforts to establish the creative district.
The exhibit will show the work of artists from a plein air group and critique group, Looking Glass Collective. The women in the show understand the benefits of working together, which can be applied to the creative district.
“We have all been working individually, so hard for so long. ... If we have some semblance of organization, we can then use that as an economic driver,” Roberts said. “This entity could be that platform for us so we can spend more time on creativity.”
There are currently 21 established districts in the state. Crested Butte, Carbondale, Ridgway, Salida and others make up the Colorado Creative Corridor. Durango could be on there, too. And along with drawing more artists to the area, it could diversify the economy so Durango is not just a ski resort, hospital or train, Roberts said.
Roberts envisions places like Ashland, Oregon, where each storefront along the river is a busy gallery. Other ideas that were floated around the first two meetings include using the trolley to transport people from art space to art space; developing more workshops and work spaces; and increasing efforts for more art walks, among others.
“I do have a interest in replicating what Mancos did and stepping up to that larger role,” Kirkman said.
The Mancos District was established in 2016 with the goals of driving economic development, beautifying the streets with public art and opening more galleries.
The Mancos Creative District recently helped the Mancos Opera House obtain money for critical restoration. It has helped revitalization in pocket parks and is bringing public murals to bland walls. It has also helped launch art workshops and classes. While there hasn’t been any official data collected, Mancos Creative District’s board President Carol Mehesy said the changes the district brought to the community are noticeable.
“We are really seeing synergy in the downtown revitalization,” she said. “The opening of the cidery and brewery speaks to the maker movement in the district.”
Mehesy said a creative district in Durango will continue to add to that synergy.
“It all seems really nebulous right now, and nobody knows what to expect – not even the facilitators of this,” Kirkman said. “And that is going to be the interesting part – unearthing what this means for our community.”
For dates of the next Creative District meetings, sign up for the Local First newsletter at local-first.org/creativedistrict.