In the mid-1980s, the little mountain community of Salida, Colorado — a former railroad town surrounded by pine-covered hills and mountains — was struggling to survive. Downtown was littered with boarded-up brick buildings; a new Walmart was threatening local retail businesses; the nearby Climax Mine — once the largest underground mine in the world, and the largest polluter of the Arkansas River — was laying off workers. Real estate prices were in the toilet; landlords were scrambling to pay the property taxes on their vacant buildings.
Enter the Artists — young, energetic entrepreneurs with plenty of creative talent and very little in the way of business experience. Over the next 20 years, dozens of painters, sculptors, jewelers, metalworkers, potters, designers, and performers relocated to Salida, attracted by the low rents, recreational access to the newly-cleaned-up Arkansas River and surrounding National Forest, and the historic look of a 1890s mountain town that had never been touched by “urban renewal.”
Look up Merriam-Webster’s definition for “jumpstart” and you’ll find “to start an engine or vehicle by temporary connection to an external power source.” Synonyms include energize, amp up, enliven, invigorate, stimulate, and vitalize.
— From the Guidelines for CCI ‘Jumpstart Awards’ Program, 2013
In 2012, my partner Cynda Green and I made a visit to Salida to find out why Colorado Creative Industries had recently selected this town — out of the 44 communities that had applied for the award — as one of two “Certified Creative Districts” in Colorado. (The other “certified district” is the Santa Fe art district in Denver.) As we walked around downtown during an unseasonably warm March weekend, people and bicycles populated the streets and parks; the galleries were well stocked with locally-produced art; a statewide community theater gathering was scheduled to be hosted downtown. We found retail shops selling a range of commercial goods — shoes, clothes, recreational equipment, bicycles, musical instruments, fabrics, health foods — the sort of items you can no longer find available in many smaller towns.
I wondered how the “certification” as a “creative district” would affect this surprisingly vibrant downtown.
Speaking with the artists during that visit, I heard frustration expressed about the “Creative District” certification. It appeared that the decisions about how to spend the grant award funds were being made mainly behind closed doors, by municipal employees working with out-of-town consultants. The artists — the entrepreneurs who had, after all, helped build downtown Salida into an arts district worthy of state recognition — were invited to one brief public meeting; other than that, Salida’s artistic community seemed to have been, basically, left out of the decision-making process.
One year after the receipt of the “Creative District” award, nothing of substance had occurred in Salida as a result. We’d heard no news about how the thousands of dollars in “Creative District” funds are being spent to enhance Salida’s economic future — other than a posting on the City of Salida website that stated in part:
The vision for the Salida Creative District is that in five years, Salida will see a measurable impact in retention and attraction of creative enterprises and jobs, improved retail, dining and gallery sales and continued revitalization within the Creative District. The mission is that the state’s designation of ‘Creative District’ will allow Salida to fully implement its goal of promoting, supporting and expanding the existing creative industries in order to drive economic growth and enhance Salida’s quality of life.
In addition to the creation of our strategic plan, we started an artist exchange with Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe, which was also designated as a creative district by the governor at the same time as Salida. Salida artists Merry Cox and Ted Fish were Salida’s first artists participating in the exchange. They were honored at an opening reception and participated in the First Friday tour in Denver. In the future, an exhibit by three Denver artists will be held at the SteamPlant. Discussions are also underway about presenting theater and musical performances from Salida in Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe and bringing their creative groups to Salida.
Shortly after that posting, I attended a meeting of the Salida Council for the Arts, and heard about plans to support the Terraphilia “artist in residence” program that takes place in the heart of downtown. I heard a report from a group that will produce the biennial “Artist Studio Tour” this coming summer, to be coordinated with the annual “Fiber Festival” in Riverside Park. I heard about plans to purchase a kiln for use in teaching pottery classes, and about plans to write grants to support local artists in various ways. I heard about the Council’s plans to support musicians during the upcoming “Art Walk” — a major annual arts event planned and conducted by the downtown artists and art gallery owners.
None of these programs, it seemed, were receiving financial or logistical support from the municipal officials who are in charge of Salida’s “Creative District.”
Until I started writing this essay, I had never really thought of artists as society’s “storytellers.” But isn’t that really what we artists do? We paint pictures that freeze a moment in time — real or imaginary — into a visual description. We render human relationships and ideas, into forged metal, sculpted stone, carved wood, quilts, clothing, dances. We invent scenes that never happened — but maybe should have — and perform them on stage. We sing about joy and pain. We write stories — like this one.
Colorado Creative Industries, a division Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade, has defined “art” as a cultural and education activity, but also — and perhaps primarily — as an “economic driver.” I fully understand why government bureaucrats want to portray artists as industrial cogs in the wheel of economic progress. “Jobs creation” is the claimed primary goal of so many politicians nowadays; it’s unlikely that any human activity that fails to assert a potential for “jobs creation” can win funding from our debt-laden governments in the current political environment.
Meanwhile, the stories continue to be told — somehow — up and down the historic streets of Colorado’s mountain towns. Property values have increased significantly since the mid-1980s; rents are climbing. Today, the only people who can afford to purchase homes or commercial space in resort towns are successful business people, or retirees with generous pension or investment income.
I’ll be curious to see if government bureaucracy and personal entrepreneurial spirit can come together, to save Salida’s “Creative District” from slowly… fading… away.