Finding the creative capital of the Rocky Mountain West

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On Nov. 22 Create Denver released an 80-page study titled, “We Create Denver: Positioning Denver as the Creative Capital of the Rocky Mountain West.”

A product of the 2010 leadership class of the Downtown Denver Partnership, it’s thorough and professional. It’s the kind of study that, in palmier days, the city of Colorado Springs would have commissioned from highly paid consultants, announced, and then shelved.

This new study covers familiar ground, stressing the contribution that the arts make to community vitality, the importance of the creative class, and the economic impact of the arts.

But, as the title suggests, it differs from similar reports prepared for our city in one important respect.

It doesn’t argue; it asserts. It doesn’t beg, equivocate, complain or demand. It simply says that Denver is in fact the creative capital of the Rocky Mountain West, and it’s time to announce it.

Just as Austin famously branded itself “Live music capital of the world” in the 1990s with little evidence to support such a boast, the audacious young Denverites who authored this piece are embracing a similar strategy.

Denver does have some artistic cred. The study notes that “Denver’s creative sector consists of more than 2,400 creative enterprises including more than 120 galleries, six distinct arts districts, more than 160 performance venues of all sizes and approximately 180 film-related businesses.”

Denver, it also notes, has “strong community support for large cultural institutions through the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD); strong performing and fine arts organizations; a variety of creative commercial businesses; up and coming arts districts; and multiple incubators and financial support mechanisms for fledgling creative businesses.”

We know, we know. But I have to wonder, so what?

Denver has a new Art Museum; we have the renovated Fine Arts Center. Denver has artists, galleries, performance venues, and creative industries; so do we.

If you polled residents of the Rocky Mountain West, chances are they wouldn’t name Denver as the creative capital of the region. My guess is that 70 percent would say Santa Fe, 10 percent would choose Albuquerque, Boulder, Silver City or Durango, and 10 percent would have no opinion.

Colorado Springs and Denver would be afterthoughts at best, sprawling cities without any particular identity.

But don’t underestimate our neighbors to the north. They know how to build, how to create, how to compete, and how to cooperate.

In the last 25 years, they’ve built one of the world’s busiest airports, a vast convention center, a spectacular new library, the new Denver Art Museum, Coors Field, Invesco Field and the Pepsi Center. They’ve expanded the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, redeveloped hundreds of square blocks of decaying warehouses and abandoned railway yards, rebuilt inner-city neighborhoods, and transformed a once-dreary Midwestern city into something close to a world-class city.

You can bet that Gov.-elect John Hickenlooper’s successor as mayor of Denver will seize upon the central recommendation of the report and run with it. He/she will put energy, money and clout into enhancing the city’s brand and sponsoring yet more festivals and events until Denver actually becomes, by common consent, the creative capital of the Mountain West.

That was once our goal — to join a visionary local government to the energy and dynamism of the private sector, and create a city that would soar and sparkle, a city that no one would ever confuse with Omaha, Albuquerque or Des Moines.

And now? We’ve lowered our sights. We’ll settle for trash cans in the parks, fewer potholes, and a slightly expanded police force.

Maybe it’s time to look up, not down.

As the campaigns for mayor and council unfold next year, we’ll ask every candidate for one specific, practical and immediately achievable measure to improve our creative community. And here’s mine.

Take a look at southwest downtown, the stretch of crumbling, largely deserted warehouses and commercial buildings that were designated as an urban renewal district years ago. Nothing has happened, and nothing is likely to happen in the foreseeable future. No Embassy Suites hotel, no fancy lofts, no nuthin!

So why can’t the city, the mostly broke owners of these derelict buildings, and the creative community get together and make it possible for a few dozen artists to renovate/live in the structures?

I know, I know — there are a hundred reasons that it wouldn’t work. But for once, let’s think like Denver. We can make it (or anything!) happen.

Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or 719-227-5861. Watch him at 7:45 a.m. every Tuesday and Friday on Channel 3, Fox Morning News.