Fresh out of college in 1973, Maryo Gard Ewell worked with New Haven, Conn. city leaders to try to create an arts district in a sullen and deserted part of the city that fell victim to 1960s urban renewal policies that replaced historic buildings with parking lots.
She was a bit ahead of her time, but on the right track. Today, Gard Ewell is the manager for Colorado Creative Industries’ Creative District program, which designated the Santa Fe Arts District in Denver and downtown Salida as arts districts along with 13 other emerging arts districts in the state.
Colorado is the 10th state in the country to create a program designed to use the arts as an economic development tool. There are no state tax credits or incentives to go along with the program as there were in Rhode Island and Maryland when they started the trend. But there are opportunities, Gard Ewell said.
“Two years ago, I had the occasion to revisit New Haven’s Audubon Street,” she told a group of more than 100 community members gathered at the Cottonwood Center for the Arts. The Tuesday session was designed to share information about downtown Colorado Springs’ designation as an emerging creative district and how the arts could inspire a downtown renaissance. “It was a dream come true — it was the place to be in New Haven.”
Gard Ewell said an old abandoned foundry was a community arts center with creative retailers on the ground floor and condos above. An old synagogue was transformed into a community arts school, and all the empty asphalt in between filled in with trendy shops and restaurants.
“This notion is not a new one — just look at SoHo and Greenwich Village — arts and culture can play a role in economic development,” Gard Ewell said.
With that notion at the helm, Colorado Creative Industries has pledged to pay for 60 hours of consulting help for each of its 13 emerging districts and to “lend a helping hand.” The districts are also collaborating and brainstorming and sharing ideas with each other at gatherings twice a year.
Downtown was selected as an emerging district because of its strong potential, said Susan Edmondson, former executive director of the Bee Vradenburg Foundation and the Downtown Partnership’s new president and CEO.
At two square miles, the boundaries of the district are bigger than others in the state, she said. That will pose walkability challenges.
But all the ingredients for a strong arts district are present.
From the Pioneers Museum to the Pikes Peak Center for the Performing Arts to Cottonwood and the Money Museum, there is already a lot of culture downtown.
“Fifteen architectural firms have chosen to locate downtown,” Edmondson said. “The city’s four largest advertising firms are downtown.”
Creative businesses ranging from nightclubs, where people can dance and hear live music, to interior design businesses and tattoo parlors gravitate to downtown because it’s the most creative place in the city, Edmondson said.
And downtown agencies have supported creative endeavors through funding from the Downtown Development Authority, a special taxing district. It has supported exterior building improvements, streetscaping and events like community radio station KRCC’s Blues Under the Bridge.
Its form-based code allows easier mixed-use development in the downtown core by eliminating zoning based on use and replacing it with guidelines for how buildings will look and function, along with alley improvements and a priority on residential development.
This will make downtown more pedestrian-friendly and open up even more opportunity for the arts, Edmondson said.
Lara Garritano, who is managing the creative district program for the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region, told the group about some specific opportunities and projects the city and community could work on to encourage a more robust arts culture.
Early projects are small ones like promoting the First Friday Arts Walk, which is a collaborative event including all 12 downtown galleries on the first Friday of every month. People can visit galleries and see art openings, meet the artists and sometimes sip wine while enjoying the works.
The Downtown Partnership has the event on its website along with suggested itineraries complete with parking and restaurant recommendations for those who don’t know the galleries or the downtown area well.
Beth Flowers, an expert in street performance from Fort Collins, is consulting on opportunities for the Springs. Garritano said there could also be an effort to build an interactive mobile app that takes visitors on a tour of historically significant places and buildings downtown and an effort to incorporate functional art when the city buys things like benches and bike racks.
Most of the specific opportunities won’t involve bold gestures like the one the town of Parker made. All of the retail space in the quaint old downtown of the southeast Denver suburb is filled now, said Weldy Feazell, business development officer for the town. The City Council voted last year to offer rent assistance to artists who wanted to relocate their creative businesses to the district, which overlaps the city’s urban renewal district.
Feazell said the program, which covers 75 percent of rent the first year, 50 percent the second year and 25 percent the third year for creative businesses, has been extremely successful in luring creative industry to the old downtown.
While programs like that are unlikely in Colorado Springs, Garritano said she will be meeting with community leaders, talking to people and looking for individual projects.
“We’ll come up with a specific action list,” she said.