Experts around the country argue that arts and culture have the power to transform blighted areas into vibrant ones and drive economic development — a philosophy that downtown Colorado Springs leaders take to heart.
As part of a dramatic restructuring at the Downtown Partnership, a staffed downtown advocacy organization, Lara Garritano has been named the creative district manager. The new part-time position is responsible for maintaining, marketing and advancing existing downtown arts and culture programs along with creating new draws for people to come experience downtown.
Garritano worked for the Seattle-based organization 4Culture and is vice chair of the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region (COPPeR) board.
The partnership has long managed several downtown arts and culture assets and events, said Susan Edmondson, partnership president and CEO. “But it made sense to have one person managing them, someone with experience in the arts world,” Edmondson said. “She’s looking strategically at ways to bring people downtown through the arts.”
The new position brings focus to the various arts programs downtown and adds a new level of importance to the role they play in redeveloping downtown.
There’s a lot happening right away.
Crews are in the process of installing 11 pieces of sculpture throughout the downtown area for the 15th annual Art on the Streets display, which launches June 21. Sculptors from all over submit their work each year. It’s installed along the streets of downtown and judged by a jury of art critics. The works stay put for a year so residents and visitors can enjoy them.
“That program has become so popular nationally that it’s something we’re known for,” Edmondson said.
They are adding a people’s choice award this year in order to encourage people to see all of the installations.
Garritano also is working on creating a mobile app and promoting self-guided walking tours of the Art on the Streets. She’s planning to incorporate tours of the sculptures into the monthly First Friday Art Walks downtown.
First Fridays are becoming known nationally as the day of gallery openings. Arts districts in urban areas and even small communities attract thousands of people to tour galleries, dine and shop at the events.
While downtown galleries have had First Friday events in the past, Garritano is working to make the effort more coordinated. She will develop permanent and temporary signage for First Fridays so people will know what locations are participating during the event and will see, if they come downtown on the third Thursday, that they should come back the next week, Garritano said.
The partnership is also able to develop some print collateral and work with the galleries on collective ad buys, she said.
The event is an effort to “get people in the habit of coming downtown,” something Edmondson said is her primary goal as the new president and CEO of the partnership.
Garritano also is accepting applications from performers who want to participate in the new Sidewalk Stage program, which will have three simultaneous performances ranging from music to theater to spoken word spread throughout downtown on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays between July 11 and Aug. 17.
“The idea is that you can walk from the north end of downtown to the south and see three different performances,” Edmondson said.
It adds to the vibrancy of the downtown streets and makes it feel more like a place where exciting things are always happening. And since the artists will be compensated, audiences won’t feel pressured to pay for the show, she said.
The Acacia Park concert series will also aim to draw people downtown on Saturdays during the summer, Garritano said.
Garritano’s title as creative district manager places her at the helm of what could soon be an official state district.
Downtown Colorado Springs was one of 13 areas in the state that were deemed emerging creative districts in 2012 by Colorado Creative Industries, the newly formed economic cluster focus at the state Office of Economic Development and International Trade. Only two districts were fully certified — Downtown Salida and The Arts District on Santa Fe in Denver.
Colorado Springs applied again this year for certification. Colorado Creative Industries is reviewing the applications this week. The organization developed the Creative Districts program in 2011 in an effort to foster their growth. Creative districts are good for the economy, said Margaret Hunt, executive director of Colorado Creative Industries.
“We’re pretty accustomed to thinking about industry clusters,” she said. “You have aerospace and energy, that kind of thing.”
In 2010, the state evaluated creative workers and counted 186,000 artists, writers, graphic designers, architects, software engineers and other creative employees in the state and more than 8,000 creative enterprises. That makes the creative cluster the state’s fifth largest economic cluster and places Colorado among the top five states in the country for creative industries. And that revelation led to the creation of Hunt’s office under the economic development umbrella.
“There’s a certain synergy that occurs when creatives co-locate,” Hunt said.
And that synergy helps to build a more vibrant, exciting and dynamic community where creatives work with civic leaders to solve problems and encourage mixed-use development of places where people can live, work and play.
“They attract hip young professionals,” Hunt said. “It’s really a strategy for Main Street and downtown development.”
Her office has provided professional training, networking opportunities and some staff support to the emerging districts over the last year. Those districts that have reapplied for certification this year are seeking the official stamp of approval.
“It’s a branding opportunity,” Hunt said. “It’s the Good Housekeeping seal of approval and the designation will allow these districts to promote themselves so they can attract a creative workforce and revitalize a downtown area.”
“Arts and culture plays an enormous role in creating underlying vitality,” said Tom Murphy, senior resident fellow with the Urban Land Institute. “It makes places into the kinds of places where people want to live and work.”
Countless communities have transformed themselves through the arts, he said. Pittsburgh’s Cultural Trust District was a blighted red-light area 20 years ago, Murphy said. Where massage parlors and crumbling buildings were, there now are a ballet and symphony, theaters, restaurants and lofts.
Charleston and Greenville in South Carolina did it too, he said. “Nashville and Austin,” he added. “They’re known for technology, but that followed economies that were initially built around music.”
The Urban Land Institute in San Diego partnered with the Aspen Institute to conduct a study of arts and culture earlier this year.
“We’re a real estate development organization,” said Mary Lydon, executive director of ULI San Diego. “But we wanted to look at a bigger picture of jobs and job creation.”
Demographics and the culture of the country are changing, Lydon said.
“I’m in my 50s. When I got out of college, I went to where the jobs were,” she said. “Now there’s a shift in what people do when they’re out of college. They’re moving to cities with amenities, and the businesses are moving to where the workforce is.”
Cities have to build strong cultural centers and make themselves desirable to young workers, she said.
She and other experts cited Richard Florida’s book “Rise of the Creative Class,” which argues that a strong sense of place is probably the most important tool in the economic development chest.
The Arts District on Santa Fe, one of two mature districts in Colorado, led a transformation of a stretch of road with a bad reputation, said district president Jack Pappalardo.
When the district was first getting started between 2003 and 2006, Pappalardo said he primarily marketed it to tourists because it was easier to overcome the area’s rough reputation. It was thought to be a hotbed for gang activity.
“We used to have homeless people that would sleep in our front doorways,” Pappalardo said. “We don’t see that anymore and it has been years since we have.”
There are few vacant storefronts where there used to be mostly empty buildings, he said. Young people in their 20s are regularly spotted walking dogs along area streets.
“I feel like I meet new young professionals who have just moved to the neighborhood every week,” he said.
Two large businesses just moved into the area — the Colorado Ballet with an academy and offices, and Nimbl, a software development company with 50 employees.
It all started with a handful of galleries, 17 members and First Friday events with free wine and appetizers. That fell off when crowds swelled to 7,000 visitors and the district started to get a national reputation in 2007, Pappalardo said.
The district grew and now has more than 70 members. Santa Fe Avenue is a vibrant arts community attracting newcomers all the time.
“We are now the hub for Denver’s music scene as far as managers and promoters,” he said.
Edmondson and Garritano believe downtown Colorado Springs has the ingredients of a successful creative district. It’s already the heart of the city’s arts and culture community, Edmondson said.
It’s where the theaters and museums are located. There is a critical mass of galleries and one-of-a-kind retail shops and restaurants. Architects and design firms have their offices downtown.
It’s the historic center of the city filled with unique architecture.
Becoming a certified arts district is not a stretch, Edmondson said.
“This is already where creative people want to be,” she said.