In rural Colorado, can art provide an economic engine?

A small town invests in affordable housing for the creative sector.


I first came to Paonia, Colorado, in the summer of 2012 to be a resident artist at Elsewhere Studios. For a month, I lived and wrote in a building just off the main drag that resembles a green and white gingerbread house, along with a poet, an installation artist and a spunky orange tabby cat named Tomatoes.

Tomatoes, Elsewhere's resident cat, lounges in the author's workspace in 2012.
Rebecca Worby

I’d been living — and afterward continued to live — in New York City, a place which, in most ways, couldn’t be more different from a town of 1,400 nestled into a valley beneath the West Elk Mountains. But I quickly learned that Paonia had more going on than I ever would have imagined. I saw a town of farmers and coal miners, ranchers and artists. I saw orchards and wineries, a brewery, farm-to-table restaurants. I saw the Blue Sage Center for the Arts and the Paradise Theater, which hosts films along with events like an inspirational “Visionary Summit” and an annual storytelling gathering called “Dark Night.” I saw KVNF, the community radio station, and the offices of High Country News, where I would come back to work five years later.

Agriculture and coal have historically propelled the North Fork Valley’s economy. But two of its three mines have closed since 2013. That loss of local jobs has deepened concerns about the economic future of a place that’s also facing the challenges of a wider phenomenon: Across the West, as HCN recently reported, more young people are moving out of rural communities than into them. Meanwhile, in the North Fork Valley, retirees are buying homes, driving up housing prices. So many people have moved here from the Front Range that some have nicknamed Paonia “Boulder West.” As the end of my HCN editorial fellowship looms and I prepare to boomerang yet again back to New York, the question of how to build a resilient rural economy and how to get young people to stay is on my mind. It’s on a lot of other minds in Paonia, too, and creative industries — broadly defined to encompass anything made by hand, including food, or made in the mind, including writing and design — could provide a key piece of the solution.

Early this fall, Paonia was selected as the Northwest Colorado winner for Space to Create, a statewide initiative to develop affordable housing and workspaces for the creative sector, with the goal of stimulating economic development. A collaborative effort among multiple state agencies and foundations, Space to Create is led by Colorado Creative Industries, a division of the state Office of Economic Development, with nonprofit Artspace as lead consultant. Paonia’s will be the third of nine projects in small rural towns across the state.

Susie Kaldis Lowe and Elaine Brett celebrate Paonia's selection for Space to Create at the Blue Sage, the local arts center.
Courtesy of Space to Create Paonia

When I asked Margaret Hunt, executive director of Colorado Creative Industries, why Paonia had won — Carbondale and Crested Butte also submitted applications — she cited the loss of coal mining jobs as the deciding factor. Six years ago, mines in the North Fork Valley employed about 1,200 people. The one remaining, the West Elk Mine, now has under 300 employees. Hunt said all the partners involved in Space to Create agreed that in building a stronger foundation for creative industries to grow and help diversify the economy, a project in Paonia would be transformational.

In 2013, Colorado Creative Industries named the North Fork Valley a certified Creative District, bringing recognition to the creative culture that has existed and thrived here for decades. Old timers recall attending regular dances and concerts in Paonia in the 1920s and ’30s. It has long been “a rebellious kind of place,” noted Elaine Brett, the project leader for Space to Create Paonia. A valley in the middle of nowhere, where fruit and grains could grow, offered the perfect spot for moonshine operations during Prohibition. In the 1970s, hippies on their way to California decided they could live off the land here. A potent strain of marijuana known as “Paonia Purple Paralyzer” gained notoriety. The town, Brett said, “has always had that little edge to it.” It gives people permission to try things; she mentioned biodynamic farming and spiritual agriculture.

Colorado Creative Industries emerged in 2010, a reinvention of the former Council on the Arts. The state, said Brett, “did everyone a really big favor” by swapping “arts” for “creative industries.” The shift in focus helped to legitimize artists and other creative people as businesspeople who add value to communities. It also brought all kinds of making — small-batch food and drink, journalism, architecture — under its purview. “Colorado is leading the nation in creative district development,” said Susie Kaldis Lowe, president of the North Fork Valley Creative Coalition and a member of Space to Create Paonia’s executive team. Space to Create is the nation’s first state-driven affordable housing initiative for the creative sector.

The town of Paonia is on board with Space to Create — the municipality itself had to be the applicant — and that’s a big deal. Some locals expressed skepticism: Would there be enough money? Is it constitutional to provide affordable housing specifically for artists? (Targeting a particular market is legal; discrimination is not.) Like many rural towns across the region, where Old West industries like ranching and mining coexist uneasily with newer ones like fine art and organic farming, Paonia is grappling with its changing identity. While Space to Create seeks to bring jobs to the valley, those jobs won’t look like the lost coal jobs. That may leave some people feeling left behind. But as Town Administrator Ken Knight pointed out, nothing about Space to Create would prevent future extraction jobs if one of the local mines were to reopen, though that’s unlikely. And this is the economic opportunity available right now.

Space to Create is not “the” answer to Paonia’s economic future, said Kaldis Lowe. But it’s one answer, particularly to the question of how to keep young creative people in a rural town. “I would like to see more young people believe that they can stay in a place like this, have a community, feel safe,” Brett said, “and be able to enjoy life and make a living to support themselves or their family.” 

In January, Artspace will come to Paonia for a field visit: Representatives will meet with focus groups and community leaders, visit potential sites and hold a public meeting. Once they’ve generated a report based on what they learn, Artspace will conduct an arts market survey to gauge interest and need. Right now Kaldis Lowe imagines they’ll build 10 or 20 units — a significant number in a town that only added 30 homes between 2000 and 2009 — but that could change. Predevelopment, which will include finding additional funding and determining the project’s scope and location, will likely begin by next winter.

Brett invited me to imagine 10 new creative businesses in Paonia, each employing, over time, from three to 20 people. In total, she said, those jobs would be the equivalent of a coal mine or other large industrial business. And employees would learn anchor skills for any business: bookkeeping, accounting, human resources, management. When the sandal company Chaco left the valley a decade ago, about a hundred people lost their jobs. “I would much rather see ten little businesses,” Brett said, “than one company coming in that, if it folds up, you’ve lost everything.” That kind of diversity is more stable. It builds resiliency.

But the benefits of developing a stronger creative community aren’t just economic. Organizing around the arts is powerful, Kaldis Lowe noted. “I think with a facility like Space to Create,” she told me over tea and soup at the Living Farm, one of Paonia’s farm-to-table restaurants, “there is going to be something magical that happens.” I felt a twinge of sadness and maybe envy, imagining the creative world here growing and changing, and wondering if I might return yet again to see it myself. Kaldis Lowe compared the community Space to Create would foster to being in college or graduate school — or a place like Elsewhere Studios. I nodded. I know that magic.

Rebecca Worby is an editorial fellow at High Country News.

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