Small towns court upscale tourists

Visitors who like art, theater and fine cuisine bring big bucks to the rural West

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CREEDE, Colo. - All winter Teri Inman spends her days tending and combing her goats or giving tours of her kitchen to schoolchildren. Like much of the economy in and around Creede, Colo., Inman's Bristol Inn and Gallery is in hibernation. This narrow canyon town high in the Colorado Rockies lacks the ski slopes and grandeur of destinations like Aspen or Vail. Yet soon after the bears wake and begin to send trash cans clattering in the alleys at night, a small stream of visitors will make its way up the Rio Grande to eat at fancy restaurants, browse at galleries, and catch a performance of the Creede Repertory Theater.

"The theater has a tremendous impact on Creede," Inman says. "It brings a unique type of individual."

Over the past four decades, the Creede Repertory Theater has remade this former silver town into a bustling arts community. In a phenomenon now common from Farmington, N.M., to Bigfork, Mont., small towns without ski slopes or gimmicky tourist attractions are finding that quality art venues can help ease their economic pain as industries like mining and logging fade. Furthermore, supporters say, arts communities bring a different - and better - breed of tourism.

"Folks are beginning to understand the importance of cultural tourists," says Mark Martin, the director of the Missoula Cultural Council, which works to attract more upscale visitors. "We don't want more Disneys. We're not going to tear down our Main Streets to put up rides. Arts tourists revitalize our downtowns."

A new economy

The Creede Repertory Theater got its start in 1966, when members of a town business association, the Jaycees, decided Creede needed more than saloons and empty storefronts. Like many old Western towns, Creede had a prominent but deserted and rundown theater. With vague hopes of injecting life into their town, the businessmen sent letters to college theater programs, promising a vacant stage and little else. Two students from the University of Kansas drove to Creede to scout out the possibilities; they returned with a troupe of about a dozen performers and stayed all summer. At the time, the silver mines were still going strong and the town was little more than a mining camp.

"We'd be walking home after the shows, and fights would spill out into the streets from the bars," recalls B.J. Myers, a costume designer that first season and now Creede's mayor. Myers' parents visited her at the theater that summer and were some of the first in a long string of visitors that decided to retire there. The couple opened one of the town's first patron-related businesses, the Amethyst Emporium, an upscale boutique, across the street from the theater. As word of the Creede Repertory spread, more vacationers and retirees came. Slowly a new economy emerged - a restaurant next door and an art gallery down the street. Other small businesses followed.

In 1985, the last mining operation in Creede closed its doors, a blow that could have killed a larger town, says Ed Hargraves, a long-time resident. But by then, the town no longer depended on the silver. While the theater's impact is nowhere near the scale of a major ski area, business owners up and down that stretch of the Rio Grande credit it with at least a portion of their success.

Rural towns throughout the West agree that cultural sites help ease the pain for communities in transition.

Bigfork, Mont. - once little more than a logging town and a stopover for visitors on their way to Glacier National Park - now hosts the Bigfork Playhouse, where throngs of vacationers regularly pack the house.

"Cultural tourists stay longer, spend more money, shop more than tourists in general," says Anthony Radich, director of the Denver-based Western States Arts Federation.

And, he says, these artsy tourists are often civic minded. Even during short stays, visitors often volunteer at the theater or other places in town. The prominence of cultural attractions in these small towns has also propelled some small business owners and arts directors into local politics.

"These are people who are active in the community, with strong organizational skills," says Radich, citing a former arts director who served as a mayor in Scottsdate, Ariz. The mayor of Virginia City, Mont., doubles as an actor on the local stage, and Myers, one of the original troupe in Creede, won the mayor's office on a platform of controlled growth.

Still, as with any tourist economy, there are pitfalls.

Inman, who runs the gallery and restaurant near Creede with her husband, says the off-season is punishing. Recently Inman's husband, Rick, took a second job to help make ends meet.

Growth is also a problem. Mineral County's population swells from 600 to 10,000 as second-home owners arrive. As in many small mountain communities, property values have soared.

"If you work in the valley and didn't own before the 'discovery,' Myers says, "it is very difficult to buy or rent a home here. Local people are simply priced out of the market."

Diversification

Creede isn't alone in facing the seasonal dilemma.

Ashland, Ore., quite possibly the mecca of cultural tourism, has hosted a Shakespeare festival every summer for nearly 70 years. That theater has translated into a healthy economy for this rural town: Ashland, population of 20,000, sustains 80 restaurants. But there is a slow winter season. Still, the rural town in southern Oregon continues to thrive, says Mary Pat Parker of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, because it constantly strives to offer cultural tourists options in addition to theater. Ashland now offers a blues festival in January, and there's an art walk the first Friday of every month. It has also just opened a second theater that will operate year-round.

"If you can get people to your area (with the theater) and then give them other reasons to stay, that's absolutely the key," says Parker. "Those same urban people who come to Ashland looking for that cultural and rural feel are looking for other things besides the theater."

Following Ashland's lead, Creede locals are starting to think about creative economic solutions.

Teri Inman and a coalition of other artists and craftsmen are meeting to find a way to market their wares in the off-season and create a year-round economy in Creede. The local politicians, brought here by the theater, are considering zoning changes and other incentives to aid business development.

"We haven't seen these art ventures develop into viable businesses that employ people beyond the tourist season," Radich said. But he is optimistic. "These mountain towns and rural areas can evolve."

Robert Struckman writes from Boulder, Colorado.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Gregg Drinkwater, Western States Arts Federation, 303/629-1166;
  • Mark Martin, Missoula Cultural Council, 406/721-9620;
  • Cinda Holt, Montana Arts Council, 406/777-0090.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Robert Struckman

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