Colorado Creative Districts showcase growing arts communities across the state

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It takes a lot of work to be creative. It takes even more to become a Certified Creative District in Colorado. But for the areas that are successful, it's worth the effort. Born out of a 2011 state law, the Certified Creative Districts program allows areas all over Colorado to apply for financial and organizational help in order to become more economically and artistically vital to the communities they serve.

But it's not easy to become a Certified Creative District. With the program's inception came more than 140 applications from all over the state. So far, only fifteen of those have been chosen for development; the Pueblo Creative Corridor, Corazon de Trinidad, North Fork Valley Creative District, Ridgway Creative District and Telluride Creative District were certified this summer by Colorado Creative Industries, a division of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

See also: - Aurora still reeling from Gaylord development pull-out, but Pueblo's rolling - 2012 Mayor's Awards for Excellence in the Arts: Denver's Art District on Santa Fe - Murals, Murals Everywhere: Santa Fe Arts District gets a facelift during Denver Arts Week.

"It's basically a way to help facilitate expanding our job base for creative industries in the state, giving incentives to communities to use creative districts as an economic development tool," says Colorado Creative Industries director Margaret Hunt.

To be considered for the program, areas looking for certification must show that they are already doing the legwork it takes create a sustainable creative community. That means gaining support from their local government, providing affordable places for artists to live and work, and overseeing longterm projects that benefit cities and towns.

"We established what we call 'characteristics' of creative districts," says Hunt. "It's sort of foundational to the program and for a creative district to be successful, it has to be integrated with other community efforts, like economic development, tourism, transportation, urban renewal, social concerns and safety concerns."

But Colorado Creative Industries acknowledges that each area, whether urban or rural, has its own specific set of needs. "This isn't...a cookie-cutter program; it is really organic," say Hunt. "It starts at the community level and they determine what it is that they have going for them. What they as a community want to attract and build on."

That's why Telluride and Pueblo, while both plugging into the Colorado Creative District's set of characteristics, may have very different uses for the funding and support.

"If you look at places like say, Salida and Denver's Art District on Santa Fe -- one thing that they have in common is the artists and creatives in those districts own most of the buildings within that district," Hunt says, pointing to two of the initial districts in the program.

"The artists own the galleries -- they are property owners. One of the trends that we've seen nationally is, when creatives go into a blighted area, or an area with affordable rental rates or low property values -- something they can afford to buy -- they turn the neighborhood around," she continues. "But then it becomes too expensive for them to live there. So it's a gentrification problem. It is sort of a national conundrum."

And one that Colorado Creative Industries is hoping to address and work on directly though the Colorado Creative District certification process. After an area has been accepted into the program, Colorado Creative Industries requires that data be collected to show how the support can and will help a creative community continue to thrive. And the data can get pretty specific -- but the program provides technical assistance to get what it calls a "data collection methodology" in place.

"We ask them to collect data, such as number of jobs in the district -- that's jobs that are already in place, because they have to have a starting point," says Hunt. "They have to start with a baseline -- what are the jobs in creative occupations or jobs in general within that specific creative district?

"We also asked them to look at the occupancy rate -- in some districts, they have lots of vacant buildings. We also ask them figure out ways to track visitors -- how can they tell that people are coming to the district? We give them a great deal of flexibility in how they might do that. We have one district that is collecting sales tax revenue and reporting that revenue within the district. The city has written their own computer program and are working with their retailers to provide that information," she continues. "Another data set that we ask them to collect is information about property values. What were they last year? What are they this year? We ask them to monitor how that is changing. All of the districts are really different; if you look at them, they all have their own set of very interesting circumstances. We give them some flexibility, but we really try to guide them to collect good data."

All of this information has helped an area like the Art District on Santa Fe ready itself for funding from Colorado Creative Industries. The Santa Fe area has become a model for the program, with the artists who make the district what it is continuing to live and work there.

"Keeping the artists in the neighborhood -- that's what keeps the neighborhood interesting," says Hunt. "You know you have to have a certain critical mass of creatives located within proximity to each other to make it a really interesting place. That's, in a nutshell, what we're trying to achieve." With $15,000 and technical assistance opportunities offered to each of the five newly crowned Certified Creative Districts and the potential for some of the $300,000 in grant funds from the Boettcher Foundation, there is a lot that can be done.

"The districts can use the funding in any way they want to promote themselves-- they can use it for marketing, signage, events," says Hunt. "Some of the other characteristics of these districts (need to have) is a density of creative entrepreneurs artists or cultural organizations. They have to have regularly scheduled arts and cultural events and an identity that has already been branded to some extent. They have to have evidence that the community already considers it a creative district and that projects and a built-in environment exists that indicates that they have ongoing investment, revitalization and beautification efforts underway.

"The other things we really strongly encourage them to do is to get youth involved. Get young people involved in the activities and programs. We want to see things happening at public gathering places, places where the community comes together and does creative enterprises together. We want to see them figure out ways to creatively use vacant spaces," Hunt continues. "I would say lastly, and very importantly, we want to see them include live/work space for artists. Because, they are the ones who are going to be there longterm."

Denver's River North Art District and both ends of Colfax -- the 40 West Arts District in Lakewood and the East End Arts District in Aurora -- have recently been accepted into the program; if all goes well, they will be certified, too. The next deadline for communities to apply for Creative District Certification is May 2014. For more information, visit the Colorado Creative Industries website.

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