This story was produced through the Daily Yonder Rural Reporting Fellowship, with support from the LOR Foundation. LOR works with people in rural places to improve quality of life.
Twelve costumed burros (donkeys) walked down Grand Avenue in Mancos, Colorado, after participating in an obstacle course competition during the fourth annual Burrofest. The June festival brings together burros and artists to highlight their talents and contributions to the town. Each artist chooses a burro to be their muse and model and creates a representation of “their” animal in the medium of their choice.
The unique event is put on by the Mancos Creative District, one of the 30 certified Creative Districts in Colorado. Nathan Schmidt, board member for Mancos Creative District, said that in 2023, Burrofest brought in 1200 people to Mancos, population 1221.
Colorado Creative Districts is a program under the Colorado Department of Economic Development. The Creative District certification brings in tourism and economic opportunities and supports a creative community in both urban and rural areas across the state.
“We had great success with the artists with local galleries and downtown shops, but also we have had feedback from local businesses that it’s been their best day of the year, and that’s like our local grocery store,” said Schmidt.
There are seventeen states that run Cultural District programs, including Nebraska, Washington, South Carolina, and Maryland. In Colorado, districts are certified for five years, after which they can reapply.
Colorado’s creative district program began in 2011. Many of the Colorado Creative Districts districts are in rural areas, with the smallest in the town of Grand Lake (population 410), but others exist in metropolitan areas like the 40 West Arts District in Lakewood.
According to the most recent data provided by Colorado Creative Industries, Montezuma County, where Mancos is located, had a creative economy of $13.5 million in 2021, up $2.3 million from 2020. The highest earning industries included Radio Station, Artists & Writers & Performers, Newspaper Publishers, and Breweries.
“Arts and cultural production make up 3.9% of the GDP in Colorado and that’s more than mining or transportation,” Christy Costello, interim director for Colorado Creative Industries told the Daily Yonder. “It’s a big, big contributor to the economy and we need to recognize that and continue to invest in arts and culture.”
The benefits of creative districts in Colorado include $10,000 of funding that needs to be matched by the creative district, technical and professional assistance, highway signs directing travelers to the creative district, connections to other creative districts around the state, access to economic data on the impact of creative districts, and more.
Chelsea Lunders experienced the creative economy reviving the town of Mancos firsthand. She grew up in Mancos and couldn’t wait to leave. But over the years of visiting family back home, Lunders noticed that “Mancos was sort of getting cooler and cooler and I just really started to notice a lot of things happening around art in the community. It really kind of brought … a vibrance and made me feel interested in coming back,”
Lunders moved home in 2019 and started volunteering with the Mancos Creative District. In 2022, she became the executive director.
“Gradually, I started to see more galleries and artists that were out doing things. One of the things that does is it helps create connections within our community. It brings people out to celebrate together. It also brings visitors, so it supports our tourist economy,” said Lunders about her creative district.
Mancos is the gateway to Mesa Verde National Park and Lunders sees the creative district as a big reason tourists come to the town before or after visiting the national park.
Ridgway, Colorado, was one of the first creative districts in Colorado, certified in 2013. “I can’t emphasize enough how transformational creative district designation has been for the town of Ridgway,” said Ridgway Mayor, John Clark, in an interview with the Daily Yonder.
Before the creative district, Ridgway was just a little ranching community, said Clark. The only store in town closed at 5pm, so if you wanted to get something for dinner, you were out of luck. “The creative district…it’s just really given us a new identity like we haven’t had since our founding,” said Clark.
Walk down the old main street (now called Clinton Street) in Ridgway today, and “It’s just kind of been reborn and is lined with galleries and shops and a microbrewery and a theater and there are people out on the sidewalk enjoying the scenery,” Clark said.
Space to Create
One of the largest accomplishments for Ridgway’s creative district has been the construction of a 30 unit low income housing development designed for artists and creatives. Under the Space to Create program, this project was completed in 2022 and includes a gallery and community space. Ridgway, like many Colorado mountain towns, is facing housing affordability issues. This space provides housing for artists and service workers who otherwise could not afford to live in the town, said Clark.
Space to Create is the first state-led program to build affordable housing in rural communities for artists and creatives. In partnership with Minneapolis-based non-profit ArtSpace, live and work spaces have been built in two Colorado creative districts including Ridgway and Trinidad, with four more in conception and building phases.
To be eligible for Space to Create development, communities must already be certified as a creative district, be distant from urban areas, have a creative workforce, and be ready to take on the project. The projects evolve based on the specific needs of each community, with maker space, housing, creative commercial, and community space all prioritized.
For Costello, the exciting part about creative districts is the collaboration across industries and how art and culture can be used as a tool to advance other social and civic issues, as exemplified by the Space to Create program.
“If you have a thriving arts economy, that helps uplift other industries and segments of the economy,” said Lunders, “…not everyone feels like they’re creative or they might not feel like they… have access to art, but we wanna open that door and show everyone that they are creative in their own way.”