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Colorado’s plan to embed arts space into historic districts may be slow to take shape. But towns are fine with that.

Creative industries are big business, but little towns are taking their time sketching plans to develop housing alongside studio space

The Space To Create renovation in downtown Trinidad takes up one square block on the town's Main Street. Part of a project estimated to cost $18 million, it's also the pilot program for Colorado aimed at artists in rural areas of the state. The renovation is expected to be completed next summer. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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TRINIDAD — When Colorado launched its ambitious Space to Create program, it wanted to have nine live-work projects flourishing within eight years.

Four years in, just one is under construction and it will be next summer before anyone moves in. 

Yet those involved couldn’t be more excited about the prospects for the four rural communities selected so far and those to come in future years.

“It slowed because of the capacity of the state to manage all those projects,” said Margaret Hunt, director of Colorado Creative Industries. “It was more complicated than we anticipated.”

That said, she added: “We’re very pleased with the process. It’s been a learning curve for all of us who’ve never been involved in workforce housing before.”

Julian Gallegos hangs Romex for a lighting fixture at Space to Create on Sept. 5, 2019 in Trinidad. The site in downtown Trinidad will provide artists and creatives a place to ply their craft. It’s undergoing a significant renovation and is expected to be completed next summer.(Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Live, work, preserve historic and cultural amenities

These are not just housing projects. While providing affordable live-work spaces for “creatives,” they also are intended to revitalize downtowns, preserve historic and cultural amenities, encourage collaboration and give the communities an economic boost. 

The partners include state and local governments, nonprofits and grant-making foundations, and each project is molded to the community it will serve.

Suddenly, three to five years to develop each project doesn’t seem so long. It took just as much time to get the concept launched.

Space to Create was born out of discussions initiated by the Boettcher Foundation after the city of Loveland asked for its support for an Artspace project. Boettcher staff was skeptical. Affordable housing isn’t part of its mission, and an art enclave brought to mind the stereotypical “starving-artist” colony, said Julie Lerudis, director of finance and operations for the Denver-based foundation.

But the Loveland project was about saving the landmark Feed & Grain building, enhancing arts in the community and revitalizing downtown. It is managed by Artspace, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit with similar projects across the country. Boettcher awarded a $50,000 grant to support the renovation of the historic granary to provide community arts space.

The historic Loveland Feed & Grain complex, photographed in 2013, now anchors Artspace Loveland Arts Campus. The neglected building was repurpose for commercial and community uses while an adjacent building holding 30-units of affordable live-work space was constructed. (Photo provided by Artspace Loveland)

The foundation’s involvement with Loveland also planted a seed. What if, Lerudis thought, we could develop a similar concept for rural communities?

“We were looking for rural Colorado projects,” she said. The foundation knew there was a common theme in small, rural towns: “deteriorating main streets, a need for economic development — something that would make their children want to come back to the community — and a need for affordable housing.”

Boettcher leaders brought together a team to consider the idea. It included Colorado Creative Industries (part of the state Office of Economic Development and International Trade), the governor’s office, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, History Colorado, the Gates Family Foundation and Artspace. In July 2015, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper announced the Space to Create program, with Trinidad as the demonstration site.

A little (art) history

There’s an abundance of initiatives on the arts – make that “creative industries” – in Colorado for good reason. It’s big business. In 2016, it contributed about $14.5 billion to the state’s economy (more than mining or transportation), employing more than 100,000 people, according to the Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account, developed through a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

“It’s a part of who we are in our state,” Hunt said. “So, I’m not surprised these projects have been so well embraced.”

The “creative economy” has six subgroups: design; film and media; literary and publishing; performing arts; visual arts and crafts, and heritage. When you include things such as software publishers, advertising agencies, architectural services and internet publishing, the figures make sense. And Colorado Creative Industries adds a seventh category: culinary arts (including the cottage craft market).

Colorado Creative Industries works to channel that creative spirit into economic development.  

Since 2012, the state has certified 23 creative districts, which must include a contiguous area with a concentration of art and cultural organizations and enterprises, be walkable, have complementary businesses such as restaurants, lodging and retail and promote arts and cultural activities. 

Having a Certified Creative District provides a solid base for the small communities vying for entry into the Space to Create program because it shows community organization and backing, Hunt said. Space to Create programs are for communities distant from urban centers and with fewer than 50,000 residents.

A vital component that Space to Create adds is affordable housing, because if those pursuing creative enterprises – whether full time, part time or in their limited spare time – can’t afford to live in a community, they move. Or perhaps are unable to devote time to their craft or innovation and it never takes flight.

That’s what Artspace realized more than 30 years ago as it shifted its role from advocating for space for artists in communities to developing that space.

Getting the housing balance right

In Trinidad, population about 8,200, those working on the Space to Create project initially thought they’d need eight to 10 affordable housing units, said Marilyn Leuszler, executive director of Corazon de Trinidad Creative District.

They’re building 41.

The residential component of Ridgway’s Space to Create project includes as many as 28 units of affordable workforce housing and 3,000 square feet of community space in a building that includes the facade of a historic building on Clinton Street in the city’s central core. (Rendering provided by Town of Ridgway)

Ridgway, population about 1,000, plans to build 26 apartments. Paonia, population about 1,400, is considering a slightly more modest 17 living units. Grand Lake, with about 500 residents, is awaiting recommendations from its just-completed market survey.

The number of housing units recommended by the market surveys, conducted by Artspace, is a fraction of the interest indicated by respondents. Artspace bases its recommendations on its 30 years of experience developing and managing live-work space. Its projects all run in the black without ongoing philanthropic support, and it has no trouble keeping apartments filled, Lerudis said.

About a year before Space to Create was announced, Trinidad talked to Artspace about a project, but the small town did not meet the nonprofit’s criteria. Most Artspace programs, such as the one in Loveland, are contracted directly with the community. Space to Create is one of four special programs the nonprofit is involved with, and the only one that is state-driven.

Artspace also is consulting directly with other Colorado cities, including Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Telluride, Carbondale and Fort Collins, on the potential for projects.

Andrew Michaelson, director of property management for Artspace, said he’s pleased with the progress in Trinidad, and expects to begin taking housing applications in the spring.

“This has been a really fun project to be involved with – watching the revitalization of the community,” he said. “It hits a lot of the touchpoints for us, it’s part of the Space to Create project and we see the next steps they’re taking.”

The $18 million Trinidad project involves renovation of three vacant buildings on Main Street, one donated by a bank and two purchased by the city. It will house 13 apartments on the upper floor and 20,000 square feet of community space on the main level that will be managed by the city. While details of the community space still are being hammered out, Leuszler said it will likely include retail, gallery and flexible space for meetings, events and performances. People are not required to live in the residential units to have access to the community space.

A separate, new building a few blocks away will have 28 apartments. Leuszler said it is much cheaper to construct new residential units than it is to renovate old buildings for housing and the new building helps offset the overall cost.

“This is the biggest thing that’s taken place in Trinidad for decades,” she said. As Space to Create progressed, shopkeepers began sprucing up their buildings and other development projects were initiated, including a planned $8 million renovation of the now city-owned Fox-West Theatre in collaboration with preservationist Dana Crawford, chairwoman of Urban Neighborhoods Inc.    

“It’s literally a change that is palpable now,” Leuszler said.

The Space to Create project in downtown Trinidad takes up one square block on the town’s Main Street. The project is the pilot program for a Colorado initiative designed to cultivate creative spaces iin rural areas of the state. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Keeping the momentum going

Maintaining community interest in projects that stretch out over several years is a challenge, those involved with Space to Create said.

With that in mind, Ridgway has commissioned a mural-style piece of art for the vacant lot where the new building will go up, said Diedra Silbert, the community initiatives facilitator. The art later will be incorporated into the building.

“For the most part, our community has been really excited and supportive,” she said. “But it’s a slow process. We’ve been working on it since 2016 but we don’t have anything in the ground yet.”

As in most of Colorado, affordable housing is an urgent need now in Ridgway, and providing it was the town’s primary objective with the Space to Create program, she said.

“We see that as a way of keeping creative people here in our community,” she said. “We all know people who left because they couldn’t make a living, so we want to help creative people stay here and thrive here. We also expect there will be economic benefits for our downtown area.”

Ridgway’s $10 million project includes 26 residential units and 3,000 square feet of community space. It did not have an existing vacant building that could be renovated to meet those needs.

When construction begins depends on its application to the Colorado Housing Finance Authority for low-income housing tax credits. It should learn this month if its application is approved, and if construction could begin next year.

If not, it will apply again in 2020.

It took Trinidad two tries to get its $1.2 million in federal 9% low-income housing tax credits, awarded in 2017. That year, CHFA awarded 12 projects about $12.8 million in those credits, spokeswoman Megan Herrera said.

For Loveland (not part of Space to Create), it was three applications for its $559,944 in 9% tax credits, awarded in 2013. That year, CHFA awarded tax credits to 13 projects for a total of $12.1 million.

Each project must apply to CHFA as the agency does not earmark credits for a specific program, such as Space to Create, Herrera said in an email. The criteria for awards includes: “market conditions based on a third-party market study, experience and track record of the development team, to give preference to rental housing projects serving the lowest-income tenants for the longest period, to provide for distribution of housing tax credits across the state, and to distribute housing tax credits to assist a diversity of populations in need of affordable housing.”

Who gets to live there?

The biggest constraint on who can live in Space to Create units is income. Because most are, or expect to be, funded in part by state and federal tax credits, residents must meet strict IRS income criteria.

Beyond that, preference is given to those involved in creative pursuits, but it does not have to be a person’s primary source of income. For example, someone who works as a school bus driver and makes jewelry or pottery on the side would qualify. Likewise for an office administrator who writes travel articles or a retiree who teaches drawing.

“Many creative people can’t make a living doing what they’re doing,” Ridgway’s Silbert said. “They don’t have to be a professional in the field.”

For residential units managed by Artspace, the organization typically timestamps applications and for those eligible, units are filled on a first-come, first-served basis. Sometimes they use a lottery; in many cases, there is a waiting list, Michaelson said.

Artspace Loveland transformed a neglected downtown block with Artspace Loveland Lofts, right, which includes 30 units of live-work space and the repurposed Loveland Feed & Grain complex, left, which holds 12,000 square feet of commercial and community space. (Photo provided by Tom Hacker, Artspace Loveland)

Once a building opens, it operates much like any apartment complex, filling vacancies as they arise.

In Loveland, the 30 residential units in the Loveland Lofts are kept full, and they could rent more, Scholl said. There were plans to develop additional housing to the west of the granary, but the price of the land proved prohibitive.

Artspace usually owns, or has a future option to buy (as in Trinidad) the residential units, so it can ensure the space remains affordable and available to creatives in the future.

“I wish we could’ve gotten Artspace into (Denver’s) RiNo 10 years ago,” Lerudis said. “Many of the artists who helped develop that neighborhood have been pushed out. That’s what’s happened in Santa Fe and Taos.”

An Artspace proposal in the RiNo Art District recently fell apart because the time needed to secure funding did not fit with the accelerated timeline of the for-profit Westfield Company. The company and Artspace tried for several years to get CHFA’s 9% federal tax credit but lost out because of another low-income project in the same area, according to Westword.

The competitive process for the tax credits sometimes means a project can be idled for years. But those involved with Space to Create believe the wait is worth it,

“The (Boettcher) trustees are proud of (the) investment, and they want to do it right rather than be too fast,” Lerudis said. Boettcher has committed $250,000 to each Space to Create project. “Remember, these are rural communities. They don’t live by the same deadlines; they’re willing to take their time, and for some it’s a big change to take on.”

They also don’t want to be overwhelmed by growth.

If you build sustainable affordable housing in communities, the lower income people get to stay and be involved in the vibrant communities they help create, Lerudis said.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 11:40 a.m. on Oct. 8, 2019, to correct the caption on the rendering of Ridgway’s Space to Create project.


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