Carbondale creativity isn't anything new. The town has evolved through the years, leaning on ranching, mining, potato farming, tourism and creative businesses to sustain itself. Its arts community is well-established. But in the past year, community leaders have banded together as the Carbondale Creative District, an effort that has already seen success.
"Before, we were all more separate," said Carbondale Arts Executive Director Amy Kimberly, who serves on the district's governance committee. Carbondale Arts is also the district's fiscal agent. "While we respected what each other did, we never really did things together. We weren't in alignment."
That's shifted as a result of the creative district formation, awarded last June. The town is one of 18 such districts, designated by Colorado Creative Industries and certified for a five-year period. And while art may be valued for art's sake, it's also a financial issue. CCI Director Margaret Hunt should know; her department is a division of the state Office of Economic Development and International Trade.
"The goal of this program is to help Colorado creative districts achieve the administrative structure, funding streams, community engagement process and strategic plan that provide opportunities to grow the creative economy," she said at the time of Carbondale's designation.
The program provides state money (an average of about $40,000), marketing support, access to additional grants and training opportunities. According to CCI, creative industries account for $5.9 billion of earnings in Colorado, with a workforce of 96,000 people.
"These districts not only increase quality of life, they also help with economic vitality of the area and attract people from all over Colorado and the country," Gov. John Hickenlooper said in 2016.
In Carbondale Creative District's first year, it created a website to promote its membership and a strategic plan. These collective efforts can extend the often small or nonexistent marketing budgets of creative nonprofits, businesses and individuals.
Michelle Marlow has seen that in her efforts to organize May's annual family block party and her work with Marble Distillery and the Distillery Inn. The business celebrates its second birthday this week, and that's included partnering with Roaring Fork Beer Co. Recent collaborations also include Carbondale Clay Center and monthly Yappy Hour gatherings with Colorado Animal Rescue. Though she said collaboration existed previously, Carbondale Creative District has increased opportunity and awareness.
"I think what's really cool about it is there's not that competitive nature. Everybody really wants to lift one another up and be supportive of each other," Marlow said. "I think we've only touched the surface."
The district's core values include arts and culture, which it divides into six categories: healing arts; design, media and innovation; studio arts; culinary arts; cultural heritage; and performing arts. Education, space and sustainability are also core values, and the community seeks to capitalize on all those to maintain or improve quality of life.
"We feel like it's helping to solidify who we are," Kimberly said. "Hopefully it'll help us retain our authenticity because probably that's the biggest threat to our creative district. That's our challenge and our opportunity."
The strategic plan calls for a number of goals to support those values, including governance of the organization and projects such as the Rio Grande ArtWay; increased Latino involvement; collaboration with the town government and other entities; marketing; outreach; and connectivity. Visit carbondalecreativedistrict.com for more details as the plan rolls out.
With a three-year strategic plan in place, the governing members will now look to a joint retreat with the Carbondale Tourism Council to explore how the entities can best align without overlapping. Kimberly said that will likely mean the district focuses on valley relationships, while the tourism council continues to draw interest from beyond. (The council's public relations specialist Sarah-Jane Johnson severs on the CCD committee.)
The district also provides its entities a connection to the state office. Kimberly pointed to Take Note Colorado, a program that will provide interested students access to music education and instruments. The Re-1 school district will be a pilot program, and Kimberly said the creative district's relationship with the state helps bring such opportunities to the town.
There are many plans for the future, and Kimberly is enthusiastic for what it holds. She said, "It's created a pathway to do things that will help keep this community strong."