Potatoes and Coal to Creativity: Carbondale Looks to Blaze its Own Trail

Potatoes and Coal to Creativity: Carbondale Looks to Blaze its Own Trail


This picture-perfect small town on Colorado's Western Slope has inspired artists for decades. Now local leaders aim to weave creativity into every aspect of Carbondale's economy and culture.

Below majestic Mount Sopris, where the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers converge, the fertile land around Carbondale proved perfect for potato farms in the late 1800s. The railroads also made the area a hub for the local coal mines. But potatoes moved to Idaho with the advent of industrial agriculture and the mines shuttered more than 25 years ago.

A new economic driver has emerged in recent decades: creativity.

Over the years, artists migrated downhill from Aspen, about 30 miles up the Roaring Fork Valley, to the warmer climate and easier living in Carbondale, and word got out. What began as a steady trickle of creatives became a full-fledged boom as Aspen's cost of living exploded in the 1980s and 1990s.

As one local puts it, the prime industries for Carbondale have been (in chronological order) "coal mining, ranching, and crazy hippies." And as those crazy hippies transitioned from counterculture to establishment, the local arts scene grew up as a key local industry.

An event and an organization, Carbondale Mountain Fair and Carbondale Arts, have anchored the town's creative economy since the early 1970s. Other cultural institutions followed in their wake, such as the 5Point Adventure Film Festival and Thunder Ridge Theatre Company.

The local character and culture continues to attract major investments, including True Nature Healing Arts, which expanded from a 500-square-foot yoga studio to a one-acre campus with a tea room, spa, boutique and garden in the last decade, and the Powers Art Center, exhibiting a world-class collection of Jasper Johns’ paper works since opening in 2014.

A plan for the future

Amy Kimberly, executive director of Carbondale Arts, joined the organization in 2004. Her 1890s-era house is one of Carbondale's oldest homes, its walls festooned with all manner of art including Mexican folk art, a hard-to-miss painting of a rhino, a neon tattoo sign and an old cistern in the basement. "I call it 'The House of Happy Walls,'" laughs Kimberly.

The local culture manages to balance arts and the outdoors, she says. "As far as creative districts go, we're most similar to Salida," she explains. "We could have been a bedroom community, but Carbondale has always maintained its individuality and uniqueness. We're the progressive side of Garfield County. We're considered the bad kids on the block."

Many local creatives are "displaced artists from Aspen," she adds. "Aspen got a little old and stale. People were like, 'Carbondale, no way!' We were considered a cowtown. Now it's different. It's what people are looking for."

Local food, beer, spirits, soaps and most everything else is a big allure. "Before it was just skiing," says Kimberly. "Now people want more than just skiing."

Kimberly herself moved to Carbondale from Telluride in 2001 to be closer to her daughter at Colorado Rocky Mountain School. "I was only going to move here for a year," she says. "I didn't have any idea."

She's helped guide Carbondale Arts to an enviable spot in her 13 years with the organization. In recent years, that's involved developing a concrete plan and putting it on paper. "We never sat around and discussed how we wanted to progress here," Kimberly says.

When Colorado Creative Industries (CCI) launched the Creative Districts program in 2012, she saw a template for Carbondale to follow. "The important part was the Office of Economic Developmentwas doing it. That was key."

Kimberly applied to CCI for certification the first chance she got. Carbondale didn't get in with the first big class of Creative Districts in 2014, but she persisted. The second application was a charm and CCI officially certified the Carbondale Creative District in June 2016.

A walk down Main Street

The seven-block stretch from Marble Distilling Company and its boutique lodging, the Distillery Inn, to 8th Street, Carbondale showcases one of the best Main Streets in Colorado.

Across from the distillery is the Carbondale Clay Center, a hub for potters and sculptors. Heading west, the historic storefronts feature the Roaring Fork Beer Company's tap room and standout restaurants emphasizing local ingredients like AllegriaVillage Smithy and Town. The old library is now The Launchpad and the home of Carbondale Arts, complete with a gallery and dance studio.

With public art, parks, galleries and thrift stores, Carbondale's Main Street has that elusive sense of place. You can't just wave a wand and create it; you can only hope to foster it.

Then, above it all, is the magnetic summit of Mount Sopris, reminding you that Carbondale is about not only what's in town, but also what's outside of it. Hiking and biking trails, rivers for fishing and rafting and several ski resorts are right in its backyard.

"You come for the winters, you stay for the summers," says Michelle Marlow, spirit liaison for Marble Distilling. "It's so approachable. People who get it, and get life, live in Carbondale."

Many people miss the town as they zip by on the highway. "It's such a cool, funky little town," she adds. "It's definitely growing, but it's growing in a really cool way. There's something special about Carbondale."

It's grown especially quickly in recent decades, as 2,000 residents in 1980 snowballed into 5,000 in 2000. The population surpassed the elevation (6,181 feet above sea level) about a decade ago, and is nearing 7,000 as of 2017.

Brian Colley, local printmaker and painter (and gallery manager for Carbondale Arts), shares a studio with three other artists at Studio for Arts and Works (S.A.W.). The magic is in the collaboration. "It seems like there's a lot of similarly minded people," says Colley of the local creative community. "Everybody likes to make things."

Then there's the town and its enviable location, he adds. "Whenever I go somewhere else, I come back and go, 'Yes!'"

A common thread

The Carbondale Creative District strategy is to interface and integrate with the town's schools, museums and businesses. "It's really impacted us on many different levels, in many different ways," says Kimberly.

One example: The bike/ped Rio Grande Trail runs 42 miles down the Roaring Fork Valley from Aspen through the heart of Carbondale.  "We are the only town where the trail comes right through town," she says.

That fact has spurred the development of the Rio Grande ArtWay, a creative placemaking project along the trail in town. "We're just starting it," says Kimberly. "It's kind of like art alley."

Latino art will be a big part of it, she adds. "Our public schools here are probably 60 percent Latino," says Kimberly, noting that the Carbondale Creative District is also integrating its strategies into the local curriculum. "They are now working on transforming our public schools into creative learning places."

Another point of creative synergy lies in Carbondale's history and cultural heritage. Built circa 1900, the old jailhouse has been reinvented as an artist's space in History Park next to the Log Cabin Museum, relocated from Hattie Thompson's ranch. 

Built circa 1900, the jailhouse is now a creative hub for the community. Photo by Beth White, Mt. Sopris Historical Society.

"This is a place for the community, for everyone to come and create," says Beth White, executive director of the Mt. Sopris Historical Society.

Michelle Zinanti was the first artist to inhabit the old brick jail. She describes the two-cell operation as "a holding cage for people who were making bad decisions with alcohol."

Now working as a "living artist" to help catalyze creative places, Zinanti used the space to make -- and break -- pottery from 2014 to 2016 before painter Ian Clark took her place. "We would smash pottery and make something new," she says. "It was magical. It never felt bad to me -- you would think a jail would. It always felt really nurturing to me."

The same goes for the entire town, Zinanti adds. "I would say it's a pollination point. There's a lot of innovative and creative ideas here. Carbondale is a great incubator for all of those ideas. And that mountain" -- she motions through the jailhouse window at Mount Sopris -- "is a great inspiration, I have to say."

A photographer, White turned the jailhouse into a pinhole camera a few years ago. "We actually were inside a camera," she laughs.

The jailhouse is a good metaphor for the town's ability to reinvent itself. "I think this community has always had an aspect of innovation, resourcefulness, the possibility to go from point A to point B," says White.

Self-reliance and independence "are qualities we're seeing now," she adds. "There's a real impulse here to create. All of those influences have been here for a long, long time."

The fourth generation of the Myron Thompson family that settled in the area in the 1880s, Lew Ron Thompson still lives next to the old family home, now the Thompson House Museum. "It's totally changed," says Thompson. "We were a potato capital for a number of years."

He says the completion of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon in 1992 and Aspen's emergence as an international destination have been the biggest drivers of change, converting an old economy fueled by coal and potatoes to a new one running on arts and tourism.

Adds White, paraphrasing Faulkner, "History isn't what was, it's what is."

Arts & affordability

Carbondale Arts' Kimberly says affordability is the biggest challenge for Carbondale's creative community. Home prices have skyrocketed, with the median sale price jumping by about 50 percent in the last five years. 

Before that, however, the Great Recession provided a welcome respite from increasing housing costs. "That allowed a lot of young people to buy houses and that has really helped with our authenticity," she says. "It just feels more real.

Kimberly says local leaders are looking into CCI's Space to Create program to develop affordable housing for the local creative community, but notes that the concept needs to be tweaked for the town. "We need to create a new model. It's allowed the conversation to happen."

Adds Zinanti: "We're on the cusp right now, but I feel we're going to invent a way to integrate both wealth and creativity."

That's the big push for Kimberly and her cohorts in the Carbondale Creative District. "For us in Carbondale, we probably have the lowest budget of any town in the valley," she says. "The arts could help. . . . A lot of people are looking to check out Carbondale and a lot of it has to do with creative industries."

The town has largely rejected cookie-cutter economic development strategies and big boxes, including a protracted fight that blocked a Home Depot a decade ago.

Maintaining the town's individuality remains important, says Kimberly. "We have this authentic, vibrant, real community people are hungry for. We can make do. We can make it happen."

Graphic design by Matt Megyesi.

This story is part of a series about Colorado's Certified Creative Districts. Support for this series is provided by Colorado Creative Industries.