Can the Arts Save These Struggling Towns in Postindustrial America?

Can the Arts Save These Struggling Towns in Postindustrial America?

Why you should care

Because the arts aren’t a wasted buck for struggling communities.

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The scene in Trinidad, Colorado, on a recent Friday afternoon could have sprung from the lines of Walt Whitman’s poem, “I Hear America Singing.” Designers paste vinyl lettering to a new downtown office, while baristas at a trendy sandwich shop serve up artisanal dishes. Local theater actors paint on their faces for the weekend show, while cars buzz by Victorian architecture down a Main Street busier than one might expect for a town of 9,000.

Tiny Trinidad appears to be a microcosm of America at work. But it could have just as easily been written off as another coal center caught in a cycle that’s much more bust than boom. After all, this railroad stop — three hours from both Denver and Santa Fe — was recently reeling, having lost 1,300 jobs from 2009 to 2014 after multiple mines shut down. Now Trinidad is thriving, in part, local officials say, because it made a bold decision to embrace the arts as an economic driver. Since joining a statewide creative arts district program, the number of commercial building sales has tripled, the housing market has rebounded, and more than 150 startups have perked up the community’s economy.

People went from ‘What the heck is an art car?’ to ‘You must be from Trinidad.’

Rodney Wood, artist and arts curator

Trinidad is part of a larger trend in which some forward-thinking former coal and manufacturing centers are recovering thanks to renewed interest in the arts. Since 2012, Colorado has formed 21 certified creative districts that have, on average, seen a 5 percent increase in employment and a 6 percent jump in revenue, compared to the state’s average job growth of 2 percent. During the height of the Great Recession, Gillette, Wyoming — the hub of the Powder River Basin, where a dozen or so mines produce more than a third of the nation’s coal — invested in public art. The most visible expressions: the numerous sculptures that now anchor a downtown shopping district marked by a cupcake shop, brewery and boutiques. And Gary, Indiana, known for its dilapidated buildings after the decline of steel, has transformed that blight into canvases for a city mural experience that forms the crux of a new business corridor.

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Housed in a Trinidad coal history museum, this is one of several paintings in the Remembering the Ludlow Massacre collection bought by the city as part of a larger focus on the arts.

Source Maura Friedman/Ozy

Admittedly, these are all small-scale boosts to local economies. Across Colorado, the legalization of marijuana has been a greater direct economic driver, with Trinidad alone benefiting from more than $1 million in additional annual revenue. “What’s helped a lot are the dispensaries — we have 17,” says David Frank, who owns a Main Street photo restoration business. The arts and weed can’t replace the scores of jobs lost during the undulations of the energy and manufacturing industries. In 2012, hundreds of Trinidad area miners were laid off by the New Elk Coal Mine. And on the worst day in Gillette, in March 2016, around 500 coal workers were let go, says Gillette mayor Louise Carter-King. “The quality of life is just a tough thing to put your finger on,” she says, and sometimes it’s hard to directly trace its effect on helping turn around towns like hers.

And yet, city leaders see creativity as a crucial component for diversifying their economies and escaping the boom-bust continuum. “It really was the need to rethink our economic base,” Gary mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson tells OZY. That re-evaluation drove the city to engage in the arts not just as “a hobby” but as “a potential source for income.”

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From her office in Gillette, a city that for decades served as little more than sleeping quarters for its workers, Carter-King points down at a sculpture of a boy and a girl next to a post office mailbox. When the mayor’s office launched an arts council a decade ago, people wondered why it was buying statues: “This is a blue-collar town,” Carter-King, then a councilwoman, remembers locals saying. “Now there are 100 pieces in the permanent collection,” she notes proudly. When residents ask why the city should make such investments, she points to the ’80s, when her father was mayor, and it was difficult to retain top talent. “You have to pay them a lot to get them to come here,” Carter-King says. “But they also have to bring their families here. … We want to have a community people want to live in.”

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An “art car” for Trinidad’s annual festival ArtoCade, which has been part of the city’s economic and artistic renaissance.

Source Maura Friedman/OZY

What’s intriguing about places like Gillette and Trinidad is that they haven’t had to forsake their heritage in order to embrace new opportunities. Trinidad agreed to pay $45,000 for a series of paintings that depicts its coal history, particularly, the Ludlow Massacre. They are now housed in a coal museum that opened last year and is run by Yolanda Romero and her husband, Mike, who spent 36 years in nearby mines. Since the city started focusing on its art community, Mike says, “We’re getting a lot of younger people coming into town and starting to open different kinds of businesses.”

At the turn of the decade, the Trinidad tourism board approached Rodney Wood, an arts curator and painter, about coming up with a unique creative endeavor to draw eyeballs to the town. The result was an annual art car event — one car is an amalgamation of security-camera orbs-turned-eyeballs — similar to the famous parade in Houston, but more indie. Now in its fifth year, Trinidad’s ArtoCade will have more car entries in 2017 than San Francisco and Seattle combined, and both of those events have been around for nearly a quarter century, Wood says. “This world isn’t about commerce: what I can make and sell you. It’s more about being creative and sharing that with others.”

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Pat Patrick, who has lived in Trinidad for two decades, works on a “disco car” for ArtoCade.

Source Maura Friedman/OZY

Yet it has tangible results too. The event, which will bring 8,000 people to the town, was awarded the governor’s award for the state’s best festival in 2015 and draws the type of press coverage that small cities typically can’t buy. “This is a giant publicity stunt for Trinidad. It creates interest. That’s probably the hardest thing to measure, but also the most obviously felt,” Wood says. “People went from ‘What the heck is an art car?’ to ‘You must be from Trinidad.’”

Arts and culture are sustainable and year-round.

Marilyn Leuszler, Corazón de Trinidad Creative District

Now Trinidad is participating in a first-of-its-kind $14 million project called Space to Create, which aims to transform an entire block of Main Street into a complex with affordable housing, a gallery and a networking space for artists. The project, which opens later this year, was a joint effort of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit ArtSpace and the Corazón de Trinidad Creative District, one of Colorado’s approved districts that has received state funding.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Colorado has emphasized the arts under Gov. John Hickenlooper, who, as mayor of Denver, made a point of incentivizing creative endeavors. Now “there are more live-music venues in Denver than there are in Nashville or Austin,” Hickenlooper tells OZY. For the state, as well as for cities like Trinidad, it’s not just about giving people a reason to stay: “It’s who you invite to the party as well,” he says. “Our premise is that the young people who are increasingly the economy of tomorrow generally weren’t the most popular kids in class. … These are the guys who weren’t in the social mainstream and are generally on the periphery, and generally who they all hung out with were the artists and musicians.”

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The calendar for Trinidad’s evolution keeps filling with red-letter days. Since 2012, when it first received its district status, the town has participated in statewide summits, invited college professors and doctoral students to town for arts and economics research, and hosted numerous festivals, from ArtoCade to Trinidaddio Blues Fest. All the while, commercial building deals have surged, totaling 24 sales for $6 million, compared to just two sales in 2013 (and not a single one in 2010 during the recession). “Trinidad has desperately been looking for another venue for revenue, and the arts have been trying to creep their way in for some time,” says Jerry Campbell, vice chair of Trinidaddio. Marilyn Leuszler, chair of the Corazón de Trinidad Creative District, adds: “Arts and culture are sustainable and year-round.”

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A photo from the Trinidad coal history museum collection.

Source Maura Friedman/Ozy

While the Denvers and Santa Fes of the world have their charms, places like Trinidad are benefiting from the financial squeeze felt in large-city housing markets, which have seen rents go through the roof. “Galleries are dropping like flies in the hypergood markets,” Wood says. “You’re working like three jobs to work on your art three hours a week. The artists coming here are almost like pioneers.”

A creative shift can even benefit midsize cities such as Colorado Springs (pop. 465,101), which used its Colorado Creative Districts grant to hire a part-time staffer dedicated to artistic events. After the funding went dry, the city chose to fully underwrite the position, which helped create a First Art Friday and a professional busking program. Both efforts have found “a positive way to deal with otherwise negative, blighted situations,” says Hannah Parsons, chief economic development officer for the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce. “It does more than just do things for the arts. It educates communities.”

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