Carbondale, Salida, Crested Butte, Paonia and Ridgway are all certified creative districts here on Colorado’s Western Slope. This means they’ve been recognized by the state as having a concentration of arts organizations and a plethora of cultural opportunities. They’ve joined forces with the Colorado Tourism Office to comprise the new Colorado Creative Corridor.
It’s a drivable loop connecting the five communities, with a recommended itinerary for each town that showcases the arts and cultural scene. The new loop shows how many small towns are looking to creative industries not just to bring in more tourism dollars, but also to give their communities an identity.
The new Colorado Creative Corridor is garnering attention because it’s the first of its kind in the state. Driving tours are nothing new, but one centered on arts and cultural experiences?
“It is pretty groundbreaking, I will say that,” said Jill Corbin, director of destination development with the Colorado Tourism Office. Part of her job is to help rural communities think about how to include tourism as a part of their economic plan.
Andrea Stewart is the executive director of Carbondale Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Council of
Carbondale. She’s seen the arts transform Carbondale from simply being a bedroom community for Aspen into a destination in its own right.
“I feel like Carbondale has really put itself on the map, especially becoming a creative district...a lot of people are kind of seeking a different kind of tourism," said Stewart.
The Carbondale chamber knew they had something special, and that visitors who might not come to just one place would perhaps visit the region for a few different experiences.
Stewart reached out to the other Western slope creative districts. They pooled their resources and received a matching grant from the CTO to create a website promoting the loop.
Visitors to the page can download maps and itineraries that spotlight art walks, theater, music and film festivals, healing arts, and dining and craft beverage highlights in each destination.
“So really our goal was to market and promote the creative districts and with that comes economic development,” said Stewart.
Tourism is big business in Colorado, and it’s getting even bigger.
“Since 2009 the state has posted a 37 percent increase in visitation, which is more than double the 17 percent growth in travel nationally,” according to Corbin.
Corbin says that the CTO is seeing a lot of Colorado’s visitors returning again and again, and looking for hidden gems. The point of the loop is to show that getting on the backroads doesn’t mean straying further from rich cultural experiences like theatre and music festivals.
“They want to have that truly authentic experience and that’s where our rural communities, that’s what they’re really poised to provide the traveler."
Margaret Hunt is the director of Colorado Creative Industries, a nonprofit that supports the arts and studies their impact. She says that many small towns who need those lifesaving tourism dollars have invested in the arts as a part of their economic strategy.
“We have been tracking over the last five years job growth and earnings growth in businesses in creative districts and it’s been anywhere from 4 to 6 percent. So it is a strategy that’s working,” Hunt said.
Many small towns lost jobs as mining and ranching industries declined. Carbondale itself was a coal town that suffered in the early 90s when mines shut down. But creatives who could no longer afford the pricey rents in Aspen moved downvalley, helping the town find a new identity as a funky place filled with free thinkers and artists.
Hunt says that the arts may be the best way for small towns to fill coffers and revitalize downtowns.
“We want to see our rural communities have every opportunity to be resilient and to be able to diversify their economy so that they’re not so dependent on one type of industry," she added.
Andrea Stewart, from the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce, also says that the arts can play a powerful role in a small town’s identity.
"I think it’s so important and I really think it has a lot to do with giving it new purpose. I think it really gives hope,” Stewart said.
And the Colorado Creative Corridor might be a new way to bring hope not just to the five communities involved, but to other rural towns in the state. According to Stewart, a lot of eyes are on the loop, looking to see if it brings energy and dollars as these towns showcase their cultural strengths.