The Carbondale Creative District Empowers and Brings Cohesion to Local Businesses, Organizations, and Initiatives

On any given day, the ARTway along Carbondale’s Rio Grande Trail pulses with people and vitality. Triptych murals, fantastic sculptures, colorful gardens, pocket parks, and a pump track speak to this turned-on mountain town.

Hollis Sutherland, a key player on one of the town’s many boards, appreciates the many “lovely places to stop. The branded signage is a friendly greeting, helping visitors find their way. If they’re not sure what they are looking for, it’s an invitation to ‘come this way, there are cool things for you to discover here.’”

Colorado Creative Industries, a division of the state’s Office of Economic Development & International Trade, states online that it formalized the Carbondale Creative District (CCD) in 2016 to “promote, support, and expand the creative industries to drive Colorado’s economy, grow jobs, and enhance our quality of life.”  

The CCD is essentially Carbondale Arts (CA) on steroids. CA Executive Director Amy Kimberly planted the original seed for designation in 2012 and has been watering and fertilizing since. The fruits of these actions powerfully expand the capabilities of the already-prolific CA.

Technical assistance, advertising and marketing support, access to grants, leadership training, and funding for Creative Districts help towns pursue a multitude of creative and economic objectives— quite successfully, as Town Manager Jay Harrington sees it.

“[It’s] been a wonderful community partnership that closely aligns with the goals of our Comprehensive Plan,” he notes. “It has completed some impressive projects that have enhanced the local economy and supported our community values.”

The Rio Grande ARTway is but one of many projects initiated by the District, and its impact is significant. This small mid-valley town—with no internationally recognized hot spring, no lofty ski resort— takes pride in its laboring past, recognizing that ingenuity and possibility arise from process, inclusivity, diversity, and hands-on effort. Harnessing the creative power of hundreds of volunteers, the elements along the ARTway make the past relevant and give direction to the future.

As the sap rises this spring, so too will the Mural Express Project, showcasing the artistic soul and entrepreneurial spirit of Carbondale. Murals will connect the ARTway with the heart of downtown and business hubs throughout town.

This all goes beyond mere ‘beautification,’ or art for art’s sake. Positive economics are inherent to community vitality and livability. The CCD member logos sprinkled throughout town businesses and studios bring more than just cool optics; they symbolize the community’s desire to unite and move forward collectively, versus competitively. The brewing and distilling industry are case in point.

Roaring Fork Beer Company’s Aly Sanguily believes that “Carbondale businesses go deeper than just what’s on the sign outside of their door. Allowing tourists to see we are all part of one artisan conscious group creates a more in-tune understanding of who Carbondale is and striving to be.”

Within this understanding, the CCD then becomes a dynamic, two-way relationship.

Connie Baker of Marble Distilling Company promotes “the Creative District in all our marketing materials to drive press and visitors not only to us, but Carbondale in general.”

The CCD legitimizes locals who support one another.

“Brewing and distilling are creative endeavors,” notes Patrice Fuller of Carbondale Beerworks, “but we also feature local musicians, photographers, and artists here to showcase local creativity. I have a mural in one of my bathrooms done by Alex Cruz. [Other murals] have implemented all things Carbondale into them. Tourists can see the talent we have here.”

Still, whispers of ‘gentrification’ do not go unheard. Access to the Creative Industries’ Space To Create initiative has enabled the CCD to move the needle on the town’s housing issue. A feasibility study in 2017 and 2018 identified need, priorities, and possible pathways to affordable housing and maker space. While it did not result in an immediate solution, the groundwork has been laid for potential investors, developers, and landowners down the road.

“Carbondale has been an extraordinarily creative community for as long as I’ve known it,” says Mayor Dan Richardson. “What the Creative District designation did was to bring clarity to how different sectors relate through creativity, more intentional collaboration between these sectors, and more awareness to the general public about how integral the creatives are to our thriving community.”