SALIDA — Stephen Smalzel's twanging banjo echoes off the old brick as a small crowd gathers in front of his gallery.
Some stroll in and admire his colorful landscapes. Others tap a foot and continue window shopping in Salida's increasingly vibrant downtown. They sip whiskey at Wood's Distillery. They strum handmade guitars or nibble from a food truck. Consignment shops bustle with shoppers, and restaurants sizzle with local fare. Ladies in summer dresses pedal creaking cruisers through downtown, waving at friends. The Arkansas River jostles with boaters.
Instead of building another wooden bridge across a small creek bed, Salida decided to hire metalsmiths and artists C. Shark Lambdin and Kamber Sokulsky, who combined forces to create this artwork forged of steel.(Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)
"This is the Paris of Chaffee County," says Smalzel, a well-known artist who has concentrated a formerly widespread collection of galleries into one studio in Salida. "Can't you feel the creative vibe? You see it in the painted bicycles, the number of people making beer, wine and whiskey, people making music, filming, making videos. It's all over the place."
Artists began setting up galleries and studios in Salida more than 20 years ago, drawn by the beauty of the area, the bounty of recreation, the historic buildings downtown and the affordability relative to Colorado's resort-anchored, high-country communities. Last year, the art community's decades-old appreciation of Salida was rewarded with the state's first Colorado Creative District designation, a distinction that reverberated well beyond the $15,000 grant from the state.
"That gave us instant credibility and a way for us to get the word out. The money sure helped, but the distinction was by far the biggest thing. We consider it a milestone," said Michael Varnum, the director of the city-owned SteamPlant events center that serves as an anchor for Salida's thriving creative district.
Jack Chivvis, a longtime artist in Salida, said the early 1990s saw a steady trickle of artists who helped bolster the city's historic downtown as owners began restoring old buildings left to wilt as the railroad town pondered its slow transition to tourism.
Pastry chef Sarah Gartzman prepares gluten-free brownies inside the kitchen at Sweetie's bakery and deli. Gartzman and her husband, Rob, have owned the downtown business for about a year. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)
"There was new energy and optimism after some really lean years," he said. "Now I am just blown away at the number of artist-owned galleries and how so many of the other arts have followed: theater, dance, poets, writers and musicians. Salida has truly experienced a renaissance due to the arts."
In the year since Salida and Denver's Art District on Santa Fe won the first creative-district grants — which were meant to encourage the formation of creative districts that could lure artistic enterprise and hopefully stir creative economic activity in rural Colorado — Salida has exploded. Sales- and lodging-tax collections climbed in 2012 over 2011, reaching an all-time high of $3.95 million in sales-tax collections. And this year is pacing ahead of last.
Salida artist Joshua Been spends many mornings outdoors with his oils and a canvas, but in the afternoons, he can be found painting in the lobby of the Palace Hotel, as his 5-year-old daughter, Maddie, plays nearby. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)
"The entire community benefits from the people coming to Salida because of the creative-district designation," Varnum said.
The community recently forged a five-year plan to develop the creative district. The plan includes marketing a Salida brand with a new website — Salidacreates.com — much like the recent effort to rebrand Colorado, which includes the nascent Coloradocreates.com website.
With improved broadband connections to Salida, businesses are settling in the city. Most recently, the Monument-based Navsys Corp. opened an office downtown in a renovated building where the basement serves as a small-business incubator and the top floors house well-paid software workers.
"Those are the kinds of businesses that will help sustain the arts community ... so we aren't dependent on just tourists," said city planner Dara MacDonald, who can barely pedal two strokes on her cruiser without stopping to chat with friends.
Salida is a glowing example of how a simple spark — such as a $15,000 grant — can help contribute to the revitalization of a community and region, said Margaret Hunt, executive director of Colorado Creative Industries, the offshoot of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade that replaced the Colorado Council of the Arts.
Hunt will soon certify more creative districts, like last year's five applicants — Longmont, Ridgway, Pueblo, Telluride and Denver's River North Art District — that won "Prospective Creative District" designation. Applications for this year's grants were finalized last week.
Hunt said forging a specific creative district that unites businesses, artists, municipal leaders, planners, nonprofits, residents and visitors can marry diverse interests such as those revealed in the funky vitality of downtown Salida.
"This project has elevated spirits, and people get to be creative, and when we all get talking, the creative juices start flowing. And the community finds new wind in its sails," Hunt said. "It's key to them becoming sustainable and successful."
New bike shops — such as Sub-Culture Cyclery — feed Salida's animated bike vibe, blurring the distinction between Salida's heralded and well-known recreation scene and its arts culture. The sidewalks outside nearly every shop and restaurant in Salida are crowded with cruisers.
"All our friends in Summit (County) come down here and start talking about how they need to move here," said Michelle Gapp, a longtime Salida caterer who recently opened her gourmet Truck Culture food truck in the Sub-Culture parking lot a block from Salida's frothy whitewater park, an example of the atypical partnerships that electrify Salida's downtown district. "Everyone wants to be here. This place just makes you more creative."