“Role of arts and culture key in a town’s rebirth,” originally appeared in The SUN, June 2, 2005

“It was an eye opener,” Pagosa Springs Town Planner Tamra Allen said of the Culture, Commerce and Community Conference she attended May 20-21 in Denver.

Sponsored by Colorado Council on the Arts, the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs, the Lab at Belmar and Colorado Business Committee for the Arts, the event was billed as a think tank on current research and theory on the role of the arts in economic development and community engagement, and as a practicum, providing useful models for stimulating civic and commercial life through the arts.

“I don’t think I’m truly in the dark about culture and the role it plays in community, but this (the 3C Conference) allowed me to see the significant role art and culture plays in bringing together eclectic, community oriented, civic-minded creative people,” Allen said. “You get the out-of-the-box ideas and the generation of a new perspective, a new twist on how to do things, from creative people.”

Allen attended with the encouragement of Town Manager Mark Garcia. Both felt it was very timely, as Pagosa Springs grapples with the idea of how to maintain the small-town character of our community and tries to define what it is that makes a place unique and livable.

Allen believes the conference provided a theoretical, as well as an applied approach, that isn’t typically found at planning conferences. Angela Atkinson, executive director of the Community Vision Council and Crista Munro, executive director of Folk West, also attended the conference.

“I was pleasantly surprised at the blend of practical information, such as case studies, that was presented alongside more academic, philosophical discussions, such as what is the role of public art in our communities,” Atkinson said. The public art issue is one the Community Vision Council Social/Cultural Committee is currently researching.

“Public art is very much on the radar screen for many, many communities,” Atkinson continued. “We’re all seeking to differentiate ourselves and to communicate what is unique and special about the places we live – public art allows us to do that in a way that expresses our character and individuality.”

Allen, however, found the idea of the arts and culture as an economic driver to be counter-intuitive and ironic. “Looking at art and culture as an economic driver is the antithesis of why we have art and culture – for visual, tactile enjoyment, for the aesthetic value, for pleasure.”

In the end she understood the push for the arts as an economic driver because, as she said, “How do you rationalize spending public money if there isn’t a proven return?”

Allen thought some of the best ideas presented at the conference – to get the Pagosa community involved – were cultural heritage programs like the Alamosa Mariachi Conference, the Meeker Classic Sheepdog Trials and the City of Delta’s Council Tree Pow Wow. The Colorado Council on the Arts employs a state folklorist for Western Colorado to help communities develop their cultural heritage.

Munro currently provides the most successful cultural tourism event in Pagosa – the Four Corners Folk Festival. Both Allen and Atkinson mentioned the Spanish Fiesta as a way Pagosa Springs can capitalize on its cultural heritage. The Fred Harman Museum and Western Heritage Center is another entity poised to take advantage of the economic benefit of cultural heritage programming.

Another idea proposed to involve the community is cultural tourism. Americans for the Arts reported in 2000 that two-thirds of American adult travelers included a cultural, arts, heritage or historic activity or event in travels of 50 miles or more away from home.

“From a tourism perspective, statistics were presented showing how public art, galleries, unique architecture, even our public spaces, all serve to attract and engage visitors,” Atkinson said. “A successful public art program will actually fuel our economy and should work hand in hand simultaneously with other improvements being made to our downtown.”

Two concurrent sessions, “Cultural Tourism&emdash;Maximizing City Assets” and “The Arts and Tourist Dollars in Rural and Mountain Resorts,” ran during the conference. Panelists for the Rural and Mountain Resort session included Liana Carlson, director of marketing and public relations, Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival; Laura Smith, director of communications, Aspen Music Festival and Maurice LaMee, executive/artistic director, Creede Repertory Theatre.

The Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival provides a $7.4 million impact on the Vail Valley and $550,000 in taxes. The Aspen Music Festival pumps $52 million into the Aspen economy.

In Aspen, the cultural traveler stays 60 percent longer and spends 60 percent more than a traveler who does not attend a summer cultural event.

In Creede, the Repertory Theatre provides $2 million in economic impact for Mineral County. Twenty cents of every dollar spent in Mineral County comes through the theatre. Yet none of these highly successful, cultural tourism draws is self-sufficient.

At the Aspen Music Festival, ticket sales cover only 20 percent of the event costs, 30 percent comes from student tuition to the Music Festival School and the bulk of the budget, 50 percent, is donated by the Board of Directors and National Council, some individual donors and a small amount of corporate sponsorship.

The City of Aspen provides less than one percent of the Music Festival’s $13 million budget. In Vail, the Bravo! Vail Valley Music festival is funded 25 percent by ticket sales, 50 percent by individual donations and 25 percent by grants, fund-raisers and advertising. In Creede, 55 percent of the budget comes from ticket sales, advertising and gift shop, and 45 percent is donated.

While cultural tourism can provide huge economic benefit, the costs of events like these do not happen overnight and are expensive. In other words, cultural tourism is not a panacea.

“It was interesting to hear people iterate what they are going through, the demographic changes we are seeing, the growth in second home owners,” Allen said. “The baseline study EPS just did, matches the information we heard at the conference. We can’t stop growth. People are going to move somewhere. There is a need for every community to address how it can be creative and unique, how they can retain their old culture and find a new niche.”

Keynote speakers, Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class” and the new book “The Flight of the Creative Class,” and Joel Kotkin, author of “The City: A Global History,” envision the future of America as a federation of neighborhoods, or an archipelago of villages that are great places to live, work and raise children.

“The social cohesion is unraveling as we speak,” Florida said. “It’s a new type of class warfare. The battle is between the new people with money and ideas coming into a community where we’ve always done things the same, where my grandfather and father lived and worked and raised their family.”

This comment seemed to resonate with Allen and Atkinson. The challenge facing Pagosa and every other community is this type of change. It is the old versus the new.

Allen felt the biggest difference between Florida and Kotkin was on the issue of tolerance. “I liked what Florida said about our country being founded by immigrants and the flow of ideas they provided. He said that since 9/11 we seem to have collective amnesia that we used to be a tolerant country. As a community, we have to be tolerant of the immigrants, the new people moving here. We can’t prevent it. We have to figure out how to tap into their needs and desires to be an integral part of the community. These new residents are affluent, well skilled, knowledgeable. We have to tap into this ‘human capital’ as a new resource for creating ideas. How do we help Pagosa transition from a one-dimensional place whose sole economic f
unction is tourism? How we go one step further to sustain ourselves?”

Atkinson believes one idea is to create a “percent for art” program where 1 percent of new development cost is required to fund a public art display, an artistic feature inside or outside a building, or be provided in the form of an art donation or financial donation to the community.

“I think that while we’re looking at a downtown master plan and design guidelines,” she said, “we should also be looking at how public art fits into the big picture of community development.”

To that end, Atkinson and the CVC Social/Cultural Committee are organizing a speaker series in August with Mark Childs, planning professor at University of New Mexico, an expert in plazas and public spaces, and Nore Winter, Winter & Company, an expert in design guidelines and application of public art into planning documents.

The speaker series developed during a late night brainstorming session between Allen, Atkinson and Munro over takeout Indian food at their Denver hotel.

Allen is still looking for answers. She likes the idea of tapping into the local culture and arts to improve the tourism aspect of Pagosa. “But we want to also keep Pagosa a great family-oriented place to live.”

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