Living in Pagosa Springs, a small town in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, I have participated in lengthy community debates about how to develop our local economy, which is primarily based on tourism. There is lots of talk about importing companies, both small manufacturing and big box retail, as ways to drive growth. But I’ve often believed that one way to grow our economy is to tap into an existing informal and entrepreneurial underground economy and develop it into a group of formal, tax-paying businesses.
Every day, I see my neighbors make everything from toy rockets to organic soap, at kitchen tables and in garages or spare bedrooms. Forged, stitched, formed, shaped, brewed, baked, strung, hammered, linked or woven, these products are sold at farmer’s markets, craft fairs and on websites like Etsy. It’s an underground economy. By some estimates this shadow economy could be 8 to 12 percent of the American economy and is valued at $2 trillion. It is primarily made up of people working “off the books” and getting paid in cash, whether consulting or making stuff and selling it. (I do freelance work and consulting, but am very much on the books, paying my taxes and reporting my income.)
Two years ago, I began collaborating with Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts and its Thingamajig Theater Co., SHY RABBIT Contemporary Arts, FolkWest, the editor of our local newspaper, a business consultant and a nonprofit consultant. We decided to host an event that would highlight the people who make things in Pagosa Springs. We began planning an event that was a hybrid between a Maker Faire and a studio tour. We envisioned an interactive maze of exhibits, workshops, studios, displays and demonstrations by those in Archuleta County who make stuff, create objects, design goods, invent gadgets and concoct things.
The first Pagosa MAKERS Expo and Tour was held October 12-13, 2013 and represented more than 90 makers in its inaugural incarnation. There were 31 booths at expo venues SHY RABBIT Contemporary Arts and the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts, and 22 studios, workshops and commercial businesses featuring local makers. We collected survey data from visitors and participants and were pleasantly surprised by the results.
We event producers, the Pagosa Arts and Culture Project board of directors, hoped to get 500 people to attend; almost 900 people came through the doors. We had visitors from 17 states and two other countries, and 25 percent of them came to Pagosa Springs just to attend this event. We estimate that $32,150 in goods were sold and $2,218 in sales taxes were collected. True to the shadow economy, many of these makers had never charged sales tax before. Several had never taken credit cards and realized that, by doing so, they could increase their sales. Collaboratively, we were able to market and advertise our community to the region. We produced and distributed 2,800 copies of a 20-page Program Guide. We nearly tripled our expectation for financial support through sponsorships and were able to spend more than $10,000 to advertise and market this event. A small grant from our local Town Tourism Committee had a return on investment of 574 percent.
The locavore food movement is growing synergistically in places like Silver City, NM and Santa Fe. Even in Pagosa, the farmer’s market continues to grow and Chimney Rock Farms sells co-op shares in their crops. Farmer’s markets and food vendors work side by side with crafters and artisans. As the Pagosa MAKERS Expo and Tour developed and I began talking about it to key stakeholders, I often used the example of our local brewery to illustrate the vision we had for this event. When I moved to Pagosa Springs eleven years ago, Tony Simmons was brewing beer in his garage but wanting to open a brewpub. He eventually did and today Pagosa Brewing and Grille is an award-winning brewery and tourist attraction. His thriving business is continually bringing awareness to our town via recognition in major media such as Sunset Magazine and The New York Times. If through an event like the Pagosa MAKERS Expo and Tour, we can create one or two more businesses like this, we will have produced significant economic development by looking to our own creative economy and nurturing the grassroots efforts of local citizens. We can sell handcrafted goods at the farmer’s market and food items at the weekend craft fairs, but how do we promote and nurture local makers year-round?
In a county with a population of 12,000, there are potentially hundreds of makers. We have only scratched the surface. In fact, one local clothing maker, Little Weedz, worked with the Pagosa Springs Chamber of Commerce to hire local seamstresses to produce her line of adjustable clothing for little girls that grows with the child by having buttons to adjust shoulder straps and adding layers of ruffles to skirts. Little Weedz has created a small production line in Pagosa, a trend recently reported on NPR. And while it may have taken more than 4,000 volunteer hours to make our MAKERS event a reality, it was well worth it. It brought people together. I saw more locals attend this, a creative event, than ever before, perhaps because the term Maker is more accessible and less intimidating than the term Artisan. Not to mention that this event offers something for everyone, from the voyeur who wants to see how others create and get a glimpse into the sacred space of a studio or workshop to the shopper looking to buy quality, locally-handmade goods.
If it’s made by hand and in Pagosa Springs then you can find it at the next Pagosa MAKERS Expo and Tour, Columbus Day weekend, October 11-12, 2014.