Keeping the creatives in creative districts is an ongoing challenge. Photo by Jeff Taylor
A creative district is an area where there is a critical mass of creative talent, one that creates a sense of place that is attractive to other businesses including those that might not necessarily be labeled creative. Typically, these districts are found in lesser-developed and many times less desirable areas of a city or town.
Today, many towns and municipalities have efforts to grow their creative areas and in many instances to build them from scratch by attracting creative businesses. The growth of many creative districts has been the result of creative professionals being priced out of other areas and somehow finding themselves in close proximity. This could be a particular part of a town or many times an area a bit further down the road from a larger or more economically viable area.
The process is typically slow and seems to take off when a critical mass is reached. At this point a “sense of place” begins to be noticed and the creative district becomes a place where people want to be – an area that is vibrant and more often than not, socially diverse. Other businesses and residential developments begin to move into the area.
As the growth accelerates, rents and property values begin to rise and eventually many of the artists/creative people who initially transformed the area are priced out. As the area grows, it may or may not keep its sense of place as a creative or artistic hub and becomes what has been characterized as being “gentrified”.
The process of building a creative district is not unlike other experiences in economic development. For example, a car dealer may move to the outskirts of town because the land is more affordable and taxes are lower. Soon other car dealers locate nearby and before you know it you have a street lined with car dealers.
The Key Ingredients to Carbondale’s Creative District Success. Photo by Zachary Singer
I have embarked on a project to visit the State’s many arts and creative districts to see what they are doing to promote the creative economy. The first stop on my tour was the town of Carbondale, a town with a population of about 6,500 located in the Roaring Fork Valley between Glenwood Springs and Aspen.The town of Carbondale was incorporated in 1888 when the economy was largely based on agriculture to supply food to the booming mining town of Aspen – each September for the last 102 years they have hosted the annual Potato Day Parade and Celebration. While the Carbondale economy still has its agricultural and ranching roots, the town now relies heavily on tourism, supporting the valley’s growing population with its small businesses – and the arts.Building the arts
In 2012, Carbondale was awarded the Governor’s Arts Award along with the city of Lafayette.
“The communities being honored by this award have each made a major commitment to the arts and creativity,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said. “They have invested in arts centers and downtown arts districts. They have made sure their young people continue to have access to the arts in school, and they have encouraged their citizens and their businesses to support local artists and arts organizations.”
The importance of the creative economy in economic development is a hot topic these days in the governmental, educational, nonprofit and private sectors. The creative sector is usually defined as professions in science, engineering, education, design and the arts to name just a few. The general approach is that a robust creative sector will help accelerate job growth, foster entrepreneurship, make communities more vibrant and position us to compete in the world economy.
The top down approach
There are a lot of efforts being made to build the creative economy from the “top down” by a variety of educational, nonprofit and governmental agencies. Today, many are jumping on the band wagon even as some cut back on these efforts as a result of limited budgets. Examples of the top down approach include creative- and innovation-centered educational programs, arts districts and funding of creative placemaking efforts just to name a few.
A major challenge with this approach is to develop measures that prove that the money was well spent or in business terms “return on investment.” In an era of scarce resources, taxpayers and donors are demanding effective investments that lead to sustainable outcomes. Another challenge major challenge is to insure that these efforts have a positive and long term effect on the people they were designed to help – namely the individual artists and creative enterprises as well as the communities where these efforts are targeted.
The bottom up approach
It’s just what it says – developing the creative economy by nurturing the individuals and enterprises that make up the creative economy.This could take the form of direct investments into the entrepreneurial sector, incubators, mentoring and education for those involved in the creative sector. One of the advantages of this approach is that the funding and other efforts have a more direct route to those involved in the creative sector with fewer layers of middlemen.
Having a vibrant arts and cultural community can help attract businesses and make it easier for them to recruit and retain employees. One way to develop an arts community is to create an arts district or “magnet” for an area’s creative talent. Colorado has recently enacted legislation that encourages local communities to create cultural districts as a tool in economic development. Funding these districts and ensuring their sustainability are two of the major challenges that need to be overcome.