Aurora arts district takes another crack at state designation

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The People’s Building is seen the reflection of the building across East Colfax.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | North Aurora’s artistic corridor is once again seeking to solidify its status as a formal creative district. 

The Aurora Cultural Arts District is again planning to apply to become recognized by the state as a certified Colorado creative district, marking at least the third time the bohemian entity has sought the designation in recent years, according to ACAD documents. 

The aging urban strip along East Colfax Avenue is commemorating its renewed efforts with an information session tonight at the district gallery at 1400 Dallas Street.

The arts district repeatedly applied for designation as a creative district after the state launched its Colorado Creative Industries Creative District program in 2012. But those efforts fizzled for a variety of reasons, including miscommunication and disagreements with the selection council regarding artistic offerings in Aurora, according to a letter the ACAD board sent the Creative Industries Council in 2016.

“ACAD has been a dedicated participant in the Creative District program since its inception and is extremely concerned about the program’s current process and district analysis,” ACAD directors wrote in their 2016 letter. “We feel our application and dedication to your program has been disrespected and marginalized. Our district has spent a considerable amount of time working towards full certification. The process has been arduous and extremely time consuming with very poor and inconsistent communication on how to succeed.”

In its 2016 denial of Aurora’s application, the Colorado Creative Industries Council snubbed the ACAD because the “district didn’t look like an arts district … Feedback was that (the council) saw too many pawn shops and hair salons,” according to the ACAD directors’ letter.

Margaret Hunt, executive director of the Council of Colorado Creative Industries since 2013, said previous, external consultants tasked with evaluating districts may have led to frosty communications with ACAD leaders, though the council has since moved its evaluation operations in-house.

“I think that’s all water under the bridge now,” she said. 

Still, she said Aurora’s East Colfax corridor could improve its marketing through signage and branding.

“It’s that sort of branding and identity and signage and wayfaring that is lacking in that section of East Colfax,” Hunt said. ” … I drive through it quite a bit, and I really haven’t seen it; I don’t see the visible signs of arrival that you’ve arrived in a creative district. There are incredible assets there with The People’s Building, The Fox, (Downtown Aurora Visual Arts), and I know that the bones are there. But as someone who travels up and down Colfax, if I didn’t know it was there because I’m close to it, I wouldn’t know it was there.”

For years, city leaders have waxed and waned in their efforts to bolster the bevy of theaters and galleries between Clinton Street and Geneva Street along East Colfax Avenue. 

The city operates and supports several entities in the area, including the Fox Theatre and the newly renovated People’s Building on the corner of Colfax and Florence Street. The city has also paid Minnesota-based consultant and developer Art Space several thousand dollars in recent years to evaluate the vitality of the north Aurora pocket.

In a new Art Space survey conducted last summer, 86 percent of some 450 respondents said they would be interested in pursuing some type of space in the arts district, from housing to private studios to shared performance space.

Artspace officials suggested pitching a mixed-use project to potential developers.

“Based on the findings, a mixed-use project concept would be appropriate to consider, as would a small studio/work-only project or a shared creative makerspace,” Artspace staff wrote in their final report last year.

The Artspace survey results came about two years after the city paid the group nearly $25,000 for a feasibility study in the same corridor. The results of that study were shelved until last September, when the local arts district received an $18,000 grant from the Gates Family Foundation to pursue the follow-up market survey. The city pitched in an additional $15,000 to conduct the query. 

Though council eventually signed off on the initial Art Space survey several years ago, some former city council members voiced objections to assigning money to the original effort in 2017.

“It came down to the usual discussion on investing on the Colfax corridor, investing in ACAD and how many millions it will take before that catalytic moment happens and that area can support itself,” former City Councilwoman Molly Markert told The Sentinel in 2015. “In a city that has 1,000 homeless children and uncounted seniors who can’t buy affordable housing, I can’t justify building spaces just for artists. For me, it just felt like a little bit too far of a reach.”

A creative designation could make the ACAD eligible for additional financial and technical support from the state. Colorado Creative Industries, the umbrella that oversees the state’s creative district program, functions as an arm of Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade.  

There are currently 26 certified creative districts sprinkled across the state, spanning from Carbondale to Trinidad. 

To apply, the ACAD will likely have to complete a three-step, self-guided process. Satya Wimbish, the district’s new executive director, said she’s aiming to complete the area’s latest application later this year, or possibly in early 2021.

“We just want to submit a stronger application with more support through the community,” she said.

Wimbish said she re-engaged with Colorado Creative Industries after several city officials and leaders at Stanley Marketplace and the Aurora Chamber of Commerce asked her about the ACAD’s creative district status in recent months. 

“I’ve had different people from different parts of the community asking about Aurora getting that designation, from business owners and artists to other city interests from different city departments,” she said. “So I went ahead and contacted Colorado Creative Industries because I wanted them to come in and assist us with facilitating the process.”

To further explain the application process and benefits of an official designation, Wimbish is hosting an information session at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 28 with members of the Creative Industries Council and the Creativity Lab of Colorado, a nonprofit group focused on bolstering creative entrepreneurs. The 90-minute event will review details of the greater creative district program and provide information on 40 West Arts, a certified district in northeast Lakewood launched in June 2014. 

Like Aurora, the Lakewood creative corridor faced initial struggles in activating its creative community, according to Liz Black, executive director of 40 West. 

“Our biggest hurdle as a district and as moving towards certification was just that … we all had a dream for an arts district, but the physical arts district hadn’t really solidified at that point,” Black said in a video posted to the Colorado Creative Industries website. 

Since obtaining state certification, the Lakewood creative corridor has added 290 percent more creative enterprises and jobs, according to the 40 West website. 

Anyone interested in attending Aurora’s free information session tonight is asked to RSVP on the event page at eventbrite.com.