by Bill Knowles
TRINIDAD — The evidence of an economic revival in Trinidad is already apparent. A drop in downtown vacancy rates of 61% in 2015 to 32% in 2016 speaks to a growth in industry, with cannabis leading the way.
That number alone gives a historical glance back at the decades of boom and bust, which resulted in a series of economic and cultural losses, leaving many of the buildings along Main Street empty.
However, with growth historically found in the harvesting of hydrocarbons— coal, oil, and coal bed methane— the changes needed are slowly coming around, and are not accepted by everyone. As one old-timer noted, “It will be the actors, artists, and potheads that will take over the town.”
But the time of change has arrived.
Investments made by Jay Cimino to bring about the La Puerta project (a showcase of businesses that will become a doorway to the southern Colorado Rockies), and a booming cannabis industry which is drawing many visitors into Trinidad, are fueling a renaissance of growth. Many of the cannabis retailers have refurbished once empty downtown buildings and have brought with them employment.
But a long planned and unfolding arts and culture scene is starting to grow with the development of Space to Create Trinidad — a $17 million live/work project slated to break ground in May. Trinidad has tapped into state-level resources in an effort to end the boom-and-bust cycle of the failed natural-resource industries that has decimated its population.
Space to Create Trinidad is partly the result of efforts by Space to Create Colorado, a state driven initiative for affordable housing for artists and creative sector workers. It will develop affordable housing and workspace, including commercial space, for artists and arts organizations. Space to Create Colorado hopes to position Colorado as the nation’s leader in artist led community transformation in rural communities. The first rural community selected for the project was Trinidad.
Space to Create will facilitate the development of nine projects in eight regions in Colorado’s rural, small town, and mountain communities. The Colorado Office of Economic Development, Colorado Creative Industries, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, the Boettcher Foundation, Artspace, and History Colorado are leading the effort.
It helps that the definition of “creative industries” has expanded in recent years. A 2015 National Endowment for the Arts study showed $5.9 billion in revenue from Colorado’s creative industries, ranging from performing arts and publishing to film, media, design, custom fabrication, “heritage” sites, or being creative enough to navigate a small business through the last several years of a flattened economy.
Space to Create
City officials have committed the equivalent of 15% of its general fund balance, or $2.1 million, to Space to Create Trinidad. Billed as the first state-driven initiative in the nation to offer affordable housing for creative-sector workers, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper supported the project from the beginning.
It will see a drafty, oil-stained garage — which now contains more than a dozen festively decorated art cars — and its neighboring former fire station and bank turn into 13 residences, along with a gallery, studios, and 20,000 square feet of community space along Main Street downtown.
Another 28 units will be built on Elm Street, bringing the total number of residential units to 41, thus reducing the unit cost to a level where it qualifies for affordable housing, a requirement that qualified the City of Trinidad and the Space to Create Trinidad project for low-income housing tax credits from the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority.
The award was for $1,147,895 in annual tax credits a year for 10 years. The City of Trinidad averaged the price of a tax credit, which prices out at 88 cents to $1; to 90 cents a credit. Multiply that by the $1,147,895 times 10 years and you get $10,331,055.
This, coupled with the city’s purchase and then donation of the buildings in the 200 block of West Main and the purchase and donation of the property on Elm, along with the city’s commitment of $2.1 million, or about 15% of its general fund balance to Space to Create Trinidad, should put the financing for the project near the $17 million needed to complete it.
With 96,000 workers and $609 million in nonprofit cultural revenue statewide, there’s plenty of evidence that arts and culture are thriving in towns and cities outside the Front Range, officials say.
But most artists are indeed struggling to pay bills, rent, and purchase food while pursuing their art. The Corazon de Trinidad Creative District defines “creative” in a much broader way than just artists.
To qualify for Colorado Housing and Finance Authority (CHFA) tax credits, the definition of creative had to be creatively explored and broadened. In Trinidad it now encompasses the traditional understanding of creatives such as painters, writers, musicians, etc. It also brings into the tent those who may practice the art of fine cooking, or the art of business survival in a depressed economy. Most of the downtown businesses, as businesses in the Creative District, fall under the broader definition.
With the expanded definition of creative most people, even nurses and teachers, may qualify for a unit. Affordable housing is based on a percentage of the median income in the state with rents currently ranging between $700 and $1,000 a month.
To qualify for affordable housing, a person must be employed and have a good credit history. This is not low-income housing, it is affordable housing and is open to anyone who qualifies and is based on availability.
The application process is yet undefined, but will be defined by the end of 2018. It is expected that many people who qualify will come from the creative sector workforce. However the spaces will not be limited to just artists.
The project will see work starting on the refurbishment of the West Main buildings and new construction at the Elm location beginning around the end of May 2018.
This is part of an occasional series examining the issues, values and attitudes that can leave rural and urban residents feeling they live in two Colorados.
“Every one of these cities has its own personality,” said Margaret Hunt, director of Colorado Creative Industries, a division of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “I don’t see it as competing with Denver and the Front Range so much as focusing on their authentic stories.”
Trinidad natives Mike and Yolanda Romero, who opened their Southern Colorado Coal Miners Museum nearly four years ago, are working to preserve a vital part of the history of Las Animas County — the state’s largest in square miles — which less than a century ago hosted 108 coal mines and attracted workers from more than two dozen nations, ranging from Greece to China.
“Three years ago, you go down Commercial Street and almost every building was vacant,” said Mike Romero, 71, a retired miner who serves as president of the United Mine Workers of America Local 9856. “And now every one of them is filled, thanks to marijuana. But people are coming to buy pot and then leaving. What we need are more good-paying jobs. With benefits.”
Trinidad’s population has fallen to half of what it was at its height, having peaked at around 16,000 in 1940.
Hilly and windswept Trinidad, which sits 200 miles south of Denver, has been known for its pot boom — being one of Colorado’s first cities to sell recreational marijuana — its concentration of sex-change clinics, and a colorful, sometimes tragic history that includes Al Capone, the Rockefellers, and the Ludlow Massacre, in which dozens of striking coal miners and their families were killed in 1914.
Space to Create Trinidad will spur more investment, city officials say.
“One of the hardest things to do is attract small manufacturing or other businesses to a small community,” said Trinidad Mayor Phil Rico. “But we’ve laid the groundwork with incentives and commercial construction.”
The trick, they say, is to preserve the city’s character and history while experimenting with arts and culture that attracts new residents and fosters sustainable, progressive industries.