Monday, September 26, 2011

Creative industries in the West: Rural rail autos, energy-based tourism and small-town creatives

We couldn't have said it any better. The renovation of the WYO Theater sparked Sheridan's downtown  revival. That will be one of the topics at Convergence Wyoming.
In advance of Convergence Wyoming Oct. 6-8 in Cody, I've been reading voraciously on the following subjects: the creative class, creatives, creative placemaking, creative economy, historic placemaking, and creative industries. It's exhausting.

On the positive side, there is an incredible amount of creative energy going into solutions for global warming, infrastructure decay and economic malaise. On the negative side we have our paralyzed American political structure. But the revolution in creativity may have some of its genesis in the terrible fact that government structures are inept or at least painfully slow in catching on to the new reality. And the fact that Congressional Republicans want to push the country back, way back, instead of forward into the future.

My first searches were for speeches and position papers by Convergence Wyoming presenters such as Steven Tepper and Anthony Radich. I've discovered some great stuff. More importantly, I've uncovered plenty of blog fodder. When it comes right down to it, isn't that what life is all about?

I've known Anthony Radich for almost 20 years. He's a move and shaker in the arts administration world. He directed the Missouri Arts Council for eight years, created its cultural trust fund, and took over the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF) in Denver in 1996. Much to this dismay of the arts-funding world, he revamped WESTAF, making it a leaner organization, but also one that embraced technology and new ways of doing arts business.

One of the first things he did was move this regional arts organization from the stuffy confines of Santa Fe to Denver. I love Santa Fe for all the reasons people love Santa Fe: great food, fine art ogling, the Indian Market, cool old buildings, high and dry mountain air, etc.

But Denver? My hometown is a city known more for its sports teams and big-time hustlers (Bat Masterson, Soapy Smith, Denver Post founders Bonfils & Tammen, Neil Bush) that it is for its arts. When I covered the arts and entertainment scene in the early 1980s, you could count the good contemporary galleries on one hand, public art barely existed, the symphony was dying, tumbleweeds blew through an almost-deserted Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and the indie music scene centered around the Mercury Cafe and a couple of funky bars on Broadway.

It's a different city now. Apparently Denver was waiting for me and my family to leave before it blossomed into an arts destination, one that boasts more money generated by arts and culture than by its professional sports teams. Yes, the Broncos suck but the south stands are still filled during every home game.

So maybe that's what Anthony Radich foresaw when he moved WESTAF to a renovated warehouse in downtown Denver. He did see that Denver was a transportation center with a new airport courtesy of another big-time hustler, Philip Anschutz, and light rail was coming and Coors Field was the newest venue in MLB and tourism was huge and there was good coffee and fine microbrews within walking distance.

Some of the craft brews were at Wynkoop Brewery, John Hickenlooper, prop. As you know, he went on to become Denver's very popular mayor and now is the state's governor who is popular in places other than right-wing Colorado Springs.

There are more people in Denver proper than in the state of Wyoming. There are five times as many people in the Denver metro area than in Wyoming.

Backstage Theatre --
Breckenridge ain't just
for skiing anymore.
Wyomingites hate Denver traffic. But we sure love attending Rockies games and hanging out in LoDo. Ditto Broncos, Av, Nuggets, Six Flags Elitch Gardens, Colorado Opera, traveling shows of Les Mis, DIA, Denver Zoo, and so on.

Denver rakes in the Wyo dough. It's an arts and culture and sports destination for us. The airport is our international way station.

No Wyoming community will be another Denver. So what can we do to form our own home-grown creative economies?

For one thing, our city planners can stop spending money on zero-sum investments such as call centers. We all know this game. A big company wants to build a windowless building wherein low-paid locals can call you during dinner to harangue you about late credit card payments and the superiority of aluminum siding. The call-center company gets tax breaks on the land and possibly the building. The call center brings no economic development to a community save for the few shekels that its employees bring home. They do nothing to enliven a community. They do nothing for tourism, Wyoming's number two industry. They do nothing and they are nothing.

Here's what Anthony Radich said about the subject during a visit to Savor Albuquerque last summer:
Instead of being one of 50 contenders for a call center, think about the assets and infrastructure you have to do something unusual.
That could be any number of things beside call centers and distribution centers or any number of traditional econ dev targets: 
“You here in Albuquerque and New Mexico are competing with people across the country for the creative economy, and you have phenomenal resources to do that,” Radich said. Building the creative economy is often a matter of creating an economic cluster around existing assets, he said. It provides legitimacy to the sector, especially among elected officials.
Albuquerque is not as big as Denver but is doing some similar things.

BTW, I was conceived in Albuquerque, a byproduct of what happens when two young marrieds in love imbibe the brewer's arts, consume the culinary arts and dance to the artistic sounds of local musicians, all on an Old Town Friday night, February 1950. The arts and creativity are nothing new to Albuquerque.

Radich is not only talking about the West's big cities.

Take Moscow, Idaho, for instance.

Jazz great Lionel Hampton, namesake
of IU's music department and
annual festival. 
This town of 23,000 -- with student enrollment of 12,000 -- is now home to the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival each February. The city is 92 percent white and adjacent to Idaho's crazy zone in the Panhandle where the white supremacists hang out. It is finding ways to make Moscow the coolest arts town in the Northwest. The Portlandia of the Palouse.

The Lionel Hampton Orchestra was one of the hottest big bands in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. His name had almost disappeared from the scene when University of Idaho invited him to headline its jazz festival in 1984. In 1987, UI named its music school after Hampton, the first university music school in the country to be named for a jazz musician. Now every winter, the jazz world comes to Moscow.

Most towns and cities that desire "creative economy" status have a university.

But not all.

Sometimes they have breathtaking landscapes and ski areas. Jackson, WY, for instance. And Park City, UT; Aspen, CO; Sun Valley, ID.

According to the Creative Vitality Index compiled by WESTAF, Jackson may be the best arts town in the U.S. See the facts at

Teton ArtLab, Jackson
The birth of cultural heritage tourism has already led to German tourists paying big money to work on a ranch for a week. College students are now taking a year off to tend veggies on organic farms. We have an organic farms in Wyoming, notably Meadow Maid in Yoder, which provides me with veggies and chickens and grass-fed beef.

What about tours of mining operations, such as open pit coal mines in Campbell County and trona mines in Sweetwater County? Tours of railroad yards in Cheyenne and Laramie? When I was in Casper this weekend, Casper College just dedicated a training tower for students in the wind energy program. Seems to me that both locals and tourists would love to get up and close and personal with a wind turbine. On a nice day, you can view dozens of propellers spinning on turbines arrayed north of town. Soon there will be hundreds. And we've all read articles about how energy companies seek out technical rock climbers as technicians. Hey -- it's a long way up and a long way down. Climbers know that territory.

Just a few examples of cool stuff happening in the world of creative industries.

Convergence Wyoming features a “Bright Spots” session from 10-11:45 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 7, at the Cody Holiday Inn.

It will feature these community efforts:
·         Saturday University and Teton County Poetry Box in Jackson
·         Gillette’s AVA Center
·         Washakie Museum and Cultural Center in Worland
·         the Historic Preservation Commission in Douglas
·         the Roundhouse restoration in Evanston
·         downtown rehabilitation projects in Cheyenne
·         art galleries in downtown Lander
·         Main Street projects in Dubois and Rawlins
·         Sheridan’s growing recognition as an “exciting and livable community” through its cultural initiatives

And there's more, much more...

While reading the Albuquerque paper, I came across this recent story about the big IDEA conference coming to the city in 2012. Creatives and creative thinkers from across the globe will be coming to town at the behest of the International Society for Electronic Arts. Get more info at One of the cool arts tech projects set for the convention is shown below.

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