The Rise of Denver’s Creative Class

Cultural innovation is shaping the Queen City of the Plains.

By Leslie Petrovski

Publish Date: September 4, 2013

It’s a sweltering Tuesday in June. A steady stream of beards, handlebar mustaches, tattoos and Keds wait cheerfully in line for duck pastrami sandwiches, sweet potato waffles, French-press coffees (from 10 different roasters) and brûléed grapefruit. Regulars — designers, brew masters, artists, fashion designers, coffee roasters and the like — hug and catch up, bemoan hangovers and gently trade jibes.

The scene at Crema, a coffee shop/knoshery in Denver’s River North Art District or RiNo (the neighborhood that native Denverites would recognize as part Five Points, part Globeville), could just as well be taking place in Portland, Brooklyn or Austin, cities generally recognized as hubs for hipsters and creative types. But isn’t Denver the city that hosts an annual stock show and parades more than 100 Texas longhorns through its financial district?

The last several decades, however, have seen Denver become more than an urban wart on an otherwise rural landscape. Today Colorado’s capital ranks high on countless superlative lists, including Forbes 2012 “Best Places for Business and Careers” and “Best Hipster Neighborhoods” (LoHi), “Hottest Place to Start a Business” (The Fiscal Times 2011) and “#1 city for Young, Cool, Hip People” (Brookings Institution 2011).

Sitting at the instep of the Rocky Mountains at 5,280 feet, Denver’s rarified atmosphere and pioneering spirit are paying off in what can only be called a creative and economic renaissance. And the annual bovine perambulation down 17th Street? Just part of the narrative.

Easterners and Left Coasters who still view the Queen City as a cow town? Heck, that’s their provincialism showing.

PIONEERS AND ENTREPRENEURS

In the years since the mining settlements of Auraria and Denver City were founded on the banks of Cherry Creek and the Platte River in 1858, the Mile High City has seduced gold miners, railroad visionaries, silver miners, oil and gas prospectors, tourists, techies and ganjapreneurs — all manner of new-thinking, wealth-seeking pioneers anxious to reinvent themselves under the region’s 300-days-a-year, high-altitude sunshine.

“The West, including Colorado, has always been a magnet for risk-takers seeking economic opportunity,” says Stephen Leonard, chair of the Metropolitan State University of Denver History Department and co-author of “Denver: Mining Camp to Metropolis.”

“From the Paleo-Indians trailing mammoths 11,000 years ago to the Cheyenne and Arapaho hunting bison to the gold seekers, farmers, and industrialists of the 19th century and the entrepreneurs of recent years, Colorado has been a golden dream that, though it distributes its rewards unevenly, still catches the imagination of most Americans.”

Today that go-West-stay-West spirit is reaching critical mass. In addition to the weather and the charismatic geologic anomalies, the creative sector — Colorado’s fifth largest employment cluster — is helping to define a city more famous historically for its saloons than its salons.

The phrase “creative class,” popularized by urban theorist Richard Florida, who documented the importance of creativity to 21st century economies in his book “The Rise of the Creative Class,” refers to the approximately one-third of Americans who make their livings in creative enterprises, not just the arts but also engineering, science, architecture, design, technology and other fields. These are people who make their livings by their wits, or as Florida writes, who are “primarily paid to do.”

There’s a classic causality question intrinsic to Florida’s thesis: Which comes first, the creative professional or the ethos and infrastructure to entertain and support that type of workforce?

In Denver’s case, the answer is “both.” Through many boom-and-bust cycles, Denver has built and stubbornly maintained systems and organizations critical to engaging artists, innovators and intellectuals. To wit: The city is home to the second largest performing arts complex in the country; a nationally rated library system; numerous art and culture districts; a long- standing, well-respected film festival; opera and ballet companies; a symphony; major universities, both public and private; inventive locavore dining; co-working spaces (Galvanize, Uncubed and Green Spaces); a growing fashion community; public radio including the jazz-focused KUVO; Red Rocks Amphitheatre and a thriving indie music scene.

Denver, too, has also walked its arty talk by continuing to support the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District established by voters in 1988, which distributes one tenth of 1 percent of sales and use tax (about $40 million a year) to 300 cultural facilities throughout the seven-county metro area. In 1988 Mayor Federico Peña by executive order launched the Public Art One Percent program, mandating that 1 percent of the design and construction budget for new $1 million-plus city projects and renovations be set aside for public art for those projects. Consequently, there are more than 150 additional public works of art ranging from the über-popular blue bear in front of the Colorado Convention Center to the controversial, red-eyed mustang on Peña Boulevard.

In addition to art districts, “We have 160 performance venues,” says Lisa Gedgaudas, program administrator of Create Denver, a city agency established in 2007 that provides data, workshops, loans and other programs to people in the creative sector. “People come here to live, work and play. This is where innovation happens,” she explains, pointing to Galvanize — the incubator/co-working development in the old Rocky Mountain Bank Note Co. building — which opened in 2012. Galvanize, she says, has created a space where anyone can go. “You can have some of the greatest people in the tech world sitting next to someone sealing a deal in the art world. There’s this blending of lines that is so exciting and people are so amped. I feel like this is the most collaborative city. People are very open to change and supporting each other.”

Denver’s education system also has stepped up to ensure that creativity is alive and well and living in the Mile High City. In 1991 the Denver Public Schools opened the groundbreaking Denver School of the Arts (DSA), a grades 6-12 school that combines academic studies with majors in everything from creative writing to video cinema arts. The Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) — founded in 2001 — runs five open-enrollment charter schools, serving largely minority and low-income populations. Both DSA and DSST’s Stapleton High School boast 100-percent higher education acceptance rates. (Nearly 100 of those students attend MSU Denver.)

Students also can avail themselves of additional creative opportunities in the higher education arena. MSU Denver’s Center for Visual Art was founded in 1990 to expose students to leading-edge art. The Colorado Film School, an outgrowth of Red Rocks Community College, got its start in the late 1990s. The for-profit Art Institute of Colorado began offering culinary programs in 1994 and bachelor’s degrees in 1996. And in 2004, MSU Denver became the only public university in the state accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

MSU Denver also is the only institution in Colorado with full accreditation of all of its fine and performing arts programs. More than 13 percent of the school’s students are studying in artistic disciplines, including art, art education, music, music education, theatre and industrial design. Another 46 percent are enrolled in science and technology-related majors.

CREATIVITY AND COMMERCE

Cities want “creatives” not only because of the arty ambiance they provide, but also for the economic benefits that accompany a proactive population. In the post-industrial economy, innovation, particularly innovation that involves a product or service, is an economic engine; creativity is a cash cow. The Colorado Business Committee for the Arts 2008 Economic Activity Study of Metro Denver showed $1.69 billion in economic activity in the metroplex in 2007, an increase of 19 percent from 2005. Plus, another study demonstrated that more than $5 billion in wages and benefits were paid out in 2007 to workers in the creative sector.

The Western States Arts Federation Creative Vitality Index measures per capita revenues of arts-related goods and services along with per capita employment in the arts in various geographic areas. When comparing Denver County to Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) that include Austin, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland and Seattle, Denver rocked the data.

Aleah Menefee, the federation’s communications coordinator, explains that the index “measures the economic contributions of these indicators, which are important in evaluating a region’s overall economic health. In 2011 Denver County outperformed the Austin, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, and Seattle MSA s. Denver County shows considerable strengths in nonprofit organization revenues and performing arts participation sales in 2011.”

Coolness begets coolness. Graphic artist Rick Griffith of Matter Studio, a member of the Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs, observes that since he came to town in 1994, “Denver is open an hour and a half later, which is a sign of a growing city. That we can get more later is totally a sign of sophistication. There are so many infill projects, good architecture, new forms and surfaces, housing is changing; these are workforce benefits.”

Denver, indeed, is attracting its share of young, educated, and potentially creative professionals. According to a 2011 study by the Brookings Institution, “Young Adults Choose ‘Cool Cities’ During Recession,” Denver is the No. 1 city for attracting educated workers in their mid-20s and early 30s. Why? Transportation, educated denizens, an innovative business climate and the rising green economy.

“Where there are really good jobs come really smart people,” Griffith says. “And really smart people need high-quality goods and services that look like craft food, craft beer, craft distilleries—that look like small-batch living.”

In 2013, Denver’s location at the confluence of the Platte River and Cherry Creek has become a metaphor for the convergence of ideas, people and professions making the city so vibrant. Whether it’s creative startups like Craftsy, which sells online classes in knitting, quilting and other homey skills (and predicts it will add 236 jobs in the next five years — average salary $98,411), Create MSU Denver — the University’s online business incubator for artists launched in 2012 — or the newly opened wine-bar-cum-bookstore BookBar in Denver’s Highlands neighborhood, new businesses, collaboratives, co-working habitats and cool-hunting promoters are rendering what was once a dusty outback into some of the most desirable ZIP codes in the nation.

“We’re one of the most collaborative cities in the nation,” Gedgaudas says. “We’re seeing more out of this deficit of jobs and the falling economy. More people are finding ways to work together; that’s the sweet spot.”

‘Create MSU Denver’ helps members of the creative class succeed. Read more.

In Denver art districts, neighborhoods thrive where creativity blossoms. Read more.