Space to Create initiative creates friction in Paonia

By Tamie Meck


Paonia town trustees voted at the Feb. 14 board meeting to table a resolution to participate in the statewide Space to Create. The issue will be included in the Feb. 28 agenda.

Space to Create (S2C) is a state-driven initiative offering roughly $45 million in public and private investments to nine rural communities for affordable housing and work spaces for artists. The Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, the Department of Local Affairs, and the Boettcher Foundation are partners in the initiative. Since DOLA is the primary interface between the state and local communities, the applicant must be a governmental unit to qualify for funding.

A group of citizens and the North Fork Creative Coalition (NFCC) are spearheading application efforts. Trustees already approved a letter of intent to apply for funding, which is due March 1. By March 3, a selection committee will narrow the field of potential applicants, which will be required to submit a full application by March 16. It will be months before the winning community is selected.

Statewide, proponents believe the initiative can position Colorado as a national leader in artist-led community transformation and stimulate economic development in those communities. Local proponents see this as building an economic future. But a handful of citizens have criticized the initiative as unfair use of taxpayer money for subsidizing housing for artists.

Lead organizer Elaine Brett said S2C "is not a welfare program for starving artists," but rather a highly competitive statewide initiative overseen by the national ArtSpace organization to help struggling rural towns. "It is a proven program with about 40 ArtSpace projects nationwide." It is also planned and orchestrated by citizens and, whether or not Paonia is selected, is a way to identify resources and opportunities in the area.

With other towns including Carbondale and Crested Butte submitting applications, it's also highly competitive, said Brett. One community in the Region 10 area will be selected to participate in the initiative following a lengthy application process that includes feasibility and arts market studies. Communities must commit to a cash match of $35,000 for feasibility and arts market studies, which will be used in the final selection process.

Tabling the resolution has nothing to do with the merits of the program, said Mayor Charles Stewart. What's at issue is the $35,000. The letter of intent doesn't bind the town to the money, but if the board approves the full application, a memorandum of understanding between the town, S2C and the NFCC, which is spearheading the application process, must be included. "I think people need to understand that the MOU is a contract," said Stewart.

In considering the matching funds, trustees approved a transfer of $40,000 from the General Fund to the Capital Improvement Fund in the 2017 budget. They later discovered that, by law, the money can only be used for water, sewer, sidewalk and road improvement projects. "If we're going to try to commit to $35,000, it's got to come from somewhere else besides capital improvements," said Mayor Pro Tem David Bradford.

Bradford also questioned the legality of the proposal, asking trustees to consider if it serves the best interests of the town. Bradford said he's not against housing for artists, but asked if a public/private housing project that discriminates against some while providing privileges for others is a legal use of public funds.

New town administrator Ken Knight said the studies could alleviate the cost of updating the town's comprehensive plan, which the town needs to begin addressing. "It can be looked at as the very beginning of the comprehensive plan," said Knight.

Trustee Suzanne Watson said she is for the project, but is "uncomfortable with the $35,000."

Brett called the commitment to matching funds a "place holder," and not an exact number. Downtown Colorado Inc., on which Brett serves as a board member, is aware of the town's situation, and interested in helping with the assessment process. "I don't have black and white answers," said Brett. "This is an evolving program" at both the town and state level.

Brett said that in the event Paonia is accepted to submit a full application, organizers are looking into several options for the studies. Much of the ground work has already been completed through the Heart and Soul Project and the NFCC, which will also reduce the cost. In addition, help with funding could be available through the Boettcher Foundation and other sources. "We believe there is a lot of support for the community to get the studies done," said Brett. Even if Paonia is selected, the town may only need to contribute a few thousand dollars, and possibly nothing. A comprehensive plan would cost "well in excess of that," said Brett.

The group is expected to present the full application to the town on Feb. 28 to allow trustees to make a more informed decision. Waiting until March 14 could force a vote and Stewart said he wouldn't want to reject the application based on procedure. "Significant funding is at stake and the group has put a lot of effort into this application," said Stewart.

Citizens opposed to the resolution called it an inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars and an unfair subsidy of housing for artists. Paonia native Lynne Bear said she operated businesses in Paonia without subsidies for 30 years. As an artist she creates art in her own space, for which she pays taxes. She called organizers "a few people making decisions for all of the town's people . . . When you think about spending $35,000, think about the people in Paonia" she told trustees. "Would they want you to do that?"

At the Jan. 24 meeting Paonia resident Constantine Hirschfeld spoke publicly against using taxpayer money for housing.

Calling it a handout "is so misrepresentative of what this is," said Mary George, a business and commercial property owner and NFCC board member. "This is not a business subsidy. This program is an affordable housing project . . . that helps new business get started in our town." She urged trustees to look to the future and see how the money will broaden the economic base and help everybody.

Vic and Dawn Ullrey also oppose the use of taxpayer funds for artist housing. Vic Ullrey, whose family has lived here for more than 100 years, questioned the fairness of the initiative and called the use of town money for artists "the equivalent of gambling." From a business standpoint, "How would you get that money back? Is there any guarantee? It's a shot in the dark, as far as I'm concerned."

"Infrastructure, sidewalks, streets, water, police . . . That should be your top priority," said Dawn Ullrey. The town's job, she said, "to protect my unalienable rights . . . It's not to provide economic development," or use taxpayer money to subside housing for "possible entrepreneurs."

Ullrey said she and her husband like Paonia the way it is. "I don't know why we have to keep thinking that we have to progress and we have to grow," she said.

Mary Bachran asked the board to think about the future. As a resident, business owner, volunteer and taxpayer "I want this town to grow and thrive and be competitive again. The program can "expand the economic benefits to this town," said Bachran. "So please, lets invest some invest some money in this community for our future."