In Trinidad, a new space for artists to create — and live — opens with an eye on revitalization and community

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Dan Boyce/CPR News
The new “Space to Create” installation in Trinidad includes 41 low income housing units and 20,000 square feet of community space for artists.

Michelle Helm is not a professional artist. In Trinidad, she works producing natural toothpastes and providing low-cost dental care. But outside her new home’s door, at a new space aimed at building affordable housing and combining it with community art spaces, square acrylic paintings she produced greet visitors. 

Helm left her home in the mountains outside Trinidad last year when smoke from western wildfires began exacerbating respiratory conditions in her 14-year-old son. She was looking for a new place to live.

“This space opened up and we were able to just really heal and find a really clean space,” Helm said. 

Trinidad’s “Space to Create” complex spans more than a block along the city’s historic main street. In addition to 20,000 square feet of community space for artists to create, it also has 41 loft-style apartments to house local workers who make 60 percent or less of the area median income. The statewide program was created specifically for rural communities. 

Trinidad was selected as the pilot for the nine project, $45 million initiative in 2015.

Last week, it fully opened its first installation in Trinidad, with more to follow. 

“We certainly have had naysayers and doubters,” said Marilyn Leuszler, executive director of the Corazón de Trinidad Creative District. “I thank those people as well, because it kept us on our toes and we worked hard to make sure that this project would be inclusive and would welcome every single person in our community.”

Dan Boyce/CPR News
Space to Create resident Michelle Helm stands with some of her acrylic paintings on display outside the apartment she shares with her 14-year-old son.

In a video presented to those gathered for the facility’s grand opening, former Gov. John Hickenlooper — now a U.S. senator — called Space to Create the nation’s first statewide program of its kind devoted to rural areas. Hickenlooper pushed for the program to get off the ground during his time as governor.

“Thank you for promoting the creative economy in the state of Colorado,” Hickenlooper said, “and taking a leadership role in developing an affordable and sustainable space for artists and creatives to live, work and thrive right here in the heart of Trinidad.”

Ridgway Mayor John Clark attended the Trinidad grand opening. A second Space to Create facility in his community is slated to begin moving in its first residents this month. 

Communities applying for Space to Create funding must be part of the state’s creative district program. Clark was a founding member of Ridgway’s creative district, and called it the most important force in revitalizing his town that he has seen in his four decades living there.

“It's given us a whole new identity which has helped the town thrive in a way that we haven't seen since it was founded,” Clark said, “and [Space to Create] is just a piece of that puzzle.”

Since Space to Create accepts federal low-income housing tax credits, the facilities can’t discriminate against who gets accepted to live in the units. That means in addition to professional creatives, many different types of people live in the space, Clark said.

Dan Boyce/CPR News
A giant frog knitted by artist Emilie Odeile on display in the community art venue in Trinidad’s "Space to Create" facility. It contains 80 miles of yarn stitched more than three million times.

“We'll have people living in our building that might be waiters, busboys or working at a retail shop in town,” he said. “I think a lot of them will actually be creative people in their spare time because that's what a lot of our community does.”

Helm said the art facilities for resident use at the Trinidad location have only just opened up, but she’s looking forward to getting her and her son downstairs to use those resources more in the coming months.

Other Space to Create projects are planned for Grand Junction, Grand Lake, Carbondale and Salida. Funding remains to start up three more around Colorado, but those sites have yet to be selected.