North Fork Valley Fertile Ground for Creatives

On Colorado's Western Slope, the North Fork Valley Creative District spans the towns of Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford. It's a place that defies easy categorization, and its quirks are helping drive the local economy.

Yvon Gros is a French-born chef who spent two decades in Vail, Colorado, before moving southwest to the North Fork Valley and establishing the Leroux Creek Inn & Vineyards. It's one of several wineries in the area, where an abundance of sunshine, plenty of heat in the summer and relatively mild winters combine to create that rare environmental equilibrium that encourages fragile grapes to grow into the raw materials for cabernets and pinots. Leroux is located on a sparse hillside near the towns of Paonia and Hotchkiss; the tasting room is a pleasantly dark cellar flanked by dense fields of growing vines. The day I visited, Gros came in from the fields to pour me sips from bottles of rose and cabernet sauvignon, two varietals for which his winery is known. Locally, Gros and his wife, Joanna, are known as an exotic duo that blends perfectly into the live-and-let-live social fabric of the North Fork Valley. "There are so many interesting people here, and so much to do and learn about," says Gros. "It reminds me of France. There's an openness, an excellence. I think it's really a jewel."

What did the North Fork Valley remind me of? After a few days spread over two visits, I had to conclude it reminded me of nothing: It was a totally new experience, certainly unlike anything I've found in Colorado. The hills are gentle and rolling, not majestic and extreme (as one finds in our state's more famous rural destinations). The trees are not forests but orchards that produce apples, pears, cherries, peaches. Grove stands and farm markets line both sides of Colorado State Highway 133. It's a fertile and vibrant place. And it attracts people whose creative sensibilities are similarly ripe. Painters, writers, metalworkers, potters, chefs, dancers, musicians, brewmasters and filmmakers represent a growing percentage of the 10,000 people who live in the valley. Their presence is evident in the shops and galleries that line Paonia's Grand Avenue, in the huge mural that wraps an entire wall of the quixotic, beloved Church of Art in Hotchkiss. "The beauty and serenity of the valley creates the perfect environment for creativity to thrive, not to mention the collaborative efforts of the artists in the valley," says Sunshine Knight, a novelist and Denver native who moved with her family to Hotchkiss in 2010. "For me, the area gives me material for my novels. The stunning mountain views, the majestic Needle Rock and the views all year round give me inspiration. I've written many books on my drives through the valley and through Delta County."

Ag and coal to arts and culture In 2013, the North Fork Valley Creative District was certified by Colorado Creative Industries, a ranking that now belongs to 18 culturally vibrant enclaves around the state. As with most of the rural Creative Districts, North Fork Valley's designation is designed to stimulate and codify economic activity within creative industries, which encompass everything from brewing to weaving (which is a serious business in the area, home to numerous goat and sheep farms). Mining has been the major economic driver in the coal-rich North Fork Valley for generations. But as major mines in the area have closed in recent years, including Elk Creek Mine and Bowie # 2, workers and families have left; businesses have closed. The state and locals hope to offset, or at least lessen, declines in energy industries by getting serious about creative entrepreneurship. The North Fork Valley, they're betting, is an appealing ecosystem with potential to attracts talented people and generate interesting work as well as money. "In the past year, we've had four new businesses open on Grand Avenue," says Mary George of the North Fork Creative Coalition, a volunteer-led organization. "Those businesses were sitting dark and vacant for a year, two years. It used to be people would come to town and ask, 'What should I do?' There was nothing open on the weekends. Now we have these really vibrant and interesting businesses.

"We really see that the North Fork has amazing assets, and that the creative industries are what's really drawing people here," continues George. "We're shifting and getting more attention. It's a very exciting thing to be here at this moment of change."

A trio of distinct places The North Fork Valley creative district encompasses three towns - - Crawford, Hotchkiss and Paonia -- each with its own flavor. Crawford's mountains and large, resplendent expanses of land make for good hunting and fishing as well as artistic contemplation; retreat centers, including the historic Stewart Homestead Cabin, lure makers and meditators to the tiny town of 360 people.

Photos courtesy Jeffrey Beall, Eric Peterson and U.S. Forest Service. Hotchkiss, which sits 41 miles north of Montrose (and the closest regional airport), houses the Creamery Arts Center, which recently reopened after a reorganization as an event space and community arts school as well as a large gallery that features works in different mediums each month. Hotchkiss is also home to Will's Gallery and Used Books -- a maze of paperbacks and at least one cat -- and and the Church of Art, a former venue/gallery that now serves as the personal studio of Mary Hockenbery, of the valley's most accomplished artists. The main drag boasts a couple of really good restaurants that reflect the valley's natural abundance: Here, farm-to-table dining is a way of life, and pretty much everyone is a locavore. But it's Paonia, population 1,500, that really represents the heart of the North Fork Valley Creative District. Grand Avenue, the main street artery, is a kind of home base for the 75 organizations and people that belong to the North Fork Valley Creative Coalition, including the Paradise Theater, which books first-run films as well as special events such as TEDx Paonia and the Visionary Summit, which brought a few dozen forward-thinking speakers and performers to town in September. Across the street, the Blue Sage Center for the Arts operates the town's largest gallery and a dance and performance space. On a given week might, performances at the Blue Sage might include a Zimbabwean drum clinic and a baroque chamber performance. Further down the road, The Hive is a new coworking space and artists collective that gives locals a place to make and show their work.

Over breakfast at The Living Farm Café, the clientele seemed pretty representative of the spirit of small-town tolerance that allows hippies and bikers, yogis and miners to co-exist: At one table, a trio of young, dreadlocked hippies munched on french fries; across from them, two older men in flannel and jeans talked about the area's reluctance to pot; both Paonia and Hotchkiss have voted down measures to allow legal marijuana businesses in town. Other crops, however, are a lifeblood. In Paonia and across the entire North Fork Valley -- which claims an additional 7,000 residents in unincorporated areas -- the arts and agriculture intermingle seamlessly and uniquely. George and her husband recently opened a 6,000-square foot commercial kitchen that will help local growers and boutique farmers build more sustainable food-related sources of income; it also houses a pottery studio. Azura Cellars & Gallery, a winery located in the high-desert hills off of the highway, hosts regular exhibitions by local artists. A new series of Art & Ag tours take visitors through a guided experience that treats artmaking and crop-growing as equally creative, somewhat interdependent enterprises. Every year in September, Mountain Harvest Festival (which won the 2016 Governor's Award for Best Small Town Festival) draws thousands to Paonia Town Park; it's both a music festival and a food festival. Paonia is happening, but it's also odd, which is a big part of its charm. One afternoon in Paonia Town Park, which is set in a beautiful grove of ancient trees, I saw a woman pushing a plastic doll down the sidewalk in a baby carriage. Later, I stumbled upon an alleyway with impromptu wooden assemblages that I later learned were made by the Unicorn Arts Collective, a scrappy local coalition. And as I followed the lush and gentle creek that runs through downtown, I wound up at Elsewhere Studios, which hosts an ever-changing group of resident artists who come from all over the country to write, sculpt and paint there. The entrance is framed with tile mosaics and painted, plastered edifices; the building itself looks like a hobbit house designed by Gaudi. "It's a very eclectic group of people who are drawn to this area, and who have been here for a long time," says George. "So you see intersections of all these things: art and food and business; there's an ethic common to the type of person that's moving here. They have a high regard for local business, and a high regard for the arts. It's more of a lifestyle." An undiscovered gem Back at The Living Farm Café, I notice that the server who brings me huevos rancheros -- delicious, with local goat cheese and fresh peppers -- is the same woman who poured me a pint of summer ale at nearby Revolution Brewing the night before. In the North Fork Valley, as in many rural areas, many people work more than one job. It's still an affordable place to live, especially by Denver and Front Range standards, but costs are increasing as more people come to town. The rental stock, in particular, is shrinking. If you want to live the good life here, you've got to hustle a bit. But it's attainable, even for artists. "There's such a diverse spirit of creativity in the valley, from glass to fiber to sculpture," says Sunshine Knight, who serves as the Paradise Theater's general manager. "The community is extremely supportive. It is great area to build up a following and then branch out into other areas like Carbondale, Aspen, Telluride, Montrose, just to name a few closer towns." "There are enough markets within a 100- to 200-mile radius that if you really work it, there are plenty of places to sell your work," echoes George. "Montrose and Delta both have great galleries. If you sit around in the North Fork Valley, in your home, then maybe not that much will happen. But if you're willing to get out there, you can make something happen."

Mural in downtown Paonia. George and the North Fork Valley Creative Coalition are hoping to bring more affordable living space to town through Colorado Creative Industries Space to Create initiative; they're working with the town council of Paonia to begin the early stages of a proposal. The group is also hoping to secure funds through the Colorado Tourism Office to expand its marketing: The North Fork Valley still has the flavor of an undiscovered gem, which is part of its charm. George and others know it must become a bit more visible if it's to thrive. "This is a small, fun community where you can see everything in a day; you can walk up and down the main street in a half an hour," she says. "At the same time, there's so much going on here. Some people will come for a day to ride bikes or pick fruit; other people are going to discover it and stay and make art. Both of those are good for our future."

Public art at the Creamery Arts Center in Hotchkiss. Photos by Eric Peterson. Graphic design by Matt Megyesi.

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