Central City is a small mountain community located only 35 miles west of Denver. A mining town founded in 1859 and once called the "Richest Square Mile on Earth,” Central City struggled as a tourism destination until gambling was approved by amendment of the Colorado State Constitution in 1990. The City approved gaming as a way to preserve its historic assets and attract tourists. It then experienced an influx of investors wanting to fill historic buildings with casinos. But the City struggled with protecting and preserving the historic structures that led to a moratorium in 1992, which prohibited large casinos. It essentially dealt itself out of the gaming market. In 2004, the City completed construction of the Central City Parkway to provide easy access from I-70. However, gaming and the construction of the new Parkway have not proven to be a permanent solution to reviving the local economy. Recently, a decline in gaming has resulted in the closure of several casinos. Two more casinos have closed their doors in the past year, and today there remain only five modest to small casinos. The City has been challenged in balancing the value of protecting its historic charm and in welcoming growth. This balance placed it at a competitive disadvantage to its neighboring city of Blackhawk, resulting in Blackhawk landing more casinos and their associated tax revenues.
While gaming was a part of the mining industry of the Old West, it poses a challenge to tourism today. The City is a town with great historic structures, but more than half of them are vacant. The presence of casinos has repelled some families, particularly those with children who are seeking alternative forms of entertainment.
Central City is now preparing to launch its biggest economic development project by standing up a second industry based upon arts and culture. It intends to embrace all forms of art and culture (fine arts, culinary arts, theatre, etc.), but the centerpiece will be music.
This new economic development effort is being started with a strong foundation – the Central City Opera House. Opened in 1878, the Central City Opera Company is the fifth oldest in the United States. It continues to provide quality musicals in the 2014 season that will include performances in both Central City and Denver.
Robert Fejeran, City Planner for Central City, said, “I believe that we can create a strong industry in arts and culture that will diversify our economy with new jobs unrelated to gaming while strengthening our existing gaming industry. Capitalizing on our existing opera assets by offering a variety of musical events will give people another reason to make Central City a tourism destination: getting a dinner and a show and still having time to visit one of our casinos. We will continue our tradition of sharing our music by producing musicals that can be offered in schools and local theatre venues across Colorado and the West.” Mr. Fejeran brings to this project his undergraduate work in Business Development at Regis College, his training in film production at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, as well as his Master’s degree in Urban Planning at Cal Poly University, which is combined with his prior work experience in sustainable building practices with Urban Collaborative Studios.
Central City faces all of the usual challenges of economic development in a single-industry, small community: small population, need for greater broadband infrastructure and limited access to capital in addition to limited parking and a rivalry with the adjoining city of Blackhawk.
An unusual challenge to development efforts is the supply of heating to Central City’s historic buildings. Most of these buildings were constructed at a time when wood stoves and air pollution were the norm. Now, over half of the commercial and residential buildings within Central City, including the Opera House, are in need of heat to enable year-round operations. This infrastructure problem may be addressed with solar or geothermal power. An Arvada business, SkyFuel, Inc., is completing a preliminary assessment for construction of a combined power and heat plant.
To coordinate economic development efforts, a new nonprofit was formed: the Cultural Economic Development Association called CEDA. This organization is working to bring attention to the economic development efforts through a series of events and fundraisers.
In support of these efforts, The Resource Group, a local private economic development business, was engaged. Karl Dakin and John Strom, partners in the business, work to create outcome-based economic activities. “In Central City, we would like to frame economic development around a well-defined theme that everyone can understand and support. Working with the City’s heritage, we have recommended creation of one or more independent, experimental musical production companies that can create musical presentations for the Opera House, local casinos and restaurants and for touring in cities across Colorado,” said Dakin. “Using this as a foundation, the plan is to create and accelerate additional related businesses such as stage building, costuming, ticketing, music production, etc. to establish an entire industry.”
It is anticipated that the arts and culture project will include the establishment of a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC), a new type of social enterprise authorized by the Colorado legislature that became legal on April 1 of this year. “The combination of a municipality with a nonprofit with a PBC opens up the full spectrum of available capital,” said Dakin. “It will be possible to match the right kind of capital with each individual project.”
Currently, work is focused on planning. Grants are being solicited by the City and CEDA to bear the costs of gathering data, assessing options, designing solutions, engaging local businesses and prospective partners and coordinating and distributing information. “We anticipate that we will be working collaboratively at the local, county, state, federal and international levels,” said Strom. “For economic activity to be sustainable, we need to reach out and work with all citizens, businesses, charities and government organizations in ways that not only benefit Central City but also benefit our partners.”
Planning will continue through the summer, culminating in the Evening of Wine and Roses Gala on August 7 as a fundraiser for CEDA. The Gala will kick off the Central City Jazz Arts Festival on August 8, 9 and 10 (http://jazzartsfest.co/), which will feature such jazz musicians as David Sanborn, Arturo Sandoval, Jane Monheit and Kneebody. The unprecedented line-up of musical artists and planned list of activities for the whole family not only makes this the leading jazz festival in the region, but also provides an opportunity for Central City to share its vision for the future with the public, the media and power people within the music industry.
The theme and purpose behind this festival, however, is the real story. “What the we at CEDA are stressing to anyone who asks is that the Jazz Arts Festival is MORE than just a musical event; it is a celebration of the revitalization of a historic community, said Cicily Janus, the Creative Director for the Jazz Arts Festival. Ms. Janus brings 20 years of experience in the arts and entertainment industry. She said, “Historically, jazz has always been about creating lasting, tight-knit communities through music. Bringing jazz back to Central City is a logical bridge beweteen the past and future."
Let the music play!