When the turnaround began for Denver’s River North community less than a decade ago, Jamie Licko said it was the “last frontier” for Denver developers.

Licko is president of the River North Art District and she, along with three other panelists, will be part of the Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs’ final installment of this year’s City Center Series. The panel discussion will share data-driven development lessons from Denver’s hottest art district — the up-and-coming beast more affectionately known as RiNo.

Authenticity and grit

According to the Downtown Partnership, the discussion will focus on attracting new businesses locally while serving neighborhood needs and building a supportive live-work ecosystem for the arts.

Speakers include Licko; Fiona Arnold, president of MAINSPRING Developers; Tracy Weil, artist, RiNo resident and creative director of RiNo Art District; and Jonathan Alpert, partner at Westfield Company Inc.

Weil said RiNo’s resurgence has been due to its support of the arts.

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“I think I’ll bring a good perspective of the grassroots community we have today,” he said. “It’s been a long process, but it’s been a blast and we’re having a lot of fun. I really want people to understand that in RiNo, art is the common thread that helped form the community.”

The district began to organize parties and events around that theme, to include art walks in the early 2000s. Membership of the district quickly grew and is now hovering around 300 people.

“In the beginning it was exclusively arts related — galleries and studios,” Weil said. “Now we have a lot of creative businesses as well — graphic designers, crafters and makers.”

In addition to her role as president of the art district, Licko is the founder and president of Centro, a consulting firm that focuses on the “(re)inventive creation of cities, places, and neighborhoods,” according to her biography for the event.

“I’m particularly fascinated by emerging neighborhoods or those going through change in some capacity and how we look at supporting those neighborhoods, allowing them to retain their sense of place, character and culture as they go through that change,” she said.

RiNo’s character was built on manufacturing and industry. As those industries left, the area was undesirable and property was cheap. Artists began to utilize old warehouses as studio space. And Licko said, as the district’s popularity has exploded, (one can find handmade tortillas, coffee roasters, galleries, restaurants, breweries, distilleries) the challenge is maintaining the integrity of the neighborhood.   

“The standard storyline is places like this get popular, they gentrify and those who were there get pushed out and the community becomes like a million other places in the world,” she said. “The idea is: How do you prevent that and allow places to grow in healthy way?”

According to Licko, part of the district’s cultural preservation has been largely due to the involvement of local developers who shared the same vision.

“Property owners there wanted authenticity and the grit of the neighborhood,” she said.

Both a business improvement district and general improvement district were formed and, Licko said, RiNo went from a fledgling nonprofit arts organization with a $25,000 budget in 2015 to a $1.3 million organization in 2016.

‘Things that define us’

Today, the community has incorporated affordability requirements along with residential and studio space. Licko said, during the evolution of the district, incorporating its history meant involving a demographic mix.

“There is a large Hispanic and African-American population here,” she said. “We’re not applying a singular mentality to the place, but trying to get everyone involved.”

How does one do that?

“Part of our focus in 2017 is working on that strategy,” she said, “but we’ve found that art and food and the very things that define us also unite us.”

But a community’s identity has to grow organically, Weil said.

“I’ve worked in creative placemaking for awhile and I think the creative grass roots effort is what has to be fostered first. But I think cities sometimes force it — and when you force it, sometimes you strangle it.” n CSBJ


If you go:

What: City Center Series-River North

Where: Richard F. Celeste Theater, Edith Kinney Gaylord Cornerstone Arts Center, 825 N. Cascade Ave.

When: April 4, 5:30 p.m. (doors open); 6 p.m. (program begins)

Cost: $10