Once seedy, downtrodden and crime-ridden, East Colfax in Aurora is transforming into a thriving arts district. Run-down pawn shops and drug dealers are giving way to a lively arts scene that includes multiple professional theaters, galleries, dance and arts education—all just minutes from Stapleton with the new roads that connect to Aurora. Vintage Theatre, 1468 Dayton St., welcomed audiences totaling 13,000 this year, a 41 percent increase over last year. “Aurora has been great,” said Craig Bond, executive artistic producer. “The city is invested in helping cultural organizations grow.” More than 500 public performances are scheduled in the various venues for 2014, according to Charlie Packard, executive producer at the Aurora Fox Theater, the district’s original attraction. “Venues and galleries just keep popping up in the area,” he said. The Aurora Cultural Arts District is a six-block stretch on Colfax and its side streets, between Chester and Geneva streets. The burgeoning district offers high-quality performing art, galleries, art-related businesses, education and dance. Visitors enjoy live theater at the Fox, the Vintage, Phamaly Theatre and Ignite Theatre; art at galleries including The Collection and Sunrise Artworks; art education for children at Downtown Aurora Visual Arts; and Red Delicious Press, a fine art printmaking business. The newest offering on the block is Kim Robards Dance. The district is growing with the support of the City of Aurora. The city acquired several buildings in the area to be used for cultural organizations at low rental rates. The Aurora Cultural Arts District (ACAD) rents 1400 Dallas St. from the city at $10 per year for its office space. ACAD rents out the rest of the building—10 studios, galleries and classrooms—to generate income for the district. “It’s quite special, the way Aurora helps its artists,” said Tracy Weil, director of ACAD. “I help with other arts districts in the area and this is a rare thing.” Bond said his Vintage Theatre moved from Denver to Aurora because of the support available. “The city helped us get a Colfax Economic Enrichment Program grant totaling $50,000. We built a second theatre space, a lobby and a cabaret so we could grow. Having two theaters gives us the ability to reach more patrons.” Aurora also supports the district by providing extra safety measures. Sally Mounier, the district’s city councilwoman, is committed to making ACAD a safe destination for fun. “For the district to be walkable, people have to feel safe,” Mounier said. “Colfax has 26 miles of bad reputation, from Aurora to Lakewood. I have to ensure the public feels safe. Tracy and the other artists are in place to do good things. My role as city councilwoman is to move heaven and earth to help them get it done.” The city’s safety priorities include better lighting and a visible police presence. Aurora hired an artist to light up the district with neon. “You can tell you’re in an arts district now,” said Weil. “The neon creates a sense of place and a safe environment. Once people get here, they see it’s safe.”
Aurora also uses hidden scanners to keep track of every car in the area. “Aurora is not a good place for bad guys,” Mounier said. Restaurants are important to the mix. Mounier said the city participates in enticing good eateries to the district. In 2014, the district will see the opening of MU Brewery, the first microbrewery in the area; La Paninoteca, an Italian bakery and panini shop; Paprika Express, offering a Moroccan and Mediterranean menu; and Granny Annie’s Peachy Pie, moving from its current location to bring Southern-style barbecue and catfish to Aurora. “We especially want the small-business restaurants rather than the chains,” said Mounier.
Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan said Aurora’s support of the district reflects city objectives. “A thriving cultural arts district is a powerful community asset, serving to foster urban rejuvenation and create arts-based place-making within the city, and that improves our overall quality of life,” he said. The lively arts hub is good for neighboring areas as well. “I’m seeing a triangle developing between Stapleton, Lowry and the Fitzsimons campus, and the Aurora arts district is smack dab in the middle of that triangle,” said Weil. The district, about five minutes from Stapleton, offers free parking at the Vintage and Fox theaters, as well as shared parking next to the MLK Library across the street.
Weil, who helped create the booming RiNo Art District and Lakewood’s 40 West Arts District, says each district reflects its own neighborhood and history. “Aurora’s diversity makes it special and distinct. I learned that 120 different languages are spoken here, thanks to the many refugees who make Aurora their home. Diversity is becoming our niche, which also fits with Aurora’s history. It was a gateway to the Rockies in the 1930s and ’40s, when immigrant populations came through here.
“ACAD is also becoming a performing arts hub because of its strong theater presence.” Weil is working toward a greater density of artists in the district. “There are still some vacant buildings I’d like to see reclaimed. We have 30 artists now. I’d like to see that number grow to 100.”