Pueblo is finding its place in the post-industrial world by returning to the cottage industries that once thrived in southern Colorado.

Making It

Story Robyn Griggs Lawrence and emwebadmin

Pueblo, Colorado, has been a crossroads for commerce since early settlers built El Pueblo Fort at the convergence of the Arkansas River and Fountain Creek in 1842. This geologically significant spot offers a bounty of natural resources, from sand to shale, that enterprising makers took full advantage of as the area developed. Colorado Fuel and Iron Company opened the first integrated steel mill west of the Mississippi on Pueblo’s south side in 1881 and dominated the town’s economy until the steel crash in the early 1980s caused a brutal economic depression and unemployment approaching 20 percent. 

Pueblo has struggled in the post-industrial world, but times are changing. Creatives and makers throughout southern Colorado are making their mark, forming collectives, providing education and mentoring, and nurturing the region’s traditional maker spirit. Pueblo is returning to the cottage industry economy that thrived here before it became a company town, and the maker community is leading the way. 

“Pueblo makes steel, but we also roast coffee, we design and make jewelry, we customize hot rods, and we paint murals,” Jane Fraser, a retired Colorado State University (CSU) engineering professor who founded the Pueblo Makes community collective to support local makers, writes in Watertower Place magazine. “We have great manufacturing companies that make carbon disk brakes for aircraft, towers for wind turbines, rail products, traction chains, custom kitchen cabinets, fruit-handling equipment, high-end GPS devices, bath and body products, and more. I sew.”

Fraser grew up in a paper mill town in New Jersey and immediately felt at home when she moved to Pueblo 20 years ago. Now she tries never to go north of milepost 110 on I-25, and she’s one of Pueblo’s biggest cheerleaders. “So many people use the word real about Pueblo,” she says. She was also the driving force behind Pueblo winning a $40,000 Etsy Maker Cities grant to support creative entrepreneurship and local development while helping traditionally underrepresented groups participate in the creative economy. In partnership with Mastercard’s Center for Inclusive Growth, Etsy is also providing Maker Cities with training and ongoing cohort support from Recast City, a technical assistance firm focused on business development for the maker economy.

Spearheaded by Southern Colorado Economic Development District (SCEDD) Executive Director Shelly Dunham, the Pueblo Makers City Project is a consortium of local organizations and makers who provide training, technical assistance, and mentoring for local makers, particularly those with diverse abilities and limited economic means (many from the East Side). Fostering collaboration and community among Pueblo’s creatives, the Pueblo Makers Project includes a business accelerator for creatives, a community creative project that will culminate in a gallery show, and a web page connecting creatives to resources, opportunities, and one another. 

“This is going to make a huge difference,” says Pueblo native Katie Velarde, who has sold nearly 3,500 chakra stones and handmade bracelets through her Etsy store, Glitter Zen (glitterzen.etsy.com). “I’ve already helped about five people launch Etsy shops, and I can personally think of 15 to 20 more people who want to. There’s a huge group of artists and crafters in Pueblo who could earn extra income if they learned more about Etsy and how to launch a shop. Their hobby could become their business.” 

Impactful Employer

As part of the grant, Etsy gave members of the Pueblo Makers Project access to data that Southern Colorado Innovation Link manager and Pueblo native Mark Madic found fascinating. “There are 657 artists in the area that sell primarily on Etsy,” Madic says. “That’s an impactful number. Most of those artists have full-time employment from e-commerce as makers or creatives—so it’s one of the biggest employers in the area.”

Southern Colorado makers are producing everything from handmade paper products to small-batch botanicals, with plenty of support from the community. The Pueblo Arts Alliance provides affordable studio, retail, and small-batch manufacturing space at 107 S. Grand. And the Creative Corridor focused around Pueblo’s historic city centers—Downtown Main Street, Union Avenue Historic District, and Mesa Junction—offers maker spaces in historic buildings where festivals and events such as First Fridays take place. At the Shoe Factory, Pueblo’s first member-supported, community-based art studio and gallery space, artists-in-residence provide education through local schools and organizations and invite the public to attend open studios and art walks. Steel City Art Works reps more than 40 regional artists.

“As an overall trend, not just in Pueblo but in southern Colorado and across Custer, Huerfano, Fremont, and Pueblo counties, a lot of meaningful collaboration has happened,” Madic says. 

Perhaps the region’s most ambitious project to date is Watertower Place, a 250,000-square-foot re-urbanist mixed-use development in the abandoned Alpha Beta meat-packing plant at 303 S. Santa Fe, offering residential, coworking, social gathering, and commercial space as well as fabrication, manufacturing, and makerspace entities. CSU opened a downtown satellite campus there, and plans call for three restaurants, a coffee roaster, and a brewer. Developer and Pueblo native Ryan McWilliams is aiming for an urban paradise, with a cheesemaker, a butcher, and gardens teeming with bees from local hives on the rooftop. Watertower Place hosts an annual festival, artist-residency programs, art commissions, and pop-up installations and performances.

Sculptor and Pueblo native Frank Nemick plans to move into Watertower Place by the end of the year. “I’m really looking forward to getting in there with all the different artists and studios and living arrangements and businesses,” he says. “It’s going to be a nice community.”

For Fraser, Watertower Place—where McWilliams’ team removed 1.5 million pounds of trash left by a homeless community before construction could begin—is a physical manifestation of the tremendous change taking place throughout Pueblo. “For so many years, it was sitting there as an eyesore,” she says. “Now to know it’s coming alive and great things are happening—just that physical change is fantastic.” 

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