By Spencer Lightfoot

‘Welcome to Paonia’ … that’s what the sign reads. And, the sentiment is genuine. This small town nestled at the base of Mount Lamborn is very welcoming. Filled with creativity and enthusiasm, one immediately senses that this place really is special. Along with neighboring towns Crawford and Hotchkiss, Paonia is part of the North Fork Valley Creative District, one of twenty-one Certified Creative Districts in Colorado. Awarded to the tri-town area through the hard work of the North Fork Valley Creative Coalition, the certification is one of many endeavors the Coalition has embarked upon with the goal of working toward a balanced, steady economy through the creative industries. As one begins to explore Paonia, the evidence of an artistic, imaginative influence is evident.

Turning on to Grand Avenue, one can’t helped but be charmed by the Rockwellian scene – turn of the century buildings housing local shops and restaurants, an arts center, a movie theater and a radio station. Depending on the time of year, the street is adorned with overflowing flowerpots, flags supporting the local high school football team or holiday tinsel on the light poles. The make-up of the street has evolved substantially in the last few years – the once vacant buildings are now filled and sidewalk sandwich boards announce upcoming events and daily specials. As part of the North Fork Valley Creative District, Paonia’s downtown offers two blocks of walkable, local artisan shopping and eating, as well as a hub of non-profit activity.

The Blue Sage Center for the Arts, 226-228 Grand Avenue, has been a part of the Paonia community for over 20 years. Originally formed by a group of like-minded teachers as a dance and movement center, it is now home to spectacular Classical Music and World Music concert series and a beautiful gallery space representing regional artists. Literary programs and children’s classes are also a focus for the art center. The annual Harvest of Voices literary reading is a signature event for the Blue Sage as is the publication of Convergence, a book filled with writings and photographs from North Fork Valley residents. In the Blue Sage Hall, you will find local and visiting instructors teaching everything from yoga to Zumba to jewelry making and landscape painting. On special occasions, you can also find the hall filled for a wine tasting, a holiday fair or a Halloween party.

Across the street form The Blue Sage Center for the Arts is The Paradise Theatre. The theatre opened in the fall of 1928 to much excitement, it served as a wonderful escape from the often-tough life in a small mining town. Since that time, the theatre has changed hands many times and now operates as a non-profit under The Friends of the Paradise Theatre. Of course, one can see a movie in the 145-seat historic theatre and even enjoy a local cider and some popcorn while doing so. The theatre is also a venue for many other fanciful events – plays, fashion and burlesque shows, concerts and film festivals are all part of the Paradise line-up.

A few doors down from the Paradise is KVNF Mountain Grown Community Radio, the local radio station serving the Western Slope since 1979. KVNF’s mission is “to participate in and reflect the diversity of its community by presenting a program service which addresses the community’s education, information, cultural, and entertainment needs.” With residents hosting radio programs and coverage of local politics, news and events, KVNF is an essential part of the North Fork Community.

Just around the corner from Grand Avenue one can’t help but notice the fantastical green building that looks like it jumped off the pages of a fairytale. Welcome to Elsewhere Studios, an artist in residency program. Founded by Paonia residents Willow Windgood, Maya Arthur and Karen Good, Elsewhere offers artists from around the world time and space to find inspiration and to create. With four spaces available, Elsewhere often enjoys an intriguing mix of artists – writers, painters, ceramists, musicians, sculptors and film makers. Many of the residents engage intensely in the community, bringing into being an essential give and take. (More than one visiting resident now calls Paonia home). The residencies culminate in a monthly open studio event; the public is always invited in to delight in what transpired creatively during the artist’s stay in Paonia.

A few blocks east of Grand Avenue, one will discover a new and innovative business model in Edesia Community Kitchen, 395 Clark Avenue. A cooperative kitchen, farmer’s market and event space, Edesia engages and supports a significant portion of valley residents. At Edesia, creative entrepreneurs are able to develop their passion into products. The commercial kitchen space allows individuals to take raw agricultural products and turn them into delicious, sellable goods. Once a week, Edesia hosts a farmer’s market and farm-to-table lunch spot. Delicious veggie bowls, wood-fired pizzas and locally made artisanal treats abound. Edesia has also played host to numerous events, including Elsewhere Studios’ New Year’s Eve Ball and the Paonia Chamber of Commerce’s Oktoberfest. This space is a welcome addition to Paonia, and not to be missed.

If one is lucky enough to be touring Paonia during a festival, it is hard not to feel like part of an idyllic time gone by. The largest of these is Mountain Harvest Festival, taking place every September since 2000. Locals and visitors look forward to this four-day celebration of Western Slope music, food, crafts and family-friendly fun. With Town Park serving as a backdrop for most of the activities, Mountain Harvest definitely has something to offer for all in attendance. Posing a bit of friendly competition, the Chili Cook Off and Pie Contest are favorites among the chefs and bakers in town. The Grape Stomp gives a whole new meaning to teamwork. An ever rotating musical roster, winery, farm and bike tours, vendors, a farmer’s market and a plethora of parades all contribute to make this event a true showcase of the joys Paonia has to offer.

This is just a small sampling of what the North Fork Valley Creative District has happening, There are wineries with breathtaking views, restaurants with the freshest farm-to-table meals one could imagine and orchards where one can pick the ripest fruit of the season. Not to mention the Paonia and Crawford Reservoirs, the recreation areas and the Paonia River Park. And, the people! The people of Paonia make all this goodness happen. The town may be a bit out of the way, a little off the beaten path, but most definitely worth the detour. So, just about two hours from Grand Junction or Aspen, between Grand Mesa and the breathtaking Raggeds, off a little highway called 133, look for the welcome sign.