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Communities Seek Creative Solutions to the Country’s Housing Affordability Crisis

While working on a recent project assessing the housing market for the City of Fort Collins, we were struck by how communities across the state and the country were pursuing diverse strategies to the current housing affordability crisis. The fourth quarter of 2018 saw national home affordability drop to a 10-year low. Residents in our hometown of Denver are all too familiar with this dynamic. A recent report identified the city as hosting the most competitive housing market in the nation. Members of the country’s middle class are increasingly viewing home ownership as unfeasible. The vast majority of Americans find themselves in markets where home prices are rising faster than wages. It should not be surprising that renting is more affordable than owning in 59% of the nation’s counties. That number jumps to 93% of the country’s most populated areas (those with more than 1 million people).

Photo by Breno Assis on Unsplash

Nonetheless, the rental market is not much more forgiving. Nationwide, median rent has increased by 11% over the last five years. Half of all renters find themselves spending more than 30% of their income on rent and one quarter of renters spend more than 50% of their income on rent. While the housing market has demonstrated an impressive recovery from the great recession, construction has been focused on the high and low ends of the market. Meanwhile, those in the middle are becoming accustomed to tight markets with few options.

The breadth and depth of the affordability crisis has brought creative responses from communities across the country. Denver has attempted to address affordability with the creation of the Affordable Housing Revolving Loan Fund. The initial $10 million effort to support the development and creation of multifamily rentals for low income individuals that has since been expanded. In a similar effort, Portland Oregon’s Inclusionary Housing Zoning Code Project requires that all new development projects above 20 units have housing available to individuals of different income levels.

Many believe the solution to affordability lies in zoning. Last month, the Minneapolis City Council took a bold step and became the first major metro area in the country to eliminate single-family zoning. With plenty of resistance from home owners in these areas, Minneapolis is on the path to significantly increasing housing supply, reducing travel times, and even potentially rectifying a history of racial segregation. Regardless of potential larger downstream effects, adding triplexes and apartment buildings to these neighborhoods is likely to mitigate high rents and housing costs by allowing more choice in the market and providing many with the ability to downsize while remaining close to desired amenities.

Photo by Alex Block on Unsplash

A less drastic, but more widely pursued, strategy has been the expansion of “mother-in-law apartments” or “granny flats”. These units, formally called accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are separate entry add-ons to single-family home properties averaging around 850 square feet.  ADUs offer a potential respite from high costs for both owners and renters. The former can get help with their mortgage and the latter can find a smaller housing option near work, public transit, or other desired amenities. Owners can also rent these units on short-term sites like Airbnb or VRBO between long-term renters or if they desire greater flexibility. While zoning laws have traditionally been a barrier to these kinds of rental options, that is starting to change. Los Angeles has set a goal of having 10,000 new ADU units by 2021 and increased the number of issued permits from 142 in 2016 to 2,000 in 2017. In Utah, proposed legislation SB34 hopes to allow for more ADU apartments and to encourage high-density housing near transit corridors. The crisis has even spurred some innovative private sector efforts toward affordability. Google, Facebook, and Apple have all made headlines by investing tens of millions of dollars into housing for their employees. Similarly, Microsoft just announced $500 million to support affordable housing in the Seattle area. This project includes around half of that sum to be put toward below-market-rate loans so that developers can target construction in the surrounding area. In addition to this direct attempt to shape affordability, Microsoft has also been active in lobbying nearby mayors to consider changing zoning laws to waive fees and allow for greater density, especially around public transit. While none of these efforts are going to be a panacea, we need to collect as much data as possible to evaluate if and how these programs mitigate the rising costs of housing. Any undertaking to solve this problem on a local level needs to start with a systematic assessment of what has worked elsewhere.

How the (now ended) Government Shutdown is Affecting Colorado Communities

Beginning on December 22, 2018, parts of the federal government were shut down due to insufficient funding. After 35 days, the longest government shutdown in United States history came to an end on the afternoon of January 25, 2019. Although the shutdown has now ended, the effects of it will continue to reverberate in Colorado.

One agency affected by the shutdown was the Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park system, including Colorado’s own Rocky Mountain National Park. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, “on an average day in January, 425,000 park visitors spend $20 million in nearby communities.” Rocky Mountain National Park technically remained open during the shutdown. However, without federal workers to maintain the park, trashcans cans were deluged with trash and roads remained unplowed, creating hazardous conditions for visitors. In communities near Rocky Mountain National Park, such as Estes Park, business owners noted they experienced a decrease in sales and business in general as tourists and locals alike were unable to safely fully experience the national park. While the winter season may not be the most lucrative time of year, the decrease in revenue will undoubtedly leave some business owners with a financial burden.

Quinn Nietfeld via

The Department of Agriculture was also affected by the government shutdown. This department oversees the U.S. Forest Service, who maintains around 65% of the forestlands in Colorado. Oftentimes the winter season gives Forest Service agents the opportunity to safely burn debris and brush that fuel summer wildfires. In the midst of the shutdown, Forest Service agents were unable to complete this work, raising questions about the potential environmental effects the state may experience in the warming months.

Colorado is not a stranger to the negative impacts of a federal government shutdown. In Fall 2013, the government was shutdown for 17 days. Unfortunately, that time period coincided with recovery efforts in Colorado following massive damaging flooding in several communities. Through the shutdown, emergency aid funds were unavailable, leaving communities to take charge of the emergency response and recovery themselves.

In addition to the environmental impact, the shutdown also resulted in approximately 800,000 federal employees nationwide to work without pay. In Colorado, around 2,500 furloughed federal employees filed for unemployment benefits to help them get by while they were not receiving a paycheck. National Congressional leaders, as well as Colorado legislators, have promised federal workers they will receive backpay wages lost during the shutdown. However, federal contractor employees have not been guaranteed the same assurances, leaving many in a dire financial situation.

It is important to note that this is not a full accounting of all of the known immediate impacts of the shutdown either. For a state steeped in a pioneering and resilient spirit, we know our communities will recover in the end. It remains to be seen in totality how the 35-day government shutdown will leave lasting impacts on our state. However, one lesson we can learn from this shutdown is the need to be proactive instead of reactive. In communities that are vulnerable to the immediate and long-lasting effects of government shutdowns, it is crucial for local governments to engage in robust conversations about the challenges their residents are vulnerable to and that they are currently facing. This could be achieved through a needs assessment or through facilitated community input sessions. In addition to enabling communities to better prepare for the future, these approaches also create an environment where every community member matters and their experiences are valued. This shutdown has ended, but it seems almost inevitable that another one will come along sometime in the future. 

Celebrating our community: Wild Plum Center of Longmont, Colorado

In honor of Corona’s 20th anniversary, we are celebrating the outstanding people and organizations making a positive contribution to our community.

Each month, Corona is making a $500 donation in honor of a member of our team. To kick us off in January, Matt Bruce selected Wild Plum Center. We sat down with Matt to learn more about the organization and his giving experience.

What is it about Wild Plum Center that made them stand out for you?

I believe that all families should be allowed to achieve their potential, and Wild Plum Center helps families do just that. We know from research that kids begin developing cognitively and socially at a very early age. I’ve seen it in my own kids. When they are in a nurturing, safe, and stimulating environment, like at Wild Plum Center, they have positive experiences that dramatically impact their growing brains. In addition to serving youth, Wild Plum Center serves parents by allowing them to work or go to school so they can make a better life for their families. Although there are many great community organizations here in Northern Colorado, Wild Plum stood out to me because they meet a critical need of hard-working families—when a helping hand can make a world of difference.

When a helping hand can make a world of difference.

What would you like others to know about their mission and impact?

Whereas we typically think of early childhood education in the zero to five age range, Wild Plum acknowledges that their impact goes far beyond preschool. Their mission is to prepare children for a lifetime of learning and self-sufficiency by providing a comprehensive, individualized approach to early learning and family wellness. Wild Plum is doing more than preparing kids for Kindergarten; they are preparing them (and their families) for a lifetime of learning and wellness.

You’ve noted that this was a really wonderful experience for you. We’d love to hear more.

First, I had a lot of fun thinking about which community organization I’d like Corona to support. I considered a handful of organizations, and I enjoyed learning about each one. When I decided on Wild Plum, it was a great experience chatting with Keri Davis, their community partnership director, about the financial gift Corona could offer. Keri said Corona’s donation would go directly to serving youth and families. She sent me some photos of kids in their classroom, and I loved looking at all those smiling faces.

Throughout 2019, to help celebrate our 20th Anniversary, we are profiling our staff and select clients. Corona is also donating $500 on behalf of each staff person to a charitable organization of their choice. Click here to view all of our interviews. 

To stay up to date on all Corona news, and receive useful insights into the world of research, evaluation, and strategy, subscribe to our newsletter.

The issues facing our communities

Though we at Corona serve clients of all shapes and sizes, we particularly love helping local governments and nonprofits to improve the lives of people in the communities in which we live, work, and play.  This quarter, we will be focusing on some of the issues that local communities are facing this year. While the specific topics may shift as the quarter goes on, you can likely expect to hear from us about topics such as:

  • How the impacts of government shutdown might linger long after the shutdown ends
  • The challenges with providing housing for an ever-changing population
  • Trends in population growth and where we expect things to go in the future
  • The rapidly shifting landscape of public education and the impacts that Governor Polis might have in Colorado

Stay tuned this quarter for discussions on many other topics.  We hope to shed some light on not only what some of these challenges are, but also how some communities can get ahead of these trends to positively impact their communities, so we hope you will enjoy the conversation!

Staff Interview: Matt Bruce

This month Matt Bruce celebrates six years at Corona, during which time he has juggled many roles inside and outside the firm: director, associate, data nerd, skier, and father, to name just a few. His “career” has spanned from ski bum and hitchhiker, to natural resource technician, to his current role as a Director here at Corona.

Matt Bruce, Associate

At first glance, there may not seem to be a common thread connecting his rather disparate roles—but Matt’s love for the outdoors combined with his formal education in natural resources has put him in a unique position to study how people interact with the environment and to solve broader issues facing communities.

He was, and remains, drawn to Corona to help clients make smart, informed decisions. Through pragmatism, and often creativity, Matt enthusiastically supports clients in their efforts to make an impact.

At Corona

Matt started at Corona in January of 2013, primarily specializing in the quantitative areas of our work (e.g., surveys, demographics), but has since broadened his skills to qualitative research and other areas. While in many ways a generalist, Matt is most at home calculating advanced stats, analyzing demographics, or doing spatial analysis in GIS.

While Matt loves the variety of work at Corona, he gravitates toward those projects involving the outdoors, youth, community needs, and other community topics, where his particular skills and interests really shine.

Not surprisingly, some of his favorite and most memorable projects have been needs assessments. One such project was conducted for the City of Longmont, Colorado, where Matt helped the city identify the most pressing needs of its most vulnerable residents.

Select clients Matt Bruce has worked with while at Corona Insights.

Outside of Work

On any given day, you may find Matt riding his bike around Fort Collins, constructing hot wheel tracks (with his kids), or, when time allows, hiking, river rafting, or backcountry skiing with his family.

The Bruce clan.

Charitable organization

Matt selected Wild Plum Center for Young Children and Families as his recipient of Corona’s $500 donation.

Matt first learned about Wild Plum when he worked for the City of Longmont, organizing fieldtrips to the Sandstone Ranch Visitor and Learning Center.  Years later at Corona, when he conducted a needs assessment for the City of Longmont, he saw the need for more comprehensive help to families as a whole, not just kids. Being a parent himself, he also has perspective into the challenges of childcare, and wanted to support an organization that helps families in need.

Throughout 2019, to help celebrate our 20th Anniversary, we are profiling our staff and select clients. Corona is also donating $500 on behalf of each staff person to a charitable organization of their choice. Click here to view all of our interviews. 

To stay up to date on all Corona news, and receive useful insights into the world of research, evaluation, and strategy, subscribe to our newsletter.

Client Interview: Sara Reynolds

As we complete our 20th year of business, we will visit with the two key elements of our work:  our clients and our staff.  We will start with someone who is both:  Sara Reynolds, the Vice President of Operations of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association.

Sara, you’ve been both an employee of Corona Insights and a client.  How has that happened?

I was Corona’s first employee after Kevin, maybe even before Karla, because she was just finishing up her career with Mercy Housing when I started.  I worked at Corona for two years through graduate school, and then went on to other jobs.  I hired them for research work when I was with the Colorado Municipal League, and then strategy consulting when I was at Housing Colorado.

How did you first become aware of Corona?

I talked to a career program person at CU-Denver when I started at the MPA [Master of Public Administration] school.  They said that this company had called looking for help, and I asked if it was a paid internship.  Fortunately, it was.  Kevin had a lot of clients coming in and needed help, and I had SPSS experience, so it was a good match.  I ended up working for both Kevin and Karla on projects.  It was just the three of us.

We were certainly not an established company at the time, so we appreciated your open-mindedness about working for a little startup.

Yes, I remember getting hand-written paychecks.  But I was finishing my grad program while I worked with you, so it was a mutual leap of faith to work at Corona.  I was also working as a legislative aide and in school at the time, so we were all flexible.  I worked in one of the bedrooms at your house while you were fixing it up.  I also own an old house, so I understand the process, the renovations never end. 

How did your career progress after you worked with us?

I stayed with Corona until I finished the MPA program, and then went to work for the City of Westminster.  I wanted to be a city manager but later decided that it wasn’t what I wanted for that particular phase of my life.  I then became the legislative liaison on behalf of the City to the Colorado Municipal League (CML), which led to a job there.  I worked at CML for nine years, and then went to Housing Colorado as the executive director.  I recently left that position and joined the Colorado Oil & Gas Association as the Vice President of Operations.

Are there any particular lessons that you took from Corona to your later positions?

From a research perspective, it was understanding the skill set that was needed for quality analysis.  You can’t take for granted that what you’re receiving is actually good data.  If you don’t start with good data, any analysis is worthless.  We take for granted that all data is good, but with the rise of things like Survey Monkey, that’s not necessarily the case.  It was good to start my career before that era, because we had to build good data from the ground up. 

You also learn that organizations often feel like they have to use data to support their messages, but they don’t always recognize that you don’t have to just limit yourself to the data that’s available.  My experience at Corona gave me confidence to go out and do my own research when I needed to.

On the facilitation side, I’m astonished at how many organizations don’t know how to plan strategically.  Board members come from many different backgrounds.  It’s hard to put board members through training, because they’re just too busy.  You have to take people as they are, and that’s where a skilled facilitator can pull them together to train and lead them through the strategy process.  It gives your executive director an opportunity to participate as well, rather than being the facilitator.

On the topic of collecting your own data, you told us that you have a particular memory of a project with us.  Can you tell us what it is?

Yes, I particularly remember standing on a corner directly outside of Miss Kitty’s [adult store] on Colfax doing observations while we were studying seat belt use.  [Kevin and I] eventually switched corners.

It makes for a funny cocktail story about what I’ve done for my jobs, but there was a bigger purpose.  It was an intriguing contract from the Colorado Department of Transportation that was aimed at improving seat belt use rates among African American men.  I then sat in on some focus groups that identified the stigmas of wearing a seat belt among young African American men.  It was an early experiment in reaching niche markets.  CDOT used the information to run a public information campaign that I’m sure saved lives. 

So you’re the Vice President of Operations at the Colorado Oil & Gas Association (COGA) now.  What intrigued you about that position?

I’ve gone from the public to the nonprofit to the private sector.  I wanted to try something in a member-based organization that served the private sector, which was why I went to COGA.  Our members are all private organizations, but addressing public issues.

There are beautiful recreation centers, senior centers, and other things that have been built with oil and gas [severance tax] money, and perceptions of the industry are different in different parts of the state.  I’m familiar with corporate social responsibility and how private sector organizations can have positive impacts.  My background in working with local governments gave me a good opportunity to be the bridge.

In this position, you also have to have a fluency in understanding the operational elements, such as finance and project management.  In a trade association, you have to juggle many projects.  Project management is on an annual cycle and getting people onto the team who have different skills.  You then have to interface with your board on strategic vision, and also consider strategic partnerships. 

And one of the more exciting elements of working at both Housing Colorado and at COGA is identifying the number of potential partners out there.  You can’t do it all alone as a small organization.  People tend to think internally first on strategy, so you have to help people think externally. Many organizations are funded by oil and gas to pursue their mission.  When you look around, there’s a pretty big table of allies.  You have to figure that out when you work at a small organization.

We’d like to close with a couple of Corona personality questions.  If Corona Insights was an animal, what would it be?

A little bookworm comes to mind, from the Richard Scarry books.  A caterpillar with glasses.  It offers very observant commentary on issues.

And what three words or phrases best describe Corona?

First, I’d say hungry.  Hungry for the next project.  I can’t see you saying no.  You’re always taking on unusual projects that seem odd but interesting.

Second, I’d say disciplined.  Corona is disciplined and committed to taking people to the finish line.

Third, I’d say non-conforming.  You built the business the way you wanted to and were intentionally nonconformist about your approach.  We don’t value institutions the way we used to, so non-conforming is good.  You can be nimble in how you operate.

That concludes our interview.  You were a great first employee, Sara, and you’ve certainly been successful in your career since leaving Corona.  We’re very grateful to have had you on our team, and we’re proud of your success!

Throughout 2019, to help celebrate our 20th Anniversary, we are profiling our staff and select clients. Click here to view all of our interviews. 

To stay up to date on all Corona news, and receive useful insights in the world of research, evaluation, and strategy, subscribe to our newsletter.

Arts and Culture Blog Series Recap

With the end of 2018 just around the corner, we also end our 2018 blog series on arts and culture. Over the past few months, we covered a couple of different topics within arts and culture. First, we had fun catching up with some of our past clients and collaborators who work in arts and culture:

We also spent some time thinking about the definition of arts and culture and how to study it:

Finally, we looked at some pressing issues in the world of arts and culture:

It feels like such an exciting time to be doing research,evaluation, and planning in arts and culture. We can’t wait to see what new projects come up in 2019!

To stay on top of everything we cover, sign up for our quarterly newsletter, The Corona Observer.

Be sure to stay tuned to the Radiance Blog next quarter for our next blog series topic!

The arts and…cannabis?

Medicinal cannabis has been legal in Colorado since 2000, with recreational cannabis making its legal debut in 2014. Since then, attitudes towards cannabis in the Denver area, as well as nationwide, have shifted. The taboo surrounding cannabis has slowly begun to shrink away. As we approach this new horizon, we must ask ourselves—how can the cannabis industry and the arts come together to ensure the success of both industries? I recently attended a CBCA panel discussion on this exact topic. Gathering legal, industry, and non-profit leaders who work in the cannabis space, the panel discussion encouraged us all to open our minds and think differently about the future interconnectivity between the arts and cannabis.

RhondaK Native Florida Folk Artist on Unsplash

While Denver is fortunate to have a robust arts community, this can sometimes lead to competition over funding. As such, arts organizations are consistently looking for new ways to fund and expand their programs and offerings. Cannabis organizations can fulfill this need and serve as a new door for funding. While cannabis companies may not be as flush with cash as we may think, they are actively seeking ways to connect in meaningful ways with their communities. New funding avenues also open doors for further democratizing of art in the metro area. It opens up inclusive opportunities for artists and art mediums that may be overlooked by traditional art spaces such as galleries or museums. Additionally, cannabis companies are inherently collaborative. The regulations around cannabis in Colorado are stringent thus causing companies to embody a culture of collaboration in order to work effectively, efficiently, and legally with state regulators.

Additional funding opportunities and meaningful collaborative partnerships may sound too good to be true. And in some sense, it is. Federally, cannabis is still recognized as an illegal substance with no medical benefits. Therefore, any arts organization must carefully consider the legal implications of partnering with a company in the cannabis space. Tom Downey, a lawyer who was on the CBCA panel I attended, noted that while accepting money from a company associated with a federally illegal substance does present some risk, there are numerous examples of other companies who have not experienced negative repercussions related to receiving funds from the cannabis industry. One example Downey offered was the “Adopt-A-Highway” signs that line the interstate. Several of these signs are sponsored and funded by cannabis dispensaries or other ancillary businesses meaning that in the strict legal sense, CDOT is breaking the law. However, no criminal action has ever been taken against them. For nonprofit organizations in particular, there may be a fear around regulatory repercussions, such as your 501c3 status being revoked. Downey noted that this has not happened yet either.

If your organization may be interested in developing a relationship with a cannabis company, there are three critical steps that must be taken:

  • Get your board’s buy-in
  • Set clear expectations about goals for your partnership
  • Talk to a lawyer or legal advisor about your organizations’ specific risk potential

Convincing a board to accept money from the cannabis industry may be a tough topic to navigate. The CBCA panel suggested selling the board on an increased revenue stream, transparently communicating the risks and rewards of a partnership, and pointing out comparable businesses that are already successfully working with the cannabis industry. If your board is hesitant to enter into a relationship with a cannabis company, another option is to work with ancillary businesses, such as insurance providers, package producers, or marketing firms that work with those in the cannabis industry but are not directly related themselves.

Once the board has given a clear go-ahead, it is important to seek out partnerships with companies and organizations that are open to a relationship that has clearly defined shared goals. As with most partnerships, cultural “fit” is important to consider. 

Consulting a legal advisor never hurts either, as your organization assesses the risks and rewards of partnering with a cannabis company. Lawyers, such as Tom Downey, have extensive experience helping clients handle the federal, state, and local implications of such a partnership.

In our work, we often engage non-profits in the arts and culture space who are looking for new ways to raise money for capital campaigns. We have a saying at Corona— “money follows bold action”. In Colorado, cannabis is a $1.6 billion industry, with slightly fewer than 400 operating dispensaries. As we face the brave new world of cannabis legalization, we here at Corona are interested to see how “cannabis social responsibility” has the potential to disrupt the nonprofit and arts space. Enhanced arts and cultural offerings contribute to a vibrant and engaged community. In the next 3 to 5 years, we anticipate the taboos related to cannabis to reach a tipping point, where the dated negative associations with cannabis subside. Given that, now is the time to think about how your organization will maneuver a changing philanthropic landscape.

How Allentown is using art to shape its downtown

In 2015, SeanKing and his colleagues reached out to Corona to learn more about creating a cultural plan for their city of Allentown. We spent more than a year working together to produce the Allentown Arts &Culture 20:21 Plan.It has been so interesting to see how cities of all sizes are using arts to revitalize their downtowns. I was very excited to catch up with Sean recently and hear about what Allentown has done since revealing their cultural plan.Below is an interview that captures some of the highlights of how Allentown is using art to shape its downtown.

To start us off,can you tell us a bit about your background and role in arts and culture in Allentown?

For over 25 years, I’ve been working in the world of marketing for non-profits and small to medium sized businesses as the principal of my own consulting firm. In 2013, an opportunity arose through one of my clients to become involved with the revitalization of the city of Allentown which had launched a plan for $1 billion worth of reinvestment from a state tax program designed to reinvigorate Pennsylvania’s third largest city. I had little experience with concepts such as “arts-led economic development” and “creative place making” prior to venturing into the cultural planning process with the team at Corona Insights.

My role in 2013 working as a consultant led to an invitation to connect with the other arts leaders in the city in a meeting with the lead developer and other funders to discuss the role of arts and culture in the city’s rebirth. The topic of the first meeting was creative place making and the conversation focused on how arts and culture could be infused into the coming development of office space, a 10,000-seat arena and market rate housing. It was clear that the arts leaders needed to connect with one another and to create role in this redevelopment process and eventually I began serving as the convener of these groups which led to cooperative marketing and fundraising efforts.

At the same time as these projects were launching, a tax credit program, known as “Upside Allentown”, was being unveiled to support redevelopment in the neighborhoods around the main business district. The blocks in these historical neighborhoods had fallen on hard times and through the program, funds were made available to address needs in housing, physical improvements, education, public safety, economic development, marketing and of course, arts and culture. Upside Allentown became the source of the funding for the original needs assessment and cultural planning process, as well as serving as the initial investment into our first Signature Initiative, an Artist-in-Residence program. From there, we’ve been able to cultivate and leverage funding from other sources to continue to expand the role of the arts in Allentown.

What do you think arts and culture has done for Allentown since the cultural plan was unveiled?What are you most proud of so far?

Since the adoption of the Arts & Culture 20:21 Plan there have been several major impacts on the organization and the city as a whole.

Prior to our project, no less than eight previous plans for the arts had been delivered to the arts organizations, city council, mayor and funders. Needless to say, none of them ever gained much traction. From the very beginning, it was our intention to work from the 20:21 Plan and not let it sit on the shelf and collect dust. In short, for the first time in decades there is a general plan for the arts for people to reference, and if we follow our plan, we will be able to leverage our success into a comprehensive plan for the arts for the entire city in the coming years.

The 20:21 Plan has provided a framework of components for programs and initiatives that came directly from the residents and guests of the city. Using Corona Insight’s methodology of listening at the grassroots level has given us credibility when speaking with arts organizations, artists, funders and city officials. One of our favorite quotes from the original series of focus groups with residents came from a recently relocated NYC resident of color who said, “I know there are arts buildings (such as the museum and symphony hall), but I have no idea what goes on in there.” This statement has become a rallying point for arts organizations to work on connecting with the community.

Advocacy has become one of our main areas of interest and work recently. As we’ve continued to evolve as an organization with the 20:21 Plan as our source document, we’ve determined that our best efforts would be put towards those projects and initiatives that the arts community, including artists and arts organizations, cannot accomplish on their own. Therefore, we’ve begun doing more work in advocating for the arts with government and municipal planning officials, data analyses of the region’s creative economy, while also offering professional development for artists, capacity building for event organizers and collaborative marketing efforts.

Most importantly, we’ve raised the specter of the arts across the city at a time when there were some major challenges facing the city government and when redevelopment was occurring at breakneck speed. It was a goal of ours to simply have a seat at the table, no matter the project or role. The arts are now being invited to meetings regarding all facets of the city’s operations with the opportunity to contribute what we call “artistic solutions to urban challenges.”

Since the delivery of the Allentown Art & Culture 20:21 Plan, the 20:21 stakeholders group has evolved into the Cultural Coalition of Allentown, a 501c3 organization with a Board of twelve local and regional leaders and two part-time employees. We have seen the budget commitment to the arts from city entities grow from $0 in 2014 to an effective budget of $150,000 in 2018 with additional growth planned in 2019 and beyond.

Internally, the 20:21 Plan has become a touchstone as an organization when making decisions regarding projects with which we want to engage or dismiss. Making certain the Plan was a living, breathing document has been a goal of ours as we revisit the document formally once per year and several times throughout the year in determining the direction or pursuit of new goals and initiatives.

What recommendations do you have for other communities, especially ones similar in size to Allentown, who want to use arts and culture to revitalize their community? Are there any challenges that they should be aware of?

Allentown is certainly not unique. It is a city of 120,000 people which has recently grown in diversity with Hispanic, Syrian and African-American residents bringing their unique heritage and culture to the city. The challenges of bridging these different cultures and making sure that the redevelopment includes everyone and leaves no one behind is an obstacle that cities of all sizes in the late 2010’s are attempting to solve.

While Allentown does benefit from a Neighborhood Investment Zone (NIZ) which has helped fund all of the major construction and development, none of these funds have been ear marked for support of the arts.  All funding that has come to the arts has been organic in nature but only merely percentages of what is spent on other economic development undertakings.

Unfortunately, arts funding for the sake of funding the arts is dead. Unless arts organizations are connected in some way to economic development, education or healthcare, the future is rather gloomy as funders look towards ways for their investments to make as much impact as possible.

A confluence of initiatives including Allentown starting the cultural planning process at the same time a major redevelopment was occurring combined with a determination to connect economic development to the arts can be replicated in other communities. The combination of three or more of these or different elements allows for the arts to fight for their fair share of the economic improvements occurring in cities nationwide. The hardest part is taking the first step.

Creating a culture of collaboration was first and foremost before we were able to begin implementing even the needs assessment and cultural planning process. For Allentown, there were four main elements needed from any community before embarking on an arts-led economic development strategy.

First there needs to be a catalyst. This individual, project or organization gets people talking and moving away from the status quo. Second, communities need the data and research to know exactly what is being said about the arts on the streets, in the homes and schools and at the highest level of government and businesses. The third component is a sherpa to help guide the project through its many facets and to lead the way in convening ongoing and consistent conversations about the arts. Lastly, a strong network of stakeholders who, by staying connected and moving forward with one vision, will start to turn ideas and concepts into realistic and practical outcomes.

Obviously, this is a gross simplification of the time and energy that needs to be expended to reach your goals. One of the most significant challenges we met and still continue to wrestle with is the splintered leadership within the arts. The arts institutions must remain strong to provide structure, so artists and independent galleries and organization can exist and thrive. However, getting buy-in at all levels is extremely difficult and is a never-ending job as there will always be new players moving into the market, elected officials to be voted in and out of office, company mergers, artist egos, difference of opinions and everything else associated with the natural ebb and flow of the economy in a given region.

Resources will inevitably come up as part of the discussion, but as a wise counselor once advised “Money always follows great ideas.” It is up to the artists, arts administrators and communities as a while to find common ground and reimagine what is possible through the arts in their cities and towns.

Thanks to Sean for updating us on the cultural plan at work in Allentown!

Cultural Competency Requires more than Translations

We at Corona have the privilege of working with a wide variety of arts and culture organizations in Colorado and beyond.  One of the biggest challenges we hear a lot about these days is providing programs and services that will appeal to a group of culturally diverse audiences.  In the Denver metro, where we do much of our work, the percentage of the population that is White is expected to decline from 68% in 2010 to only 50% in 2050, so tackling this issue is critical to the success of the arts and culture sector in the state.

For a long time, it seemed like most arts and culture organizations’ approach to cultural competency was to offer translations of materials in other languages.  While there is certainly nothing wrong with providing translated materials for non-English speakers, and it is often the first step many organizations take in trying to be more relevant to underserved cultures, there is a big difference between simply providing translations and being culturally relevant.  The key question we have recently been asking our clients to consider is what it means for an experience to be designed with diverse audiences in mind compared to an experience that has been adapted for diverse audiences from an experience designed for a non-minority audience.  In the former case, the experience should seem instinctual, organic, natural, and welcoming. In the latter, the experience can come off as contrived and inauthentic.

It is important to consider that the definition of “diverse audiences” varies greatly by region, and a truly diverse approach will consider how the experience will reach audiences of all types.  However, for the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on some things we have learned about how Hispanic families in Denver experience arts and culture to illustrate ways in which translations don’t go far enough.

Imagine that you were designing an experience and wanted to ensure that it would be relevant and inclusive for Hispanic families.  Rather than thinking about how a non-Hispanic family might enjoy the experience and then providing translations, here are a few things to consider:

  • Many Hispanic families are multi-generational, and grandparents are deeply involved in the lives of their grandchildren.  An experience for Hispanic children, therefore, may be more successful if it includes seating areas for grandparents who might otherwise wear out after standing for a long time.
  • Many Hispanic families value free play more than their non-minority counterparts, so having an experience that is highly structured may not translate well.  Instead, allowing plenty of time for kids to explore and learn on their own may be more successful.
  • Similarly, the ideas of highly-structured questionnaires as a means of evaluating either child performance or program success may not be effective among Hispanic audiences.  Culturally, the idea of answering closed-ended questions in a very impersonal experience is somewhat foreign compared to a conversation with friends about a topic, so qualitative approaches may be more successful than quantitative approaches.

Of course, these are just a handful of things to consider out of countless ways that Hispanic families might vary in how they take in an experience, so the long-term solution to the challenge of being culturally relevant to all families is to ensure that you have representation among your leadership and staff from the various segments that you are trying to reach.  While you are trying to get to that point, though, keeping in mind that experiences should be designed for diverse audiences rather than adapted for them will help to put you on the right track.