Getting Creative in Newport, WA

by Gabriel Cruden

Gabriel CrudenFor many small towns in rural America, their economic vitality can be greatly influenced by the arrival or departure of a major employer in the area. Newport, Washington, on the eastern border of the state with Idaho, has seen its fair share of economic ebb and flow over the years and is getting creative about how to grow a more diversified and resilient economy.

Less than a month ago, Newport became one of a growing list of designated Creative Districts in the state of Washington. A Creative District is a certification awarded by the Washington Arts Commission (ArtsWA) and comes with a whole program of support, including access to grant funding. In order to qualify for the designation, a local group of volunteers formed a 501(c)3 nonprofit (aptly named, Newport Creative District), gathered input from the community, and went through a strategic planning process.

“I think the idea of having some manufacturer come and save the town is an outdated model,” said Linda Cassella, board president for the Newport Creative District. “We have tried to recruit businesses, but it’s a tough sell, especially being on the border with Idaho.”

Cassella explained that the cost of doing business is different in Idaho and can be a key factor for “big box, manufacturing and chain stores” to locate there instead of in Newport. Rather than trying to compete, Cassella said that the focus will be on what Newport can uniquely offer in the region, and to actively support and promote that.

“There are a lot of creative and talented people in the area,” Cassella said. “And not just in the visual arts. I know this from working with CREATE all these years.”

CREATE (Community Resource Emphasis on Arts Through Education) is a long-time, volunteer run nonprofit in Newport led by Joyce Weir, who first learned about the Creative District program while on a nonprofit network meeting where the then newly-designated Creative District group in Chewelah were presenting.

“I was so excited about the program and the possibility of doing it here in Newport,” Weir said. “The meeting was on Zoom and I emailed it and made recorded copies of the program and shared flash drives to spark interest.”

Cassella noted how the initial meetings drew a lot of support, but it took a few meetings before Cassella stepped forward as the “reluctant volunteer” to lead the effort. Cassella has lived in Newport since 1985 and spent much of her career working for the U.S. Postal Service, commuting to Spokane for 23 years, and then as the postmaster in Elk, WA, retiring in 2015. For fun, she plays the ukulele, sings and paints. With her years of management experience and now being retired, combined with her passion for the arts and love of her local community, she was encouraged to step into the leadership position for the group.

“Ours is such a friendly community,” Cassella said. “I like the fact that when you walk down the street, people say ‘Hi’ to you. It’s also a safe environment and so scenic, with the mountains all around.”

ArtsWA community development manager Annette Roth noted how, “Chewelah has been making all kinds of amazing things happen. They are looked at as the first rural Creative District and one that had the least amount of resources when they started, and have turned it into the most amount of activity. I think the same kind of thing can happen for Newport – they have the same kind of passion.”

Roth said that the Newport group’s strategic plan, which was funded with an $8,000 grant from the Innovia Foundation, was “very good and very functional in that they have a lot of steps to get their organization off the ground properly, and they have it very well laid out.”

“I think it’s fantastic what they are doing already,” Weir said. “They are coming up with some really neat ways to interact with the community. I think it’s tremendous.”

This past year, the Newport Creative District hosted an Earth Day Art Walk with 30 artisans and crafters and 11 businesses participating, a Shamrock Shindig, and an ice cream social, all slated to become annual events.
According to Roth, “They are looking to use their creative district as a way for the kids and students to find long-term job opportunities in the creative field and for them to stay there, find jobs there, start businesses there. To support that, they have started a youth advisory council at the high school to explore what students want to see in their community, and what business partners they would be interested in. Some of the areas of interest include a culinary arts program and a theater connection. They are not just looking at events – it’s also about building a sustainable economy.”

“We get 20,000 cars a day going through,” Cassella stated, adding that Newport is part of the International Selkirk Loop, a scenic driving tour in the region. “We think that if we have a ‘Start Your Adventure Here,’ it will entice people to stop and shop.”

The Newport Creative District’s strategic plan includes beautification, infrastructure development, art in public spaces, promotion of the town’s history, and more, for which they are eligible for grant funding support from ArtsWA.

“We have an opportunity for a $10,000 operating grant and also grant funding for capital projects for up to $200,000,” Cassella said. “There’s a matching component, so I don’t know how much we will apply for. Volunteer hours, which we have a ton of, can be used as part of the matching. We just got our designation, so we will look at applying next.”

Roth said that the Newport Creative District is in an area below the state average, economically, and so eligible for their match-reduction program, which allows for 25% of the required 50% matching funds for the operating grant to be in-kind (volunteer hours, for example), and for the first $50,000 of the capital grant to be any combination of in-kind or cash for the 50% match.

Newport, which is the Pend Oreille County seat, was incorporated in 1903, having earned its name in 1890 as the landing site for the first steamboat on the Pend Oreille River. One of its claims to fame is being the home to the second oldest continuously operating bar in the state – Kelly’s Bar & Grill – which was established in 1894. (The title of oldest in continuous operation in the state goes to The Brick Saloon, established in 1889 in Roslyn, WA.)

Newport has seen very little population growth over the last couple of decades. According to the 2000 census, the population was 1,921. In 2010, a modest increase to 2,126. And today, according to DemographicsNow, there are 2,364 people. DemographicsNow also indicates that there are 1,044 employees in Newport, and 101 establishments, which represents nearly a third of the employees in all of Pend Oreille County, and nearly a quarter of all the establishments in the county.

Newport Creative District board member Elly Styskel said, “Many people might not realize all the different kinds of job that qualify as ‘creative’ jobs, such as metal working, publishing and creative writing, the culinary arts, work by tailors and seamstresses … it’s so much more than what you might think of as the arts.”

Styskel explained that, through the Creative District, they can promote and support these kinds of jobs in the community, and support an expanding economy through events, beautification, capital improvements, and advertising and promotion.

“There are so many business possibilities,” Styskel enthused.

Other board members for the Newport Creative District include Angela Drew, Jan Gleason, Patti Jackson, Phoenix Luby, Lorraine Patria, and Lee Shaver. Letters of support for application to establish the Creative District were provided by the City of Newport, Pend Oreille County Board of Commissioners, Greater Newport Area Chamber of Commerce, Create Arts and Community Center, Evergreen Art Association, Kalispel Tribe of Indians, Hospitality House, Vessel Gallery and Clay Studio, LLC, Pend Oreille County Historical Society and Museum, Pend Oreille County Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, Cutter Theatre, Pend Oreille Playhouse, Responsible Growth Northeast Washington, Newport-Priest River Rotary Club, and Pend Oreille County Library District.

Gabriel Cruden is the owner/publisher of the Huckleberry Press and the North Columbia Monthly and is dedicated to building community through private enterprise, nonprofit development, and public partnership. He resides with his family on a small farm overlooking the Columbia River near Kettle Falls, WA.