Skip to main content

Can the historic Fox West Theatre help unify Trinidad?

Email share
Trinidad’s $25 million dollar renovation of a historic theater is in the works. Can the city handle another change?
Photo: Elle Naef, Rocky Mountain PBS

TRINIDAD, Colo. Trinidad’s Main Street has been the centerpoint of the town’s economic victories and downfalls since the 1860s.

The Fox West Theatre has overlooked Main Street since 1908. It was one of many new buildings constructed after the downtown area was rebuilt following a 1905 flood. 

Trinidad and city planners now hope a $25 million renovation can bridge nostalgia for the old West and a more sustainable economy for locals. 

“Preservation has such a fine line between honoring the past and making it useful for the future,” said Christa Franks, the owner of Trinidad Tea Company, one of two storefronts attached to the Fox West Theatre. 

Trinidad’s Main Street at night. 
Photo: Elle Naef, Rocky Mountain PBS

Franks is as a member of the Fox West Theatre Alliance, a nonprofit that took over theatre operations in 2018 when the city of Trinidad bought the property from a private seller using a $200,000 dollar grant from History Colorado and $75,000 in city funds. 

By that point, the theatre had been closed for about five years. 

Franks and the alliance are managing a renovation that will include a traditional performance and event space in the main theatre area. Historically, the theater hosted notable vaudeville acts, and musicals. After the Fox West Coast Theatre company purchased the venue in 1929, it screened movies. 

Organizers hope that the former basement dressing rooms can be repurposed for community classes, meetings and other gatherings. 

Christa Franks points out the elaborate rigging that is still intact backstage. 
Photo: Elle Naef, Rocky Mountain PBS

Franks said in order to build trust with residents, the Fox West Theatre Alliance is seeking grants and donations from sources outside Trinidad instead of burdening locals with the expenses. 

“It’s important to put your money where your mouth is,” she said. 

According to city manager Steve Reuger, Trinidad has put about $7.5 million into the theatre’s infrastructure and storefronts since fundraising began in 2018. Chris Bryant, who serves on Trinidad’s Historic Preservation Committee, said the theatre is also in the process of becoming a landmark, which would come with some tax benefits.

The City of Trinidad has other, more common-place priorities – , such as replacing all of the water tanks, and ensuring upkeep in other infrastructure. Fundraising and theater restoration will continue in the meantime, Reuger said. 

Restoring the theatre, which sits near the end of Main Street, can help expand the downtown area toward the highway, increasing draw and making Trinidad “more than a weed and gas stop,” Franks said.  

The renovation will come through a collaboration with development and preservation company Urban Neighborhoods; History Colorado, which will consult on the historic accuracy of preservation; and the Environmental Protection Agency, which will guide safety regulations through the removal of toxic elements such as asbestos.

The theatre has hosted historic acts including Houdini, John Philip Sousa and Sitting Bull.
Photo: Elle Naef, Rocky Mountain PBS

“I believe Trinidad will become the next big, attractive mountain town in Colorado,” said Reuger.

Despite the allure of a rejuvenated community space, the renovations come amid conflict over the future of Trinidad, and whether it’s prepared for the growth it’s encouraging. 

“People come to Trinidad, they take what they want and they leave. So that local trust is very hard to build, and has been for generations. I think this building is a really great place to talk about that,” said Franks.

Above: The balcony where “lower class citizens” like strike- workers and immigrants were sent to sit during years of segregation. Below: The Sawaya Sisters, who took over operations of the 
theater in the 1950s. As first generation Lebanese-Americans, they rejected the theatre’s segregation practices.
Photos: Elle Naef, Rocky Mountain PBS

According to Howard Lackey, a lifetime Trinidad resident and owner of The Moose Social House, town wariness is heavily based on years of economic booms-and-busts in industries such as coal, steel, and most recently, cannabis. 

“It’s one-horseism,” he said. “If you rely on one horse and the horse gets sick, so does the community.”

Lackey also noted the influx of business and property owners who have been priced out of Denver, or are seeking more space. 

While some of the business owners eager to cash in on Trinidad's potential still remain in the area, others left for nearby towns like Raton, New Mexico. Lackey said one issue is the city’s resistance to innovation.

“They're [business owners] having to push pretty hard to get their ideas to come through,” he said. “We're having enough newer folks that are showing up that are starting to help, but we still have too much old-line thinking.”

The theatre's renovation also comes in the wake of significant revenue-driving festivals like the Trinidaddio Blues Festival coming to an end. The Trinidaddio ran from 1999 to 2023. Organizers cited a lack of city support as the main reason for ending the festival.

“Due to financial constraints, there will not be another Trinidaddio Blues Fest,” read a statement on The Trinidaddio website. “With little support from the City of Trinidad City Council in 2021 and none in 2022, the decision was made to end the fest for good.”

Juan DelaRoca, founder of Gravel Adventure Field Guide, said the Fox West Theatre could be a step in the right direction when it comes to Trinidad opening up to tourism. 

“You don't have to solve everything,” he said of the city, “Just start ticking off some wins. I think the Fox West Theatre will be a win.” 

However, his concerns echoed Reuger’s. 

DelaRoca acknowledged it is important to prioritize infrastructure first — especially considering the recent opening of Fishers Peak State Park in the area, a change that means more newcomers.

 “There is still time to jump in front of complex issues, but that doorway is starting to close as Trinidad receives more attention for what it has to offer the Colorado experience,” he said. 

With a population that trends older, there is also a question of who will patronize the new businesses.

Las Animas County has a median age of 46.8 years, almost 10 years older than the median age of Colorado, which is 37.3 years. 

It also has a 21% poverty rate compared to a 16% rate across the state. 

Franks said another issue is that some new Trinidad business owners didn’t live in Trinidad first themselves, and therefore didn’t have a pulse on the area.

“They were charging Denver and Boulder prices,” she said. 

New business owner Asher Edwards grew up in Globeville, Denver and lived in Wheat Ridge. She moved to Trinidad to have a “cleaner and more affordable place to raise her daughter.”
Photo: Elle Naef, Rocky Mountain PBS

According to Franks, the years of ups and downs Trinidad has faced highlights the importance of the theatre being centered around locals first. 

“It can’t be just a vehicle for tourism, or it gets forgotten in the local conversation,” she said, “People are too connected to it.”

In an effort to recognize this, the alliance also hopes to make the theater a living archive of the lives of locals.

As it stands, the space is already a time capsule containing relics it held through its decades of operation, from empty soda bottles to half-full ashtrays and green room posters. 

The larger items, including hundreds of movie posters, film reels, ticket stands and other items that were left behind are stored in a nearby basement where they are being archived and photographed. 

Franks said the alliance also hopes to create an opportunity for locals to share their personal history, whether it’s through storytelling events, a book she keeps in her store in which locals document their memories of the theatre, or historic audio tours. 

She hopes that the sense of solidarity between locals helps unify the town. 

“For the people of Trinidad to have something to be really proud of is so crucial to who we are as a community, and to narrow that gap between us vs. them.”

Elle Naef is a multimedia producer at Rocky Mountain PBS.

Related Story

Spotlight Newsletter

Community stories from across Colorado and updates on your favorite PBS programs, in your inbox every Tuesday.

Sign up here!