Forum hopes to invigorate town economies

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(Host) New England’s manufacturing sector has taken a hit in recent years. But jobs in the creative fields are growing at twice the rate of the region’s overall economy.

The Vermont Council on Rural Development has been encouraging towns to harness their creative assets and Rutland is holding a forum on how to invigorate its creative economy tomorrow.

VPR’s Nina Keck reports:

(Keck) In pure employment terms, the creative business sector covers a lot of ground – artists, architects, writers, designers, recording studios, publishers and book stores for example. Then there are all the non-profit cultural organizations, historical societies and libraries.

At a recent planning meeting in Rutland, a group of local residents talked about what they wanted to cover in their creative economy forum. The panel discussion, which will include a diverse cross section of local business, political, social and cultural leaders will be key they say in jump starting a dialog on the issue.

Paul Costello is Director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, the organization spearheading these creative economy forums. He says the idea is to get local residents to take a fresh look at their town, figure out what it is they like most about it and build on that.

(Costello) “To communities it often means a development strategy. How do you build momentum and rally people together to build a market identity for your community? How do you make your town seem like a really stimulating place to be, so that your children will want to live there, grow up, start businesses?”

(Keck) That’s vital, he says because so many young Vermonters are fleeing the state to find jobs elsewhere. The good news, he says, is that there are success stories.

(Costello) “Brandon is a good example. People think the whole idea of having pigs on Main Street as kind of a zany fun thing to do, and it is. But it also captured public imagination. And it gets people thinking that there is something happening in Brandon, weird as it may be.”

(Keck) Brandon created a buzz two years ago with their well publicized parade and auction of brightly colored fiberglass pigs. Costello says the energy that produced that also went into downtown development strategies and business and arts cooperation.

(Costello) “Ultimately they’ve built enough momentum out of the work they did to fill store fronts. To make private investors say:’ hmmmm, you know, maybe this is a town that’s happening, maybe I aught to invest in it.’ Today, Brandon has a reputation as a dynamic, creative center.”

(Keck) Liz Stedman, is on the board of the Vermont Council on Culture and Innovation and has worked closely on the creative economy forums. She says too often people don’t see the connection between creativity and commerce.

(Stedman) “There’s no question that innovation is one of the key characteristics of American business right now. And when we think of the creative economy we apply it not just to artists, but to anybody who’s found some sort of niche for their business that makes them competitive in a global economy.”

(Keck) Some might argue that all this is merely the latest in a long line of trendy economic theories, and that it oversimplifies complex problems. But Rutland businessman John Casella disagrees.

(Casella) “I really think there is something to the creative economy. But I think that it’s not simply just about bringing in the arts and crafts. I think it’s thinking about our entire economy differently.

(Keck) Casella is Chairman and CEO of Casella Waste Management in Rutland. By encouraging innovation, Cassella turned garbage into a $500 million-dollar-a-year business with 2,600 employees.

(Casella) “And one of the things we have been doing is looking at how we can take landfill gas and produce power. How we can take the energy that’s coming off that power production and create hot house tomatoes and really change the dynamics of how we’re looking at what historically has been a fundamental liability.”

(Keck) Casella, who’ll be a panelist in Rutland’s creative economy discussion, says in addition to creating new jobs, he’d like to see Vermont better utilize its intellectual capital to tackle current challenges, like how best to preserve natural resources or improve infrastructure. Organizers of the public dialogs agree and say the first step in building any creative economy is simply to embrace innovation in all its varied forms.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland.

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