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The creative economy


It's nice to see that the work we did with the Council on Culture and Innovation is still making news:


Congratulations to Stowe’s town government for forming a council that will actively promote local arts and culture.

This is much more than a feel-good gesture toward the arts. The creative economy is a real thing in many other communities, including some in Vermont. As the global economy continues to evolve — goodbye, large-scale U.S. manufacturing — fresh ideas are needed to keep communities vibrant and vital.

In fact, Stowe’s move picks up on a movement that began 10 years ago, although it lacks the zing it needs.

Stowe certainly has the raw material to promote, and so do Waterbury and Morrisville. The Green Mountain Byway, as Route 100 has been dubbed from Waterbury north through Stowe, could become a focal point not just for recreation — as it already is — but for being a place that develops new ideas.

Though Stowe is forming a council on arts and culture, that’s only the beginning. A creative economy means much more than galleries filled with original paintings, sculpture and other art forms, or the burgeoning local music scene.

Here’s an excerpt from a 2004 report from the Vermont Council on Culture and Innovation:

“The development of the creative economy in Vermont is not limited by geography, topography, demographics, or population density. It can play a vital role in every corner of the state. Just as Vermont was a leader in the manufacturing of things, it is now poised to be a leader in the production of ideas … Creative and stimulating communities attract and retain young people. This is a key concern in Vermont, where the loss of its youth to other regions is a historic challenge. The emerging jobs market places a premium on creative problem-solving, yet these skills are not taught consistently throughout Vermont’s education system.”

Arts can be a real economic engine, as Vergennes and Bellows Falls proved in the early 2000s. Bellows Falls, a hard-edged mill and railroad town, looked to reinvent itself by developing a strong arts business. Vergennes did much the same in renovating its Opera House.

Here are the numbers, courtesy of the Vermont Arts Council:

“From 1994 to 2003, meals tax revenue increased by 38 percent in Vermont. During the same period in Vergennes, however, it increased by 57 percent. Sales and use taxes increased 28 percent in Vermont from 1994-2003; in Vergennes, they increased 47 percent. These increases were a direct result of the restoration of the Vergennes Opera House.

“In Bellows Falls, meals tax revenue increased 120 percent from 1994 to 2003, compared to the state average of 38 percent. Sales and use tax increased 36 percent compared to the state’s average of 28 percent. These increases were due to the catalytic impact of the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project, whose work not only brought cultural activities to the downtown of Bellows Falls, but rehabilitated the downtown Exner Block into affordable ‘live/work’ space for artists.”

Those successes have not been widely replicated in Vermont, which is a shame. Even so, the arts are big business in this state. The Vermont Arts Council estimates that Vermont arts organizations alone attract 7 million visitors a year, and are a $443 million economic force. Vermont invests about $4 per capita in the arts and cultural sector each year, or about $2.5 million. In income, sales/use, and room/meals tax revenues, it took in about $31 per capita from the sector, or about $19.44 million, in 2010, according to a study done by Doug Hoffer, who’s now the state auditor. That’s a return on investment of nearly 800 percent per year. Hoffer also estimated the arts sector employs 4,300 people in Vermont — more than the insurance sector, the food manufacturing sector, and wood products sector.

Expand the approach to arts and culture and we’ll be on the way to a broader, healthier local economy.

Vermont already has an Office of the Creative Economy, whose mission is to expand the local economy to include arts, culture, business and technology. Recent projects include the Vermont Tech Jam, and the Independent Television and Film Festival, which relocated from California to Dover, Vt.

This is an innovative approach where it literally pays to think big