Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What gives a community its Vitality?

A couple of weeks ago a former trustee paid me a visit. He told me a story about how he recently took some heat in his community for remarks he made about how important the not-for-profit cultural organizations were to the economic health and vitality of his town.

I don't have access to the full story and its reportage, but it sounded like quite a few people took offense at his suggestion that the cultural institutions in his town were what drew people to visit, live, work, and raise families there. (What about the restaurants, the bookstore, the artist collaborative?, they cried. What about the grocery stores, the car dealership, and the movie theater? What about the hiking, biking, and fishing that was conveniently located within minutes of the downtown? What about the people, the finely built homes, the attractive downtown?)

How DARE he (my former trustee) suggest it was the cultural institutions that were responsible for the town's economic identity?

What is interesting to me about this story is that when one talks about a Vermont town or village, one can be pretty sure that all of them share many of the same characteristics. Shops, grocery stores, and easy access to outdoor recreation are common to virtually every town or village center in Vermont.

But I'm pretty sure that what my former trustee was talking about was not those fairly common characteristics, but those characteristics about his town that were UNcommon. It's very easy to imagine any town with a grocery store, a book store (although a good independent bookstore is a rare treasure these days) and even an eatery of some kind or other.

Burlington is not unique because it has just any performing arts center or thriving visual arts scene. It is unique because it has the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, it has the Firehouse Gallery, and it has the South End, North End, and all-around-the-town artists scene (yes, including the colleges and University) that, whether the Art Hop or the Jazz Fest or some other type of cultural activity, gives Burlington its unique character. That it is the queen city on the lake is a bonus, but again--of all the towns that share that characteristic (being on a lake), none except for Burlington, is Burlington. If you don't believe me, ask yourself, when was the last time you visited Plattsburgh? Will you be going back any time soon?

The same is true for Bennington, St. Johnsbury, Brattleboro, Weston, St. Albans, Montpelier, Randolph, Bellows Falls, Vergennes, Brandon and many many more. Plenty of towns have good schools, a great library, a museum, a performing arts center, a great artist coop, some good restaurants, a good bookstore. But only Bennington has the Bennington College, Bennington Museum, the Oldcastle Theater, the Artists' Guild, and (slightly north) the Vermont Arts Exchange as well as good restaurants, stores, etc. Only St. Johnsbury has the Athenaeum, the Fairbanks Museum, Catamount Arts, and the St. J Academy (and a great artists coop, bookstore, and a few restaurants). Only Brattleboro...oh heck, you get the picture.

All of these towns are unique (and thus attractive to visitors, new businesses, relocators, etc.) largely because of the cultural institutions they play host to.

I felt badly for my former trustee. He fell victim to what I now call the "me too" syndrome that afflicts everyone in times of economic crisis. No one's livelihood is inconsequential to the life and vitality of a town. So when someone dares to suggest that what makes a town unique and attractive to investment (whether of marketing dollars or business incentives) doesn't include you and your work, you tend to get defensive. (What about me? I'm important. My work matters.)

But too much "me too" results in the fabric of our communities becoming frayed and the institutions that define their cultural legacies reduced, ultimately, to rubble.

We can't let that happen. Not in Vermont.


Bill Schubart said...

Good post and very true. Many towns are becoming cognizant of the opportunity to be more than retail enclaves. Would that we had statewide leadership in the Governor's office vision for what Vermont could be culturally.

Frank Landry said...

Right on, Alex!