Can Green Mountain agriculture grow beyond the dairy farm? Can visual artists design a model for filling the collective coffers? Who in Vermont is already thinking outside traditional boxes, and what can be learned from them? The Vermont Council on Rural Development sought answers to these and other questions last Wednesday, July 18, by convening "Advancing Vermont's Creative Economy: Celebrating Models of Community Success."
The daylong conference at the Statehouse attracted several hundred community leaders from across Vermont. It charged them up with inspirational speakers, then dispersed them to eight workshops on topics such as marketing creative economy, envisioning regional models, linking cultural organizations, and incubating new businesses. The goal for each roll-up-your-sleeves group was to arrive at two recommendations to share at the end of the day with the whole assembly - and, eventually, with the legislature and current administration.
But first, introductory remarks by Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, Tourism & Marketing Commissioner Bruce Hyde and VCRD Executive Director Paul Costello set the tone. "The purpose of this conference is to bring the creative economy into focus," clarified Dubie. He went on to praise such innovative Vermont companies as the Bowles Corporation in North Ferrisburgh, whose clean-earth product has been sopping up fuel leaked from underground tanks all over the world.
Wait - what's that got to do with the arts? Or agriculture?
A central idea advanced at this conference was that "creative economy" is not a narrowly defined rubric; that creative thinking can, and should, exist in every kind of enterprise. "In the global economy," said Costello, "the jobs will go where the innovation is."
Some conferees might have been surprised to find this best illustrated in remarks by John Casella, head of Casella Waste Systems, who participated in a panel discussion called "The Creative Economy in Vermont Today." The recycling magnate pointed out that his company applies an "aesthetic sensibility" to problem solving and holds several patents on waste-treatment technologies. "We have an intellectual-property department and reward creativity," Casella said. "We want to attract smart, creative employees." Furthermore, he noted in a nod to artsier economies, these individuals will want to live in "cultural communities."
Casella also touted the state's trump card, in words echoed by other speakers: "When we go out into the rest of the world, being from Vermont gives us a huge leg up," he said. "The world expects innovative, creative solutions from Vermont, and we don't want to ever, ever see that die."
If the fabled "Vermont brand" gives local marketing efforts a head start, the day's workshops made clear that creative solutions to economic success are not exactly paint-by-numbers easy. For example, participants in "Using the Web as a Creative Economy Tool" were somewhat stymied by the harsh reality that many Vermonters are still on dial-up. Without access to high-speed Internet, many would-be entrepreneurs - especially in more rural regions - will remain well behind the curve. The workshop's first recommendation, then: get a statewide IT infrastructure ASAP. Nothing new about that.
An underlying - and often unspoken - assumption of the "creative economy" can be summed up with that optimistic imperative from the movie Field of Dreams: "Build it and they will come." In this case, "they" are money-bearing tourists, and "it" is a plethora of smart, forward-thinking businesses, farms, arts organizations and individuals who collectively find ways to capitalize on Brand Vermont. The conference's conclusions? That solutions to economic woes will continue to come from traditional assets - the state's history, beauty, small-town character, arty entrepreneurship and reputation for integrity. But participants also believe the global economy is not waiting for Vermont to catch up.
"Vermont needs infrastructure," declared guest speaker Bill Schubart, president of Resolutions Inc. That includes "taxes wisely spent" and "a strategic plan." The state is only limited by "leadership, imagination and courage," he suggested. "And dialogue is the first responsibility of leadership."
It remains to be seen whether the recommendations of this conference will turn into dialogue - and action - under the Golden Dome this fall.