Is Rutland ready to become Vermont's next "It" town? Maybe not. But residents gathered for a "Creative Economy Forum" last Thursday at Three Tomatoes Trattoria on Merchants Row were exploring ways to at least give the place more life. Many in attendance complained that the central Vermont city too often approaches its problems with a "can't-do" attitude. But organizer Elizabeth Stedman of the lobbying firm Kimbell-Sherman-Ellis looked over the 150 people who'd turned out for the midday meeting and remarked, "Rutland is really ready to have this conversation."
The term "creative economy" refers to a broad set of cultural, intellectual and economic activity that includes artists, writers, musicians, engineers, educators, architects, and others who make a living as creative professionals. The phrase was coined by Richard Florida, a Carnegie-Mellon economist who contends that creativity-based enterprises will fuel U.S. economic growth in the 21st century. Florida argues that towns and cities that foster innovative entrepreneurial activity and attract young, creative professionals will be the ones that create the most jobs, pay the highest wages, and offer the best quality of life.
By one estimate, New England's creative economy exceeds $4.3 billion annually. Communities across Vermont have been holding town meetings similar to Rutland's to figure out how to beef up their own artistic and cultural endeavors. Those discussions dovetail with the release of a report by the Vermont Council on Culture and Innovation on "Advancing Vermont's Creative Economy." The report offers specific recommendations for attracting "clean" industries, stimulating cultural enterprises, and developing a town's unique "brand identity."
Rutland already has an image, but not for its hopping arts scene. Some of the Rutland panelists didn't seem to fit the creative-professional profile. Take John Casella, for example. He's chairman and CEO of Casella Waste Systems of Rutland, one of the largest waste-management firms in North America. Where's the creativity in taking out the trash? As Casella explained to the audience, his company has succeeded in large part through innovations -- such as capturing the methane produced by landfills to generate electricity, and then using the waste heat from the process to grow hothouse tomatoes.
"We can take resources from a community, which were once historically viewed as a liability, and turn them into an asset," Cassella says.
Another panelist was India Burnett Farmer of "Rutbusters," a group of residents in their twenties and thirties who are trying to make their city more attractive to young professionals. Farmer noted that lack of housing downtown turns Rutland City into a virtual ghost town after quitting time.
During an open discussion, community members tossed out their own suggestions -- such as turning Center Street into a pedestrian mall with art galleries, and establishing a community center at the Paramount Theater.
Not everyone was convinced that the talk will lead to anything tangible. One local businessman griped afterward that most city officials were notably absent. And Three Tomatoes owner Allen Frey observed that during the entire two-hour meeting, only 14 people walked past his restaurant. "And this at the height of the afternoon rush," he lamented. "One thing hasn't changed in Rutland. There's no life in downtown."
Others were more optimistic. Elisabeth Kulas of the Rutland County Community Land Trust urged Rutland residents to dream big. "The resources [for change] are out there," she said. "Don't get bogged down on why an idea won't work. If you have a great idea, figure out how to make it happen and shoot for the stars."