The Creative Economy in Bellows Falls

Dec 1 2004
Chris Fleisher

Bellows Falls - Lamont Barnett, owner of "The Rock and Hammer" jewelry store in Bellows Falls, exhales as he recalls what downtown Bellows Falls looked like 15 years ago.

"At one time, we had a situation where there were only four businesses on this side of the street," he said, pointing to a block where there is now quadruple that number. "Approximately 75 to 80 percent of the retail spaces were vacant."
But that was in the dark ages of the early-90s, before what is being called the "creative economy" took hold.

A report by the Vermont Council on Rural Development released Monday used Bellows Falls as a success story for how this economic theory can revitalize struggling Vermont communities. Championed in recent years by economist Richard Florida, the theory can take on any number of definitions. Vermont Council Producer Paul Costello said it can be reduced to three basic ideas. Costello said the first definition refers simply to the professional artists and designers who form the "creative" component of the workforce, which he said the Council determined to be about 4.5% in Vermont. Secondly, it can mean the development strategy in which an area uses artists and cultural institutions to stimulate growth. Finally, it refers to creative ways in which businesses approach what they do.

Though all three could be applied to Bellows Falls in one way or another, Costello said the second and third explanations are most relevant. " Look at what Robert McBride has done," said Costello, referring to the founder of the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project in Bellows Falls. "He renovated the Exner block and then moved onto the other downtown buildings one by one."

The Exner Block, a "downtown jewel that sat vacant and deteriorating for decades," is used in the report as a prime example of when this theory works. McBride began work in the late-90s, turning the building into affordable housing and work spaces for artists. The report said the restored space inspired several other projects and the "renaissance" grew from there. But McBride said the idea of the creative economy goes beyond simply attracting artists to bring energy to a community.

"It's a much bigger idea. There's a synergy, more of a snowballing effect of energy in the community," McBride said.

This is where people like Paul Millman come in, according to McBride.

Millman founded Chroma Technology in June 1991 and moved to Bellows Falls from Brattleboro in 2003. Millman said, for his business, the creative economy is much more than giving his employees galleries, restaurants and decent theater to enjoy after work.

"The idea behind the creative economy is that it attracts people who are independent thinkers and whose lifestyle goes beyond the workplace," he said. "It's a symbiosis. We need culture and the arts because people like that don't want to be without them."

Millman said that when independent thinkers get together, they create. These are the people he said he wants to employ.

"We work without managers," he said. "We expect our people to be smart and creative. What we want from our employees is for them to solve problems." Millman said he currently employees 70 people, all of whom are shareholders in the company. He said though this system has worked well thus far, earning Chroma Technology a spot amongst Vermont Business Magazine's 25 fastest growing companies, he is unsure how it would work in a larger organization. But that is not the point, according to Millman. He said the old model of relying on large industry to attract people to an area is not how community growth happens anymore.

"People now have options about where to live," he said. "The idea that you had to go to a place for jobs, whether it be Detroit if you wanted to work in the auto industry or New York if you wanted to work in finance, that idea is (no longer applicable.)"

Millman added, however, that the kind of communities the model wants to create could never be planned, only encouraged.

"The creative economy is an organic phenomenon," he said. "You can't create it, you can only make areas more comfortable for the arts to exist." But some have criticized the theory as being elitist, an idea with which Rockingham Development Director Richard Ewald disagrees. "(Critics) say that you don't need art to survive, and it's true. But our souls need it," said Ewald.

Ewald said, however, that the creative economy is not something that began with RAMP coming to town. He said RAMP used the arts to tap into creative energy that had been in the town all along.

"The base note through all of this is that in Rockingham, you have a town that can envision its future," he said.

Ewald pointed to the selectboard's own efforts to purchase the Bellows Falls hydroelectric facility. That effort, he said, had nothing to do with creating art. But it had everything to do with using imagination to create a vision for the town.

Despite the varying interpretations of what makes the creative economy work, those that champion the model say encouraging development by welcoming the arts is its cornerstone. Art is not expendable, they say, it is necessary. "Those things we think of as end results are actually foundations," said Costello. "These arts and cultural institutions aren't add ons, they're anchors for the community."

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