*Vermont and The Creative Economy
First, I want to thank the Vermont Council on Rural Development, both for convening us today, but also for the great community-level work they are doing around the State to engage towns in a dialogue about their future. As a result of that grass roots organizing work, I am chair of a modest, but vigorous committee focused on celebrating the local goods and services of Hinesburg. We are expanding our farmers market as well as a town harvest celebration, creating a d/b of our creative and economic output, initiating a community garden space and working with another local committee to make Hinesburg a paragon of lowered energy use in our homes and community buildings. Your work here today and in our communities is vital to Vermonters. So thank you Paul, and all your staff.
Now I can stir the pot…..
I dislike buzz words, labels and panaceas. When I first heard the term Creative Economy, I avoided using it until I could get some sense of what it was supposed to mean. Did it mean the arts or did it encompass creativity in the inclusive sense: science, medicine, design, architecture, pedagogy, invention, not just the creation of visual and performing arts?
I now understand that it means whatever its proponents want it to mean. To Alex Aldrich it may mean visual and performing arts. To Peter Gilbert it may mean the humanities, to a landscape designer it may mean the artful design of a private or public outdoor space, to the Town of Hardwick, it may mean the economic benefits of building a performing arts venue in their town, or to a software developer it may mean a subtle improvement to the checkout experience online. The question today is what does it mean to Vermont? How will it improve our economy, our communities and the lives of, and opportunities for, young and older Vermonters?
Let’s talk for a minute about Vermont. I would be less than candid if I did not say that I worry daily about the evident lack of long-range strategic dialogue and planning in this State. This is a problem that crosses party lines, a Vermont problem, not just of one a one party or one administration. Vermont is not well served by a policy of stasis. The world is moving rapidly. Countries whose names we did not know a generation ago are moving strategically and intelligently to accommodate new ideas and new markets. I asked someone the other day what Vermont is becoming and they said, “…a good place for rich people to die – six months out of the year.” I really felt like crying.
We are still squabbling over an energy plan. Like many states we are wrestling with how to fund public education. We have no viable strategic economic development plan. We have decided late in the game that wireless and broadband are an economic necessity after wasting a decade debating the placement of cell towers. Our tax strategy is not integrated into a strategic plan because we don’t have one. We are so politically risk averse that the moderated and vigorous civil debate that should resonate from leadership has become political background noise to Vermonters. Meanwhile our young are seeking greener economic pastures.
It is a good thing to revere the past but it cannot support us. We must look squarely at the future and work together to find our place in it. The good news is we are here together today talking about that future.
The way forward requires a plan, a plan driven by principles on which we can agree. Dialogue on shared principles is the first responsibility of leadership. Today dialogue seems to be more about personal ideologies and commercial interests than about a shared sense of community…”I’ve got mine v. I deserve mine.”
As Vermonters, we already agree on many principles: the value of our environment, the need to provide an economic future for our young people through educational excellence, access to affordable healthcare and vigorous economic sectors. We are innovative, industrious and, for the most part, willing to compromise in order to live in a benign relationship with each other and with nature. This is the essence of community.
I often hear that we in Vermont have a curious inclination to ensure that everyone must agree on an initiative before it can happen. This, of course, never happens since everyone never agrees on anything. Therefore nothing happens. Good leadership generates dialogue, derives consensus on principles and then reaches out broadly to elicit innovative ideas that support these principles and solve problems. The ideas are then measured against practical reality. There will always be opposition. We’ll be in trouble if there isn’t. Opposition keeps us honest and on our toes. The key to managing opposition is transparency, not blind loyalty. The good ideas that survive debate are forged into a strategic plan which must then endure our uniquely non-strategic two-year political term that we seem unable to change.
Now, let’s retire a few shibboleths…
“Vermont is unique.” Every place is unique. Vermont is special to us. It is not unique. Particulates from coal plants in Beijing and Ohio fall on us as acid rain. They also fall on upstate New York, New Hampshire and Maine. Our problems are as much a function of what comes to us on prevailing winds or from Washington policy makers as anything we create ourselves.
“Vermont has a special beauty.” So do Ireland, Slovenia and Tibet. Our borders, our government and administrative structures were established at a time when few ever ventured out of their own communities. Today, Beijing is two flights away from Burlington. Fast, affordable travel, the Internet, media networks, air freight, global economic forces, and the roll-up of small businesses into ever larger more ubiquitous entities with more compressed ownership have changed all that. There is as much commonality of interest between VT, ME, NH, upstate NY and Quebec as there is between Burlington and Newport. Our biggest problems are regional, national and global. Our county and state borders are to some degree administrative artifacts. Not so our communities. The choices we make as individuals and members of small communities have the power to change everything. This is where we are unique.
“Taxes are too High.” This easy-to-join chorus unfortunately drowns out a critical voice. We are highly taxed in Vermont, but it is short sighted to look at taxes in a vacuum. Taxes don’t just impose a cost. Invested strategically they satisfy a need and provide social and economic value. When we buy a product or service, we measure cost against value and need, not just cost. This will be an important distinction to remember as we begin to support our own communities by buying local and paying a bit more for more value.
The problem with taxes in Vermont is that they we have become disconnected from the value they are imposed to produce. Vermonters are less and less convinced that they are being spent efficiently and strategically. They have little or no discernible design behind them. The tax code is willy-nilly, non-strategic. A strategic tax code can dissuade bad behavior and encourage good social and economic behavior. Give people the opportunity to control the amount of taxes they pay by behaving in a way that supports community and you have a strategic tax code. We must not lose our belief that taxes spent wisely are a good social and economic investment. They sustain and support community. It is foolhardy to simply cut taxes. It would make more sense to design a tax code that is aligned with the State’s strategic plan, if it had one.
As you all know, Ireland made a decision a decade ago before the Creative Economy was even articulated that income earned by artists, writers, composers and sculptors from the sale of their works would be exempt from taxation. I quote: “Section 195 of the Taxes Consolidation Act, 1997 allows the Revenue Commissioners to make a determination that certain artistic works are original and creative works generally recognized as having cultural or artistic merit. Accordingly, earnings derived from these works are exempt from income tax from the year in which the claim is made. The Revenue Commissioners can make determinations in respect of artistic works in the following categories:
Books or other forms of writing
Paintings or other similar pictures
This courageous and strategic decision to champion the arts and attract artists to Ireland both boosted their economy and their stature in the world of arts and letters.
“Globalization drives everything:”The abrasion between globalization and community will continue to accelerate and is playing out today in our communities both in job generation and job loss and in the choices we make as consumers about the origin of the staples and commodities we buy, as well as where we buy them. We must learn to balance the cost, value and the community benefit of intra-community commerce. The self-styled futurists who see globalization as the driver of all change are simply wrong or, worse, have a vested interest in our believing that the statement is true.
Now let’s look at a few ideas that could sustain us:
Vermont’s population is growing older. Many people do indeed retire here. Vermont has substantial higher education resources in its 17 private colleges and its State University system. What if the next three dorms that UVM, Middlebury or Marlboro built were retirement apartments for academics and stimulating older people retiring from their traditional jobs, but not from active learning? What if a formal residential community of retirees grew up inside our best educational institutions and became part of an ageless learning and teaching population? The intellectual communities would be enriched as would the economies of the institutions and the communities in which they reside.
According to a census done some years ago by the New England Foundation for the Arts, on a per capita basis, Vermont has the highest concentration of artists of any state in the Nation. We have many natural performing arts venues in our landscape, weather permitting, and even more man-made venues like ski areas, converted barns and movie theaters, churches, gymnasia, but no central large-scale venue for large concerts or better yet an ongoing international arts series. Write this down www.Dalhalla.SE (spell out) Go there on the Web and take a look and ask yourself why we could not do the same thing here in Vermont. It is an massive abandoned limestone quarry in the Dalarna region of Sweden in the middle of nowhere that has become the major arts venue for Swedes with orchestras, opera companies, and pop groups from all over Europe performing there. When we were there the Estonian National Opera Company was performing Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah. The place was packed. Country singer Guy Clark had been there the week before and Elvis Costello was on the schedule for the following week. The area made our Northeast Kingdom look like a suburb of Boston. What a magnificent metaphor for Vermont’s transition from the great era of commodity stone quarrying into the creative economy! It could become a venue that might do for Vermont what Glimmerglass has done for Cooperstown, Tanglewood for the Berkshires or Caramoor for Katonah, NY.
Vermont already has three assets which together comprise a confluence of opportunity. The first is Vermont’s emerging slow food culture. The second is our natural landscape and well developed tourism infrastructure and the third is our world-class academic medical centers Fletcher Allen and Dartmouth Hitchcock. Imagine an 30 day institute marketed internationally where people recently diagnosed with type II diabetes, cancer, depression, obesity or any other endemic disease might come to both stay in a beautiful setting, learn about their disease from world authorities, learn to manage their disease through natural exercise and improved diet and come to understand the lifestyle changes that might enhance their options for recovery. Such an institute would use and add a new market to the three existing assets we already have in place. Imagine spending a day walking, canoeing or learning about wildflowers and native species, returning to a beautiful inn for meals made entirely of fresh Vermont food and spending the evening in conversation with clinical researchers who bring you up to date on the very latest research and clinical trials relevant to your recovery… tourism, slow food and wellness.
Vermont is going to need to support its migration into artisan agriculture and slow food with infrastructure as we have done to a degree with the passage of H 522. This support should come from the Agriculture Agency working in tandem with UVM and the State colleges. UVM’s VT Institute for Artisan Cheese http://nutrition.uvm.edu/viac/ is a prime example of getting it right, but there will be more to do. In order to support this growth, Vermont will need mobile slaughter units, a central affinage or cheese ageing facility, hi-tech root cellars to extend the growing season, coop refrigeration and distribution warehousing. It also has the exciting opportunity to develop an e-commerce market for selling shippable items with “shelf life” around the world. Imagine an online Vermont-branded Artisan Food site supported by infrastructure to help farmers and growers extend their season and their market reach.
Here is another URL: www.terramadre2006.org . With will, a strategy and funding, Vermont could become the central showplace for slow food in the Northeast, as Turin, Italy has become for the European and many international food communities. Vermont could have its own Terra Madre celebration bringing together the very best of New England or the Northeast region’s finest artisan foods. It would support infrastructure already in place such as chef-owned restaurants, artisan farms, our network of Country inns and B&B’s and, most importantly, would take advantage of Vermont’s innate brand value which defines “quality food.” Just as the Big E, the Eastern States Exhibition, has for years been the showplace for commodity agriculture, Vermont could claim the title for slow food or artisan food production and celebration.
Now go to http://www.red.com The film and broadcast production industry is going through an exciting technological transformation which, at least for the Indie film segment removes the extraordinarily high cost of film production as we know it. Ask Nora Jacobson, Alan Dater, John O’Brien or Jay Craven how much time they spend raising money and how much time they spend making movies. Red and Apple have combined forces to create a production package that enables an indie film maker to produce a feature-length film with a $25,000 production package including lenses with no film processing or third party editing costs. The only investments are creative: script, soundtrack, location and actors. The result rivals 35MM production in quality, far surpassing hi-def video. Vermont could position itself as a Red production center and develop a plan to entice indie film makers, documentarians and TV producers to work here.
These are a few ideas, some more and some less feasible. We are limited only by our capacity to lead and by our imagination.
What are the five unique qualities that could make Vermont a leader in the Creative Economy?
First, is leadership and the will to make it happen; second, people and ideas, fresh ideas, not the tired copycat ideas that we so often recycle from other states and forge into third rate initiatives, next, is a strategic plan that we stick to, fourth is a tax code that supports our initiatives and fifth come back to leadership when the going gets tough, as it inevitably will.
Finally, we must understand and quantify the vital economic clusters emerging in Vermont, energy efficiency, bio-fuels, health care, higher education, artisan food, medical research, software development, high-tech, Web and graphic design, cultural and niche tourism, wellness, the arts (including cartoons) and, yes, retirement living.
I have carried on long enough. I want only to add that, as a State, we are really only limited by our imagination, our leadership and our courage.
Whether you are part of making sustainable agriculture flourish in your own community or volunteer at a concert on the green or take a leadership role in transforming Vermont, every action, no matter how small is important. Most sustainable progress is incremental. If we do many small things and one or two big things, we can transform the economy and vitality of Vermont.