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Creating a downtown junction for the arts

Brooks House may soon become ‘incubator’ space for creative economy

BRATTLEBORO—A recent study commissioned by Burlington developer Melinda Moulton and conducted by public policy analyst Doug Hoffer found that the annual total economic impact of the arts industry in Vermont is $443.5 million and that it is directly responsible for nearly 4,400 jobs.

Arts? Industry?

If seeing those two words together in the same sentence seems jarring, Kate Anderson of the Arts Council of Windham County and the Brattleboro Town Arts Committee says it shouldn’t be.

In her mind, any economic development planning in Brattleboro and southern Vermont has to take into account the arts and the creative economy.

Anderson is a big advocate of seeing artists function more as businesspeople and seeing artists not being dependent on the whims of donors and foundations for their funding.

Earlier this year, Anderson said the Town Arts Committee held a charrette, or group discussion, on the future of the arts in Brattleboro that focused on five areas of importance for a dynamic arts community — networking and community, arts and education, resources, public art, and sustenance and growth of the arts economy.

“The one topic that kept coming up was the need to have a ‘junction’ for the arts and a place to network and share ideas,” she said.

That place might soon be the Brooks House on Main Street.

An ‘arts incubator’

Anderson said the owner of the Brooks House, Jonathan Chase, approached her and the Arts Council to come up with ideas for adapting some of his vacant commercial space on Main Street for artists’ use.

One space is the long-dormant 124 Main St., former home of the Town Rexall Pharmacy.

Anderson said she envisions the 2,200-square-foot space as an “arts incubator, a downtown version of the Cotton Mill,” where artists of all types can network, brainstorm, feed off one another’s creativity and get the resources to start their arts businesses.

“The opportunity is phenomenal,” said Anderson. “The Brooks House is a underused resource that could become the center for the arts economy in Brattleboro.”

The main idea for space is as a shared, cooperative office space. Besides sharing office equipment, artists could gain access to management advice, mentoring and business incubation.

“Young people are used to working in a collaborative setting,” said Timberly Hund, a self-described “visual stimulator” for Brand Pandemic, a creative design agency  in the Hooker-Dunham Building in Brattleboro. “It breaks down the isolation and helps you network better.”

Hund said she approached Chase about locating her agency at the Brooks House, which led to deeper discussions about how to use the vacant space for artistic endeavors.

“124 Main is a pass-through space, a way to get from the Harmony Lot to Main Street,” she said. “It would work well for a business and would make a great meeting space.”

She also believes that creating a downtown arts incubator space will benefit all downtown property owners, not just Chase.

“I can guarantee that property values would increase,” said Hund. “People are going to want to live in your building and want to have businesses downtown.”

The next steps

Anderson said her committee is seeking a planning grant to determine the feasibility of the project.

“People are interested in the idea, and [Chase] is looking at the long term,” she said. “The key is coming up with a business plan for a resource that will serve the arts as an industry.”

Anderson said that while Brattleboro’s downtown is still fairly vibrant despite the current recession, it is approaching a crossroads.

“I think we have to ask ourselves whether we are in a downturn or in a transition,” she said, “and if we’re in a transition, how do we address what we need to bring our town to the next level? This place is crawling with innovation. It’s just a matter of matching the resources with the needs.”

She admits the blueprint she envisions is not new. It draws heavily of the work of urban studies theorist Richard Florida, who wrote the bestselling book The Rise of the Creative Class and who has been a leading proponent of the theory that cities and towns that attract and retain creative people, such as artists, have higher levels of economic growth.

“We have a good downtown, but we can’t rest on our laurels,” Anderson said.

“Southeast Vermont is losing population faster than any other region outside the Northeast Kingdom,” she said. “We’re losing jobs, and young people say there’s nothing for them here. The knowledge industries are where the jobs are, and you attract those jobs with a vibrant arts and cultural scene.”

Brattleboro has most of the elements already in place, she said.

“We’re close to Boston and New York, yet being here still feels like an artists’ retreat, with so much natural beauty and so many creative people around,” she said.

“We don’t have to be Aspen to be successful,” Anderson said. “We just have to be Brattleboro.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #77 (Wednesday, November 24, 2010).

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