Friday, July 3, 2009

Beyond Rural: Arts and Community Development in Small Towns

Bellows Falls, Vermont is a rural community of 3,200 people. It was a traditional textile mill town that for decades suffered the boom/bust cycles inherent in this industry. But the town still held on to the old economic development thinking of, "we need to open another mill in the community to provide jobs."
Finally, as textile production moved overseas and the town fell into a depression, Bellows Falls had to change their way of thinking and be creative about economic development. That's where New York City artist Robert McBride enters the picture.
In 2000, McBride came to Bellows Falls to visit a friend to get away from New York and ended up staying, eventually buying a house there in 2002. The Victorian era home he purchased was affordable and provided Robert with ample studio and living space.
He got involved, went to town council meetings and began a series of efforts to spearhead the community and create a grassroots movement to work toward a solution. Through dialogue and town meetings a plan for a public art program evolved. The ideas were presented to the town council and were approved.
The plan consisted of creating a non-profit group to get grant funding, develop affordable live/work spaces for artists in a block of rehabbed industrial buildings and the development of derelict mill property into artistic venues and a museum. Eventually coffee shops, cafes and specialty stores moved in, revitalizing the community once doomed to depression.
The result: Bellows Falls residents are united in a common goal, artist live/work spaces have brought a new vibrancy to the community and tourism has turned their town around.

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