HOW A CREATIVE ECONOMY CAN CREATE COMMUNITY
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- There was a time when I thought creativity was for writers, painters, musicians and other artists. And then there was business.
But in the nine years that I've been a contributing editor at Vermont Business Magazine, I've changed my tune. Now I think that business might be one of the most creative occupations of all. Think about it. As with art, there's the same anticipation of the day, of not knowing what will happen but knowing that you will have to respond creatively, the invention of strategy, the creation of product, the thrill of problem-solving, the design of ways to reach out to the market, the excitement of success, the despair of failure. And as icing on the cake, you can make a living at it. Best of all, you can create jobs so that other people can make a living.
In Vermont, some of the very people scorned as "Birkenstock-wearing, Saab-driving liberals" have created the most jobs. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenberg, of course, spring to mind. But they're just the tip of the creative iceberg here. Susan Dollenmaier, for example, was a Sixties hippie and a flea-market hound. She turned her passion for old textiles into a $10-million-plus luxury textiles business. Say what you want about spending $800 for a top sheet, she is now the largest employer in tiny Tunbridge.
David Blittersdorf liked to tinker with engines and windmills while his wife, Jan, worked as a nurse. David's tinkering turned into the fast-growing NRG Systems, which makes wind assessment technology. It also makes about $16 million a year, employs 45 people in Hinsburg, and - oh yes - Jan is the CEO.
Thomas Fricke and Sylvia Blanchet were do-gooder Third World development types - the kind who usually work for non-profit agencies. Then they realized that you need money to make real social change. Now they own and run ForesTrade in Brattleboro, importing spices from exotic locales like Indonesia and India. Sales last year? About $10 million. And they employ about 200 people around the world.
Annie Christopher was an artist working in tempera and gold leaf back in the days when SoHo in New York was still a place where artists could afford to live. To support herself, she waitressed in an artists' bar. That's where she met Peter Backman, a printer's representative and a publisher of Tibetan books. Now they own and run Annie's Enterprises, Inc. (yes, the Star Trek reference is deliberate) in North Calais. You know them better as Annie's Naturals. The company has about $15 million in yearly sales, 39 delicious products, and leads the natural food industry's salad dressing category.
Fred and Judi Danforth were struggling artisans working in pewter when they used their creativity to design a new business model. Now, although Fred still keeps an eye on the financials, other people handle the business and sales of Danforth Pewterers, in Middlebury - with around $2 million in sales and about 40 employees at the height of the gift-giving season - freeing Fred and Judi to work at their craft.
Then there's Hinda Miller, who became a multi-millionaire at 40 because in 1977, when she was a costume designer, she and two female friends created the ubiquitous sports bra. The Washington Post said the Jogbra and Title IX were the two things most responsible for the explosion in women's athletics - and women's health. After Miller left the company she became a Democratic state senator from Chittenden County. She's now running for mayor of Burlington.
Miller's baby is the "creative economy," but she's not talking about artists and musicians. She's talking about entrepreneurs.
"The people who are going to come up with those creative ideas enjoy being in a state where there's stimulation from the arts and creative people," Miller told me. "But the creative economy itself is about moving towards business that creates cutting-edge ideas and intellectual property, rather than trying to live off the manufacturing of commodity products."
The creative economy is "any business that improves upon what is," she said. "We are looking for people who look at the world, find a niche that they can leverage globally, and want to live in Vermont. We can't stop people from leaving the cities and coming to our state. I'd like to tap into their creativity and context and let them bring something to Vermont. After all, I was an outsider who came to Vermont."
Rather than just talking the talk, she and her cohort, Senator Matt Dunne (D-Windsor), made real legislative progress. They created a new committee in the Senate for economic development. They created grants for broadband service in rural areas - Dunne told me that Gov. James Douglas's staff testified against the grants in committee, but when the bill passed anyway, Douglas went around the state giving out the money and taking the credit. They got a seed capital fund started. They got a brownfields bill passed to make it easier for people to revitalize old mill buildings. They developed a tax credit program targeted to renewable energy. They started a program to attract overseas business to Vermont.
Creative business is how a creative economy starts to make sense. It starts at the ground level. When a community has good jobs, people can buy homes. They can own cars instead of living in them. They can spend money at local stores. They can raise families. They can pay property taxes. They can become involved in their communities.
And here's the beauty part, where everything comes around full circle: they can provide a solid community structure in which other creative people, the artists and writers and musicians et al, the ones who created the creative atmosphere which attracted the entrepreneurs who created the jobs, can live and thrive.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.