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Attracting Investment and Improving Property Values

Robert McBride is the founding director of the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project (RAMP), an arts advocacy organization in Bellows Falls, Vermont, a mill town on the Connecticut River. RAMP is located in a historic building known as the Exner Block. Its lobby serves as a community art gallery for the building. In addition to the gallery, the Exner Block offers ten affordable live/work spaces in perpetuity, which are mostly occupied by artists and retail spaces (http://www.ramp-vt.org/exner/). When asked what RAMP has done specifically to alleviate poverty, McBride said, ‘Art relieves cultural poverty. It reinforces values of tolerance, openness, simplicity, and respect through sharing people’s stories. The arts transform places’.

RAMP participated in the restoration of the Exner Block, which came about through a partnership with Housing Vermont, Rockingham Area Community Land Trust, and the town of Rockingham. The renovation was completed in the year 2000 after the building had been dormant for nearly 60 years. Although RAMP has had many successes in helping to revitalize Bellows Falls, McBride does not want Bellows Falls to be considered an ‘art town’. He does not look at gentrification as a model of success. ‘I’d rather keep it real and cohesive, here’.

RAMP was founded in 1995 in part to demonstrate how artists and the arts can have a positive effect on the economic and cultural sustainability of the community. Over time, RAMP has developed a four-pronged approach to community development, which includes affordable housing, hosting quarterly artist town meetings, collaborating on public art initiatives and participating on a variety of boards of directors. The success of bricks and mortar projects, such as the Exner Block initiative, is being leveraged to bring in private investment in several other redevelopment projects around town. The organization also supports creative economy initiatives that attract creative people who collaborate with individuals, businesses, social service agencies and other arts and preservation organizations.

Marvelling at the village’s compact historic downtown square, brick architecture and natural setting, McBride wondered, ‘How many more people are out there who are charmed by their first visit to Bellows Falls, like he was, and would be willing to start up or relocate their current business here?’ RAMP occupies an intersection of the arts, economic revitalization and tourism. One of their projects, Mills to Main Street, tells the story of the industrial history linking nearby mill towns along the Connecticut River by creating a brochure and web page, called Mills to Main Street. The RAMP office in the Exner Block maintains an open door policy, always open to creative possibilities.

Creative types are attracted to the beautiful architecture of the red brick mills that are available for redevelopment in several of the old mill towns in New England, particularly in Massachusetts (Forman and Creighton, 2012). These towns already have a ready infrastructure of utilities and transportation, and the conversion of the economy into a digital one, where people can choose the place they would like to live and work, has led cities to compete for these knowledge workers. The towns, building off their built capital, add arts and cultural activities to their offerings. A virtuous loop emerges: with more outsiders attracted, dollars are spent and real estate prices climb, leading to revitalization (Forman and Creighton, 2012).

About 65 miles southwest of Bellows Falls, North Adams, Massachusetts is another example of a declining rural mill village that has developed a strategy of arts, culture and tourism as a means of rescuing it. Like many New England mill towns, North Adams saw growth peaking in the early 1900s, with a total population of 24,100 in 1900 (Ryan-Vollmar, 2014). During the second half of the 20th century, the mills started closing. In 1986, the Sprague Electric Company shut down, which had employed nearly one-third of the city’s 16,000 residents (Ryan-Vollmar, 2014). Unemployment rose to 18% in 1986. The town’s blue-collar workforce was gutted. Local businesses also suffered, as only 30% of storefronts were occupied (Ryan-Vollmar, 2014). The Sprague Electric factory complex lay vacant on 16 acres of downtown property. This scenario played out in many New England towns as manufacturing jobs were shipped overseas.

The town experienced a renaissance soon after it began envisioning a cultural arts centre to occupy the vacated space. Joseph Thompson and Tom Krens of nearby Williams College envisioned the site as a place for unconventional forms of contemporary art. The facility reopened in 1999 as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) after attracting millions in state, federal and private support (Borrup, 2006). Although the town’s population has continued to decline, there are signs of economic revitalization since Mass MoCA was established: upwards of 190 hotel rooms have opened, as thousands are visiting the centre and other nearby museums and art galleries. Mass MoCA now averages between 120,000 to 160,000 visits a year, North Adams lodging has a 70% occupancy rate (Ryan-Vollmar, 2014), and the unemployment rate in North Adams has declined to 4.5% as of November 2015 (US Department of Labor, 2016).

‘Creative placemaking’ is a term that has been evolving in the past 10 years to describe the role that the arts and culture play in community development. According to Markusen and Gadwa (2010a, p. 3):

In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.

ArtPlace America, a collaboration among a number of foundations, federal agencies and financial institutions with close ties to the NEA, defines creative placemaking as ‘projects in which art plays an intentional and integrated role in place-based community planning and development’ (Bennett, 2014, p. 77). Creative placemaking projects are place- based, involve community development, involve artists or arts activities and are evaluable (Bennett, 2015). Several foundations now support creative placemaking initiatives as well, such as the Kresge Foundation, the William Penn Foundation, the Knight Foundation and the Educational Foundation of America. Spurred on by the significant grant programmes, creative placemaking represents a new opportunity for policy-makers to transform places, where the arts are an integral part of community development.

Massachusetts’ Gateway Cities programme is one example of a government programme that has embraced creative placemaking. A Gateway City in Massachusetts is defined as a mid-sized city that was anchored to its industrial regional economy but in recent decades has been somewhat struggling economically when compared to the rest of the state (Forman and Creighton, 2012). Creative placemaking is seen as a fresh approach to energize these cities in the new economy. Gateway Cities have many positive attributes as former industrial centres, including transportation infrastructure, museums, hospitals, universities and other major institutions. Planners can leverage these assets to shape a new economy. Often, creative placemaking initiatives can include or lead to buy-local campaigns.

 
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