BBC looks to arts as an economic force

Monday February 11, 2013

BENNINGTON -- The arts as an engine for economic development was the subtitle of Sunday's Bennington Cultural Summit at Mount Anthony Country Club. The afternoon summit attracted artists and entertainers, community leaders and business owners, and was the initial step toward a strategic arts and culture plan for the town according to John Shannahan, executive director of the Better Bennington Corp.

Shannahan linked the arts summit to current efforts by a town task force working toward an economic development plan for Bennington. The weekend event was spurred by the BBC's arts committee, in cooperation with the Bennington County Regional Commission and town of Bennington.

"This isn't a meeting about the arts, it's a meeting about sustaining the arts. ... It's about resource management," said Greg Van Houten, a Bennington Select Board member who also sits on the BBC board.

Bill Colvin, BCRC program director for sustainable community development, began the summit with a summary of how "cultural planning" around the arts and entertainment complemented other economic initiatives -- in communities big and small. He called the efforts "mutually symbiotic."

Informational displays drew inspiration from notes collected during meetings in 2012 about the arts, culture, and entertainment -- part of the Vermont Council on Rural Development's Community Visit program last year.

Broken into groups Sunday midway through the summit and asked to collaboratively analyze the community's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, participants were asked to think beyond individual institutions and look at Bennington from a more systemic point of view.

About 85 attended the summit, exceeding expectations. Next, the BBC's arts committee will synthesize the information and categorize and prioritize before another public meeting expected in April.

Summarizing strengths brought up in the work groups at the end of the summit, Joann Erenhouse of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce highlighted the multitude of museums and artistic/historical sites; media outlets and organizations that cooperate with one another; varied educational institutions; and the area's natural environment, setting, and recreational opportunities.

Ben Mackin, a 25-year-old Bennington musician, summarized the community's weaknesses, which included the difficulty of getting young adults involved; a general lack of coordination and communication about what's happening in town; negative perceptions about change and the "glass being half-empty"; and a lack of strong financial support and personal expendable income.

Elizabeth Stott, director of marketing and development for Oldcastle Theatre Co., laid out opportunities in town. She said with all the current festivals, venues, and events, what is needed is better visibility of "what's already here." Stott said large banners, digital marketing using "QR" codes, and better collaboration could increase "access to the (preexisting) strong arts community."

Stott and Shannahan said a complete directory of artists and venues would be one way to better publicize happenings around town. Another opportunity, according to Stott, was continuing the process begun at Sunday's summit.

Jackie Kelly, a local resident and artist responsible for maintaining the Bennington Arts Guild website, said outside threats to the community included economics, funding, weather, drug abuse, and a negative cultural mindset or attitude of what Bennington offers today. Aging demographics, marketing limitations, and competition were other perceived threats.

Goals formed from Sunday's summit included identifying creative future initiatives, including an arts directory, and incorporating those ideas and goals into a cultural component to Bennington's economic development plan currently being drafted.

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