Readers: This story was updated at 3:17 p.m. Wednesday to correct a typographical error.
BENNINGTON — While Manchester and Bennington sit 25 miles apart on the map, the communities have something in common that many visitors come to experience: a wealth of performing and visual arts and cultural assets.
But could each of those destinations realize more economic growth — from visitors and the creation of jobs — if they were part of a larger strategy leveraging the county's arts and culture tourism and creative economy?
Area leaders and arts stakeholders think so, and the state Department of Housing and Community Development thought enough of the possibility to stake the Bennington County Regional Commission and the towns of Bennington and Manchester to a $35,000 grant, which will be used to assemble a cultural plan for the county.
Typically, state planning grants require community financial support. But the BCRC will be picking up the tab for the required $10,000 match in the form of in-kind services, allowing Manchester and Bennington to save $5,000 each, assistant director William Colvin confirmed. State municipal planning grants allow for regional planning commissions to provide services as a cash match, he said.
"The fact we got Manchester and Bennington to come together on this is exciting," Colvin said. "We're really excited about bringing the northern and southern part of the county together around the issue of identifying cultural assets."
Work is expected to begin in the spring, following the issuance of a request for proposals, and take about a year to complete, Colvin said.
Greg Van Houten, a former Bennington Select Board member and chairperson, said momentum for an arts and culture plan in Bennington started building in 2012, out of a series of hearings held by the Vermont Commission on Rural Development. Follow-up meetings ensued, and "we came to conclusion needed to have a comprehensive plan of how to take this creative economy forward," Van Houten said.
Board members thought a cultural plan "would be a boon not only to folks working in those fields, but also shine a light on Bennington because of the number of artists and cultural activities available to us," he said.
According to the grant application, the BCRC will assemble a steering committee consisting of arts and culture stakeholders and leaders from across the county to better understand the issues and opportunities throughout the region. The BCRC will collect information from arts and culture professionals and existing studies to understand the current state of cultural planning and activity in the county.
The BCRC would then research and summarize a number of cultural planning documents from other communities — ideally, similar in size and demographics to Bennington County — and then work with the steering committee to identify the vision for a county cultural plan and establish goals. That would lead to public hearings, and then developing strategies to meet the goals.
"The development of a cultural plan for all of Bennington County presents a significant opportunity for our region," Colvin said. "Not only will it identify the numerous cultural assets inherent to our area and create opportunities to better promote and leverage those assets, it will also further our efforts of regional cooperation, bringing together Northshire and Southshire communities in action act toward a common goal."
Identifying and mapping arts and culture assets is harder than it looks, Colvin said, because the definition of what constitutes such assets varies. Such assets are "often right beneath peoples' noses," he said.
"When you put them together into one neat package people start to see opportunities and assets that can be leveraged," Colvin said. "That's where the magic happens in the planning process."
Linda Benway of Manchester, the president of The Shires of Vermont Destination Marketing Organization, said successful completion of the study "will further strengthen our region as a destination."
"[We are] very excited about finding a way to work together and help the steering committee to get the word out about their vision and their goals," Benway said.
Benway and Van Houten agreed that community involvement and outreach by the steering committee will be crucial to the project's success. It's particularly important that stakeholders and community members feel they are part of the process, Van Houten said.
"The key to this whole thing is that it won't succeed unless the community feels like it's theirs," Van Houten said. "If the community doesn't feel ownership, then we're back to waiting for people with out-of-state license plates to come and make things happen."