The annual March Rutland business show was sold out of all vendor spaces three weeks before it took place – the earliest in its 23-year history – even as more spaces have been added every year to accommodate the growing numbers of people.
I learned this as I was reading a much-discussed article in Atlantic magazine. The article claims that across the country, smaller cities like Rutland are grappling successfully with complex issues and reinventing themselves into thriving communities.
Since there are many more such towns than space in the article, only a handful could be featured. Burlington was among these, but other Vermont towns also fit the profile. But I’ll focus on Rutland, since it’s the one I know best.
The article lists eleven signs that point to cities on a path to success. Rutland meets most of these such as: a viable downtown with nearly 100 percent occupancy; a nearby university with which it enjoys increasingly greater partnership; collaboration with private businesses such as Green Mountain Power, which creates alternative energy jobs; a focus on local problems instead of on divisive national politics; big plans, specifically to become the nation’s solar capital; and, finally, a craft brewery and a wine bar. These two may sound trivial, but they point to certain kinds of entrepreneurs and a critical mass of young customers.
Rutland has some other markers of success not on the list: the Paramount Theater, key to the downtown’s revival; a surviving print newspaper; the lively Wonderfeet Kids museum; and the state’s largest farmers market. All these are outstanding community builders.
Rutland and Burlington and some other Vermont towns that are succeeding have one other key ingredient that some smaller towns lack – and that’s an emphasis on welcoming newcomers into political life. For example, Rutland’s Board of Aldermen includes some who are relatively new to Vermont as well as a 21-year-old college student.
Some towns may prefer to maintain the status quo by keeping newcomers out, but they would do well to emulate Rutland and Burlington. New people – whether from across the ocean or across the state line – bring new energy, creative ideas, and a broad perspective - which more than make up for their lack of history in the area. They also often bring professional experience and a strong desire to contribute to their new communities. All towns should take much greater advantage of this human capital – even if it means sharing the entrenched power with newcomers.