Stafford: Underdog Economics

Jun 10, 2019

I'll never forget a piece of graffiti that was prominent in downtown Brattleboro when I first moved here. It must have been considered art and not an eye sore, because no town or state official ever took it down. It said 'ROOT FOR THE UNDERDOG' - in letters six feet tall.

My wife and I moved here from Colorado, and we didn't have jobs waiting for us. We weren't returning to a hometown so we could have settled anywhere. But Brattleoboro attracted us for its celebration of things creative and weird – and its respect for the arts.

It's a town that loves music. National and even international touring acts routinely stop by the Stone Church music venue or Vermont Jazz Center. On Main Street there's not one, but two record stores selling vinyl records – which amounts to a small miracle as online streaming takes over.

It's a town that puts the visual arts on a pedestal. The Brattleboro Museum & Art Center is already an anchor in the south end of downtown. And now it's in the planning stages of a multi-million dollar expansion, including more galleries, classrooms and studio space. Plus, there's a brand new arts center, called Epsilon Spires, moving into the 150-year-old Baptist Church on Main Street.

And it's a town that gives its kids many creative outlets, from pottery lessons and painting classes to photography and - oh yeah - advanced violin courses. So when I recently attended the Southern Vermont Economy Summit, I found myself thinking a lot about how the creative arts are a subtle, but important economic driver.

At the summit, I was surrounded by entrepreneurs, town leaders and small business owners, all earnestly discussing topics ranging from workforce development to business succession planning. And since it was, after all, a meetup on economics, there was plenty of head-spinning discourse around demographics and financial statistics.

I walked away understanding that the southern Vermont economy has big challenges ahead, and the Southern Vermont Economy Summit is all about addressing those problems head-on, soberly and courageously.

But I keep thinking back to that giant 'Underdog' graffiti. And it also seems clear to me that art, and the Vermonters who make it, can and should be a part of the solution.