Monday August 19, 2013

Over time, Brattleboro has been many things -- a manufacturing center; the closest town for the surrounding rural communities, where families could come to get farm equipment, services and groceries; a gateway to the ski areas of southern Vermont; a home for the arts. Now the vision and persistence of local investors who collaborated to buy and restore the Brooks House after it burned [full disclosure: my brother-in-law worked with those investors] have given Brattleboro a chance to become something new and exciting: a center for education and business innovation in southern Vermont.

While the Brattleboro area is already home to several educational institutions of higher learning, they have been geographically scattered across the region: Marlboro and Landmark undergraduates and SIT's graduate students are in the hills outside of town, while the Community College of Vermont students are up on Putney Road and Collegiate High School students are at BUHS, at the other end of town. Bringing CCV and a branch of the Vermont Technical College to the Brooks House will create an educational hub in the heart of downtown.

But let's not stop there. Educational institutions can also link up with cultural organizations and businesses so that students can learn from them, contribute to them, and start businesses of their own.


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We can look west for inspiration. Ithaca, N.Y., where I grew up, is, like Brattleboro, a small town in a rural area that is struggling: in upstate New York, as in Vermont, young people have been leaving to seek employment opportunity elsewhere. Over the last few decades Ithaca, once a prosperous regional center and home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, has struggled to maintain a vibrant downtown.

However, the town's young mayor has been finding innovative ways to take advantage of the colleges' presence. He told the New York Times that the city had been successful -- it regularly has the lowest unemployment rate in the state -- "because our universities have partnered with our private industries," and did not just rely on businesses selling "sandwiches and beds" to visitors and students. The colleges are working with local economic development authorities and have helped with patents, licensing, and start-ups, which in turn create jobs in the area. New York State allows some colleges to offer tax-free zones for new businesses that start up adjacent to the campuses.

While Ithaca College and Cornell are huge in comparison to CCV, Vermont Tech, or any of our other local colleges, and Ithaca is bigger than Brattleboro, we can still learn from its example. One lesson I draw is to think big and think synergistically. Brattleboro already has many established and new businesses, both traditional and cutting-edge, and it has strong cultural organizations. All can benefit from collaborating with the educational institutions to provide opportunities for themselves and for students -- and to find innovative ways to help new businesses get established. Inventive, savvy, flexible collaboration will help the area's small-scale enterprises and institutions compete with larger ones in a connected world.

Opportunities for collaboration abound from one end of Main Street to the other. Though college students do much of their research online, they will still need library resources; Brooks Memorial is right there. Strolling of the Heifers, in their new River Garden location, can provide internships and leadership opportunities. The Latchis Building, the architectural jewel that is being renovated thanks to the untiring efforts of the non-profit Latchis Arts, will have space for performances, public lectures, graduations and other large gatherings.

Ithaca's example shows how important leadership is. Unlike Ithaca, Brattleboro doesn't have a mayor, but the Selectboard is currently searching for a new town manager. The Selectboard should be looking for a true leader, with the combination of vision, experience, energy and skills to bring together business, cultural and educational leaders, and help them work together, creatively and efficiently, to make downtown Brattleboro the vibrant hub that will attract energetic young people, support them and encourage them to stay here. 

Maggie Cassidy is a local teacher and trainer in inquiry. The opinions in this piece are hers alone and do not represent those of any educational institution or school administration.