Mollie S. Burke and Sara Coffey: The importance of the creative economy in Vermont's recovery
As we begin to emerge from the worst period of the COVID-19 pandemic, its equally frightening companion, the economy, starts to take center stage. After thousands of workers have filed unemployment claims and businesses have applied emergency SBA loans and Paycheck Protection Plans, many of us are now looking at the next wave of concerns: How many jobs will never come back? How many businesses will permanently close their doors? Will the state and our towns have enough revenue to keep essential services intact? As we slowly re-open the spigot, so many more questions will emerge.
The last major crisis our state faced was Tropical Storm Irene. Resilience was a guiding principle in the rebuilding. In that recovery effort, we made investments to ensure that our infrastructure was adequate to withstand future major storms.
This idea of resilience is clearly relevant now for rebuilding our economy. We need a road map for what will happen once the crisis subsides. Once we get all the people on unemployment who need it; once we get businesses their PPP loan funds, the children back to school, the virus contained. This crisis, like Irene, has exposed many vulnerabilities.
Vermont's creative sector is uniquely positioned to take a strong role in not only rebuilding our economy, but in re-envisioning an economy that is resilient and vibrant, one that brings vitality to our downtowns and village centers, provides good and secure jobs and successful businesses, addresses environmental and social concerns and are integral to the infrastructure of communities working together.
Investments in the creative sector attract businesses, create jobs, promote tourism, and increase tax revenues while also promoting community cohesion.
As evidenced by a 2019 study by the National Governor's Association, the arts are integral to rural prosperity and vitality.
This is borne out in Vermont through the data. In 2018 the creative industries provided 30,404 jobs in the state, or 9.3 percent of all employment. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, in 2015 the arts added $1 billion in value to the Vermont economy, or 3.2 percent of state GDP.
Cultural organizations and economic development groups often view each other as competitors for investment, instead of as partners in promoting a thriving economy. Artists, planners, non-profit organizations, and business development specialists can work together for mutual benefit, particularly at this moment in time when we need all hands on deck.
Some of this work was already underway before the COVID-19 health crisis hit. The Vermont Legislature established the Vermont Creative Network in 2016, an initiative of the Vermont Arts Council. The Network is comprised of a broad group of organizations, businesses, and individuals who are working to advance Vermont's creative economy through the development of a comprehensive, research-based action plan. Two Network partners, the Downtown Program of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, and the Regional Development Corporations are particularly important collaborators, among others.
While the action-plan is not yet complete, some initial priorities include providing economic incentives, access to capital, and business and marketing support to creative individuals and enterprises; establishing connections between creative businesses and other sectors of the Vermont economy; marketing creativity as a Vermont brand; and supporting emerging entrepreneurs at the high school and college levels.
The economic disaster we are currently facing will not go away soon. After Tropical Storm Irene it took extraordinary effort and co-ordination of state and local governments, FEMA, state employees, the National Guard, and citizen volunteers to put Vermont back together. It will take an extraordinary effort, resources, and co-ordination to put the Vermont economy back on a strong footing in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Cultural organizations and creatives are already mobilizing across Vermont in response to COVID-19. Live-streamed concerts, online performances and film-watching parties, and family arts activities will help to ease the social isolation and fear experienced by ill and vulnerable Vermonters in the coming months. Artists and arts organizations — the ones that can survive this crisis — will continue to be there to enable our communities to move forward when the worst is behind us. As we prepare for a phased re-opening of Vermont's economy, we need to ensure that the creative economy is considered, and that creative businesses, institutions and workers continue to have access to economic opportunity to help them survive this crisis.
The Vermont Creative Network is key to these efforts. The VCN has assembled a Creative Sector Recovery Team to provide guidance to the Governor's Economic Mitigation and Recovery Task Force and has organized a state-wide forum to bring Vermont's creative community together with policy makers and leaders involved in Vermont's COVID-19 economic recovery plans. We would encourage anyone who works in the creative sector to participate in the VCN's Creative Sector Response and Recovery Forum which will be held on-line on Monday, May 11 from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Find details on the Vermont Arts Council's website: vermontartscouncil.org.
As we slowly sort through and emerge from this crisis, we will need the arts now more than ever, to help us to support each other with creativity and compassion and to bring vitality back to our downtowns and resiliency into our communities.
As we did with Irene, let's build resilience into the recovery, this time with the arts.
State Rep. Mollie Burke, P, serves the Windham 2-2 district. State Rep. Sara Coffey, D, serves the Windham-1 District. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.
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