Commentary: Creative Impulses Fuel Economy of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom

The percentage of people working in creative occupations and enterprises in northeast Vermont is nearly a third higher than the national average. Performance, culinary arts, and design are just some of the sectors that contribute to the local economy, according to a new report.

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Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, among the poorest, most rural, and most unconventional regions in the nation, is turning its often times quirky forms of creativity and innovation into a growing economic advantage. A recent National Geographic article proclaimed that “even in a state as different, occasionally ornery, and notoriously freethinking as Vermont, the Kingdom stands out….a retreat for the eccentric and home to the independent.”

The region was once dominated by farming, logging, and sugaring but with an underlying core who expressed their creativity through their writing, music, and folk art. Beginning about 1970, the state and the region began to attract communally oriented, environmentally aware, health-conscious, and particularly creative young people. Many were from urban centers, college educated, imaginative, artistic, and unconventionally entrepreneurial (i.e., valuing life style over profit).

While accepting the richness of the Kingdom’s traditions, these new arrivals brought to the economy new businesses­ that expressed their creative and social impulses. The first wave of new residents, for example, brought the creative puppetry of Bread and Puppet Theater from New York City’s Lower East Side to a farm in Glover. Those new to the Northeast Kingdom also produced Catamount Arts, supporting a wide range of performing and visual arts; Kingdom County Productions, which brought filmmaking in the region; and Circus Smirkus with its European-style shows.

Cheesemakers at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont, in 2013. (USDA Photo by Bob Nichols)

Subsequent businesses launched have included The Museum of Everyday Life, which “chronicles and highlights the mundane, utilitarian, insignificant objects of our existence and makes them remarkable”; Burnt Impressions, which sells toasters that produce personalized images on bread; and Dog Mountain, a mountaintop dedicated to “honoring the healing power of dogs, nature, love, and art.”

Less unconventional but still creative enterprises include the many stylized design-oriented furniture companies, artisanal beverages, and specialty food products. In and around Hardwick, for example, Jasper Hill Farm, which produces high quality cheese and operates a 22,000-square-foot aging cellar; Pete’s Greens, a four-season organic farm; and High Mowing Organic Seeds, which breeds high quality non-GMO seeds are a few of the area’s nationally known food producers. Not long ago a depressed blue collar town, Hardwick now is nationally known as “The Town That Food Saved.”

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In addition, technology-driven creativity has been integrating itself into the regional culture and economy, with graphic design, internet marketing and advertising, all linked through coworking spaces, makerspaces, and social media. And, as outsiders discover the region’s ski, bike, and foliage trails and its many festivals and fairs, recreational tourism is an expanding component of the economy.

By 2018, according to a study recently completed for the Vermont Arts Council and USDA Rural Development, employment in creative enterprises and/or in creative occupations represents 9.4% of the region’s workforce, the vast majority of whom are freelancers, self-employed or working in small enterprises. This number is 31% higher than the concentration across the U.S. and much higher than most of the sparsely populated regions analyzed in the U.S.

The largest shares of the region’s creative employment are in design, driven mainly by furniture across the region, and specialty foods, supported by the Center for an Agricultural Economy in Hardwick and a growing market for organic and specialty foods.

The infusion—and acceptance—of “outsiders” with new ideas into this tight, isolated region took innovation and growth to a new level and made a major impact on the economy. It stabilized the economy, created new job opportunities, and enhanced the region’s attractiveness while at the same time connecting with its past and supporting the values and lifestyle that had attracted creatives to the Northeast Kingdom.

While rural developers often look outside their communities for business opportuniites and ideas, the Northeast Kingdom emphasizes growth from within, from the creativity and entrepreneurship of its citizens. The region’s key ingredients are communities infused with history, culture, and art; a shared bond to place; amenities that attract talent and tourists; and an organizational and educational infrastructure that supports those assets.

Stuart Rosenfeld is a co-author of the report “Building on a Legacy of Creativity: Understanding and Expanding the Creative Economy of the Northeast Kingdom,” written for the Vermont Arts Council and the Vermont Creative Network.

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