NEFA Award Recipient

Bellows Falls, VT

Contact Name
Robert McBride
Project Dates
Fall 2010-Fall 2011
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2011
Tags
Business Planning
RAMP was founded in order to have artists participate in the revitalization of Bellows Falls. In 1995 when Robert McBride moved to town and founded RAMP, the general perception of Bellows Falls was a community where the mills had closed and the the downtown was in decline. Through RAMP, McBride introduced a can-do attitude and successfully integrated the arts into the revitalization strategy of the community. By effectively and creatively collaborating with other not-for-profits, including arts and social service organizations, municipalities and libraries, as well as commercial businesses and individuals, RAMP is able to reach a regional audience of over 100,000 people living and working along the Connecticut River from St. Johnsbury to Brattleboro.
Project Goals
What were the project goals?
RAMP uses the arts to engage with others in the preservation and revitalization of Bellows Falls and surrounding towns, which, like many other towns in Vermont and across the country, experienced severe economic and cultural decline as a result of changing economic and technological factors that rendered obsolete a great proportion of the farming and manufacturing endeavors upon which these towns had depended and thrived. Frequently the biggest impediments to preserving and redeveloping a community are the attitudes within the community itself and the failure of the community to recognize and leverage local resources, particularly the energy, creativity, and entrepreneurial power of artists.
Have they changed over time?
RAMP’s mission is to demonstrate the impact of the arts on the cultural and economic revitalization of Bellows Falls and surrounding towns, to mobilize and advocate for artists and the arts as catalysts for community re-development, and to share our experience with others facing similar challenges. For 15 years, RAMP has accomplished this programmatically by: (1) restoring and managing the Exner Block in downtown Bellows Falls, opened in 2000 and providing 10 affordable live/workspaces for artists, Project Space 9, a community gallery, and 6 storefronts for arts-related businesses; (2) curating local artists’ exhibitions in the gallery and initiating public art projects; (4) hosting Artists Town Meetings and a website and listserv for sharing of ideas, opportunities and information; (5) sponsoring an annual Memorial Day Open Studio Weekend, highlighting over 20 artists and attracting over a 1,000 people; and (6) participating on boards of directors (including the Windham Regional Commission, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Connecticut River National Byway and the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance) to give RAMP a “voice at the table” and an opportunity to share role of artists and the arts’ in sustaining healthy communities. In addition, RAMP has shared its success in leveraging the arts to spark revitalization and foster sustainability planning through consultations with other Vermont communities (including, Morrisville, Richmond, Springfield, Putney, St Johnsbury, Readsboro, Brattleboro, Grand Isle and Brandon) and through presentations at conferences in other states throughout New England and across the country. In 2010, these included the keynote address on Rural Communities and Sustainability at the Rhode Island Annual Preservation Conference and presentations at the National Trust for Historic Preservation's annual meeting (Artists Challenging Rural Communities) and at the New England Museum Alliance's annual conference in Springfield, MA (Artists Influence on Rural Community Sustainability).
Who are the project partners and stakeholders?
The credibility and success of the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project (RAMP) depends upon its ability to meet those challenges effectively by: (i) sponsoring (on its own and collaboratively with other organizations and businesses) programs and initiatives that demonstrate the essential role that artists and the arts play in developing and sustaining the cultural and economic health of Bellows Falls and other towns facing similar challenges; (ii) making the arts accessible to the community (for example, by working closely with the Vermont Arts Council to promote universal design initiatives and ensure accessibility to all events and programs); and (iii) sharing our model for community revitalization with other communities in Vermont and other rural communities in our northeast region and across the country.
Project Specifics
How was the project implemented? What were the steps taken?
RAMP’s mission is to demonstrate the impact of the arts on the cultural and economic revitalization of Bellows Falls and surrounding towns, to mobilize and advocate for artists and the arts as catalysts for community re-development, and to share our experience with others facing similar challenges. For 15 years, RAMP has accomplished this programmatically by: (1) restoring and managing the Exner Block in downtown Bellows Falls, opened in 2000 and providing 10 affordable live/workspaces for artists, Project Space 9, a community gallery, and 6 storefronts for arts-related businesses; (2) curating local artists’ exhibitions in the gallery and initiating public art projects; (4) hosting Artists Town Meetings and a website and listserv for sharing of ideas, opportunities and information; (5) sponsoring an annual Memorial Day Open Studio Weekend, highlighting over 20 artists and attracting over a 1,000 people; and (6) participating on boards of directors (including the Windham Regional Commission, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Connecticut River National Byway and the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance) to give RAMP a “voice at the table” and an opportunity to share role of artists and the arts’ in sustaining healthy communities.
Have they been refined over time?
RAMP has shared its success in leveraging the arts to spark revitalization and foster sustainability planning through consultations with other Vermont communities (including, Morrisville, Richmond, Springfield, Putney, St Johnsbury, Readsboro, Brattleboro, Grand Isle and Brandon) and through presentations at conferences in other states throughout New England and across the country. In 2010, these included the keynote address on Rural Communities and Sustainability at the Rhode Island Annual Preservation Conference and presentations at the National Trust for Historic Preservation's annual meeting (Artists Challenging Rural Communities) and at the New England Museum Alliance's annual conference in Springfield, MA (Artists Influence on Rural Community Sustainability).
Obstacles
What were your major obstacles?
Building credibility in the community. Introducing the arts as a viable economic development tool.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
Doing what you said you were going to do. Reaching out in the community to a broad range of potential collaboraters inncluding not-for-profits, for-profits and individuals.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
Learn to listen. Realize that change is an incremental process. Have fun.
Project Impact
How has this project contributed to creative community building?
We measure RAMP’s success based on the extent to which our programs and collaborative initiatives increase the integration of artists and the arts into community life and have a positive impact on the cultural and economic health of the community. We measure direct impact and broader community impact, which overlap in many respects, by the following: Opportunities for artists and art-related businesses to live and work in the community and contribute to the local economy, as measured by: (a) 15 artists living and working in Exner Block and Howard Block apartment/studio units since 2000; (b) 8 artists and arts-related businesses renting the 10 Exner and Howard Block retail storefronts; (c) Sale of art work through 50 exhibitions of local artists at Project Space 9; and [d] increase in artists other than Exner/Howard tenants participating in arts-related initiatives in and around Bellows Falls, as evidenced, in part, by 300 artists attending Artists’ Town Meetings and an increase in listserve subscribers from 10 to 200 since 2005.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
Economic and cultural revitalization through the arts, as measured by: (a) Continued successful occupancy of Exner and Howard Blocks retail spaces; [b] employment of 3 building contractors and 150 construction workers in Exner Block, Howard Block and Opera House renovations; [c] influx of visitors into Bellows Falls downtown area who patronize local businesses, as evidenced, in part by (i) utilization of the Visitor’s Center, including over 25 local farmers and artisans selling produce to approximately 4500 customers at the seasonal farmers market on the Center site; (ii) a consistent increase of hits on RAMP website to view RAMP programs and upcoming events; (iv) 3500 additional visitors to Bellows Falls and surrounding towns for RAMP-initiated and supported special events (e.g. 1000 visitors participating in the annual Open Studios Weekend); and [d] increase in Bellows Falls commercial occupancy rate from 10% at RAMP’s inception in 1995 to 70% today.
Were there unexpected impacts?
Investing in these initiatives has given local artists an opportunity to share their work with residents and visitors to the community, has resulted in significant economic redevelopment, and has significantly raised the morale and elevated the profile of our community. The 1990's perception of Bellows Falls as a working class community on the downhill slide has evolved into a can-do community and poster child for the creative economy. When people who share a commitment to the arts come together and speak with a unified voice, it can have a powerful impact. One of RAMP’s visions is to see artists and arts supporters fully integrated into the civic fabric of our community, weighing in on local issues, and contributing a valuable perspective to local dialog.
CCX Workshop Handout