Why Vermont’s Mount Snow Valley Should Invest Heavily in Culture
Updated: May 29, 2018
By Philip Gilpin, Jr. (Editor)
Parts one and two of this series examined changes in the tourism/restaurant industry and the impact of taxes on the Mt Snow Valley's economic challenges. This third part offers a potential solution.
Life in Southern Vermont is filled with peaceful hikes, beautiful sunsets, and relaxing days by the lake. But the last decade here has been a rough one thanks to a global economic recession, unexpected hurricanes, ski mountain failures, the advent of the digital age, and a list of other challenges. Through it all, there has always been a sense that one day things will turn around.
This hope of a brighter future has spawned the creation of various marketing efforts, economic development strategy groups, the hiring of outside branding experts, numerous conferences with state officials, and endless community conversations about how to best invest local revenues (i.e., events, education, infrastructure, tax rates, etc.).
Thankfully, this decade of economic trial and error has produced a very clear blueprint for what needs to be done. Once the next generation starts moving in, it's highly likely that there will be few better places to live than Southern Vermont.
The solution has three foundational pillars:
- Culture (the most important)
The specifics of what these mean and how to implement them are very nuanced. Simply building more housing and creating random cultural events doesn’t cause life to suddenly blossom in a struggling rural area. These three elements have to be constructed in a particular way with focused intent and well-supported execution.
STEP ONE: CULTURAL MOTIVATION
I first came here when my parents called to tell me they sold our childhood home and bought a country inn in Vermont. My parents were young adults in the 1980s during a time when the “Newhart syndrome” was very real. If you’re not familiar with the Newhart syndrome, know this: one of the most romanticized shows on network television during the 1980s was the story of a husband and wife who leave the city and buy a country inn in Vermont. This TV marketing worked, and an entire generation of stressed out adults dreamed of buying a piece of “God’s Country” and living happily ever after in a beautiful small mountain town.
The fundamental problem with this, and with most romanticized lifestyles, is that once you move here you still have to find a way to survive. You don’t just show up and sit on the porch all day. A longtime local friend once had t-shirts printed saying, ”Vermont: We Dare You to Make a Living” and handed them out as motivational trophies.
Similarly, there’s an often-shared joke told throughout Vermont’s Green Mountains:
Q: How to you make a small fortune in Vermont?
A: Start with a big one.
Few jokes better exemplify the notion that all comedy is rooted in tragedy. The caution implied by this dark humor is obvious: many people, aka “flatlanders”, move to Vermont and attempt to make a living but eventually lose money and leave.
I've managed to make a living by creating the Green Mountain Adventure Challenge and attracting a community of television/film creators to Vermont with ITVFest each year. These events have brought in millions of new dollars to the region and I'm proud that they are rooted in showcasing Vermont's uniqueness. It's endlessly hard work and I don't make big bucks, but that's not what living in Vermont is about. It's a fantastic feeling to contribute towards making this slice of the world just a little bit better - and to go hiking on Monday morning instead of sitting in traffic on the freeway.
Side note: being a “native” Vermonter does not mean that you were born here. It means that you can walk into a nearby cemetery and point to the gravestones of multiple generations of your family before you. Being a “local” probably means you or your parents have lived here a long time and developed a connection to the community. Being a “flatlander” likely means you’re a recent arrival or a money grubbing pirate that has come to pillage Vermont’s resources for your personal benefit - Arrrrgggh!!!
A person’s cultural motivation for moving to rural Vermont is important. You have to want to live here because you value Vermont’s simpler, nature-based lifestyle and enjoy being a hard-working contributing member of the local community. Having this motivation doesn’t guarantee success (far from it) but it’s a necessary first step.
Winters can be rough, fires can burn homes, hurricanes can wash away entire villages, and economic depressions can decimate entire regions – at some point you will need to rely on your community for support and the community will need you to contribute your time, energy, and money to support it in return. The outdated notion of moving to the mountains to be left alone probably means you’re just a drain on town resources.
While living in a place like rural Vermont isn’t for everyone, it is paradise for plenty. In a town of about 1,000 people, it doesn’t take more than 20 or 30 new full-time residents to make an energetic impact. It’s easy to find a couple dozen people that have the right motivation for being part of a place like this – visitors always talk about wanting to move here full-time.
Cultural motivation, however, is a two-way road.
The local towns need to be unconditionally welcoming and supportive of newcomers and their new ideas. The petty “old guard” style of small-town politics is what causes a community’s economy to stall out. With everyone struggling to make a daily living, it’s easy to develop a financially protective mentality that says spending tax dollars on new events, going shopping, or enjoying a night out to dinner can be seen as a waste of money. In fact, these types of spending are not wasteful at all – they are vital cultural investment in the town’s well-being (more on this in step 3 below).
Also, a supportive attitude means ending the Native vs. Local vs. Flatlander narrative. While these titles are sometimes used as endearing badges of honor, the only thing this “us vs. them” attitude accomplishes is to make new people and businesses feel unwelcome.
Without a strong sense of goodhearted cultural motivation from both sides, rural towns can become depressingly disconnected places. No one wants to move to a place like that. And if no one wants to move in and new businesses don’t open, the normal economic cycle of generational replacement stops - which lowers the tax base and causes harm to the elderly and the youth who rely on publicly funded hospitals, schools, and infrastructure to survive.
So, step one: a town has to choose to be proactively welcoming and supportive, and the overwhelming majority of the Valley is. Step one - check!
STEP TWO: HOUSING
“Live. Work. Play.”
This marketing motto is overused but accurate. If there’s nowhere for people to live, they can’t work and play there too!
Unfortunately, the housing situation in the Mount Snow Valley shuts out a lot of today’s young adults. Most people under 40 either can’t get a mortgage or don’t want one. It is a rental generation, not a home buying one. The Valley has billions of dollars of existing real estate that sits empty 90% of the year because its owners primarily use them for personal vacations and only occasionally loan them out for short-term rentals.
Year-round rental housing is a must-have requirement to build a healthy economy. If simply building a large quantity of houses translated into economic vitality, the Valley would be booming. But it’s not.
So, it’s not about housing quantity, it is the quality of year-round availability that lays the foundation for economic growth. Many real estate agents say they don’t do year-round rental housing because of Vermont’s tough eviction laws and property issues with long term renters. These are valid concerns that can be overcome by a heavy investment in culture (more in step 3 below).
Towns have to decide on a case-by-case basis how they want to tackle this logistical problem, but one suggestion is to allocate a percentage of tax revenue towards developing year-round rental housing. The rentals need to be decent quality with high-speed internet access and rental rates that are at least 40% less expensive than apartments in the nearest major city.
So, step two: competitive year-round rental housing. This one's going to need some work.
STEP THREE: CULTURE
This is the big one.
Once a place decides it wants to welcome economic growth (step one) and develop the necessary housing to support it (step two), the most important piece is to invest heavily in culture.
Culture does not simply mean random events and art exhibits (although events and art exhibits are part of it). It means cultivating a long-term desire to make the area a better place to live. This is why people will move to a rural town - because they enjoy being part of a community that supports and encourages their personal, professional, and family growth. They’ll move here because it’s a unique life experience that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
The Mount Snow Valley currently does only the very basics in terms of cultural investment: roads, sidewalks, internet, schools, police & fire, etc. These civic components are the bare minimum of what’s expected in a 21st century town. No place is going to attract people simply because it installs a new sidewalk or upgrades internet service.
Every year, the Valley spend millions of dollars maintaining its roads, no questions asked. And every year new potholes form so the towns invest more money in fixing them. That’s just the expected cycle when it comes to roads and infrastructure: things get used so they need maintenance. Rightfully so.
That same approach needs to be how the Valley invests in culture: by doing it repeatedly for years on end with the expectation that some investments might fail or need fixing on an annual basis.
Bringing in festivals and events are a good start, but they need to be tied to a larger plan. Want to bring a music festival to town? Great! But simultaneously invest in building a soundstage or recording studio where the artists can come back to create their next album.
Want to launch a local road race? Wonderful! Also invest in health food stores, fitness centers, and wellness studios for the athletes to enjoy and train in year-round.
How about starting a craft beer festival? Absolutely! But also spend $100,000 dollars to partner on opening a brewery in town.
Use big events as a way to attract the industry associated with it. Don’t just support a film festival for a weekend, build a year-round production studio that gives the artists a reason to shoot their next film here.
Thinking big and investing big is the only way cultural events will ever produce a positive return in the long run. Just like roads, cultural events need annual repairs and upgrades. Invest in them with this larger scale and scope in mind.
Because Vermont’s incredible natural beauty is not longer enough to attract a critical mass of new full-time residents. If it was, the Valley wouldn’t have the economic problem it does today. It takes more than a few fun days on the slopes or some foliage hikes to attract new people.
The key result of all this investment in culture will be jobs.
Employment is too often looked at as an economic problem when it’s actually more of a cultural one. Few people want to live in a place where there is constantly nothing to do before or after work. Investing in having something to do in town at 9pm on a Monday night in April is just as important as building a new sidewalk or bridge.
Today’s younger generation prioritizes two things: unique experiences and connection. Social media can make people feel isolated, so they want to live in a place that they feel connected to.
In today’s digital age, people are constantly connected to their friends around the world sharing their experiences in real time. Vermont can’t expect a younger generation to move here just to sit on a porch and drink at the same bar with the same people every night while they watch their friends out exploring the world. Vermont has to compete against other places on a cultural level, on a daily basis. The world doesn’t stop developing just because Vermont chooses to stop developing.
This is why local investment in cultural infrastructure is vital. And it all needs to be related to the uniqueness of Vermont: creative restaurants with professionally trained chefs that use local ingredients, theatres with world-class performers that have a tie to the community, art galleries and museums with local artisans that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Think jazz clubs with local musicians and dinners at the farm, not water parks and zip lines.
The challenge is that these things cost money and Vermont can be notoriously cheap without any regard for the consequences.
Talented chefs, for example, cost restaurants a lot of money to hire. That means the restaurants need to charge normal prices for meals on a year-round basis, not just during seasonal ski months that can randomly disappear when there’s no snow. A professional chef wants a year-round career and a year-round life. This is just one professional example.
Culture brings activity, which brings jobs, which brings people.
The more invested new arrivals are in enhancing the community, the less likely they are to cause real estate concerns about year-round rentals. A sense of pride will begin to flourish and that’s when things will begin to skyrocket.
When a rural area is hitting the bottom of its economic cycle, the only entity that will invest in it is itself. The Valley needs to invest in cleaning up the blight, in restoring or removing the rundown buildings on its main route, and in attracting entrepreneurs to bring in their new ideas. No one else has any financial motivation to do it.
Just like the Valley invests in its roads and schools every year, it has to start investing heavily in its culture.