[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 5/13/10.] A while back I led a discussion with some Castleton State College students about their perceptions of Rutland. I was there on behalf of Sustainable Rutland. My mission was two-fold: highlight the work Sustainable Rutland and the rest of the Creative Economy does and assess how engaged the college community was with the Rutland community. The subsequent discussion was enlightening and unsurprising.
“There’s nothing to do in Rutland” was a near universal reply from the students. They were all seniors who had lived in the area for at least four years. Some of them even grew up here. When asked what did bring them to Rutland, Wal-Mart and Taco Bell were among their favorite attractions. I did my best stifle the groan of dismay that was building inside me.
Fast food and a box store. Is this really all that people think Rutland has to offer?
“There’s nothing to do here” is a common refrain in Rutland. But is it true? Certainly, Rutland is lacking in some areas – Mexican food, mini-golf, anything at all that’s open on a Sunday – but it’s far from a one-horse town.
Look around: Restaurants, bars, shops, a movie theater, The Paramount, the Co-op, the farmers’ market, live music, Pine Hill. And beyond Rutland, this region offers more of the same in food, recreation and entertainment.
Take last Wednesday night, for example. Blues legend Taj Mahal played at the Paramount while earlier in the evening, the All-State Music Festival held a parade downtown which brought out a large number of onlookers.
I met a couple friends for a drink at Table 24, which was packed because of the events. (Likewise, my sources at The Palms also reported a busy night.) On my way to the Paramount, I ran into a couple friends who had just been to a cooking class at the Co-op. After the show, there was an open-mic at Center Street Saloon as well as Rick Redington performing at Pub 42. Not bad for a Wednesday.
Yet people remain fixed on what’s not here. During a Friday Night Live last summer, I encountered a woman who lamented how nothing ever happens in Rutland. This perception has apparently become so engrained in people’s minds that this woman, amidst a sea of more than 400 people, was complaining that Rutland offered her nothing.
Though, sometimes people expect too much. For instance, last week my friend actually saw someone attempt to hail a cab on Center Street. (I wonder if they ever found a ride.)
Back with the Castleton students, I pressed them in search of exactly what was missing. “More stuff” seemed to be the consensus. I posited that perhaps it was a matter of communication. After all, Rutland does have “stuff” to offer, but perhaps we’re not good at promoting it. I asked them what else they would want out of a night out with their friends. They just kind of shrugged. (Maybe this wasn’t the most engaging group of students in the first place.)
To help out, I gave them a rundown of my previous Friday night: I played an early music gig at Café Terra where a few of my friends showed up. Afterwards, we went out for a later dinner, then to Center Street Saloon to see a band. I noted that if I were in Burlington or Portland, or even Brooklyn, I’d likely be doing the exact same thing; the only difference being that there would be more people around.
And that’s just it. While Rutland does have a lot to offer, we are still waiting for that critical mass of people (especially, young people). To be sure, people follow jobs, and that’s something in which this region is woefully lacking. Still, there is opportunity.
Sitting on the deck at Two Shea’s last Wednesday night before the Taj Mahal show, my friend Scott commented on how Rutland is ultimately what you make of it. There’s opportunity and potential here, but you have to be willing to make it for yourself. Rutland is still a work in progress. People looking for a ready-made city are not going to be satisfied here.
But that’s what Scott likes about Rutland – that it is in the midst of a change, that you can become a part of that. For him, this is more satisfying than living someplace where all that exciting, albeit hard, work is already done. I concur.
However, reaching that critical mass does require us to spread the word, to sing the gospel of Rutland. I find myself returning to the communication issue. Why are area college students not discovering our local culture? Why do so many residents appear equally disconnected? To some extent, it’s a lack of willingness to be engaged. Some people just aren’t into what we’re selling. Some people’s cultural, material and spiritual needs are fulfilled by Taco Bell and Wal-Mart.
Still, others want to be connected. They just don’t know where to connect. That’s where Rutland needs to improve. Indeed, we are. Efforts to improve how people can locate information are underway within the Rutland Partnership and the Creative Economy – a better web presence, more social media, a cohesive message, easier access to more information.
In the meantime, all of us can attempt to get the message out. When someone bemoans the lack of things to do, remind them of what there is. The more we turn people on to what’s happening here, the sooner we reach the critical mass that makes Rutland a culturally sustainable community.