Viva Rut Vegas: Looking back on 2010

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 12/30/10] 

It’s almost 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 21. The Gift-of-Life Marathon is in full swing. The Paramount is buzzing with energy: baseball-jerseyed volunteers work the crowd, giving out bottled water and cookies; in the background, Terry Jaye and Nanci Gordon keep the energy in the room high in between live on-air updates.

People mingle and chat as they wait their turn on one of myriad lounge chairs covering the stage of the theater. They are motivated by their desire to give, to potentially save a life and by an added desire this year to beat Boston’s record of 1,177 units.

The first official tally puts Rutland at 102 units and counting — we’ve got a ways to go before 6:30 p.m., and with a wait time for walk-ins at two-and-a-half-plus hours (yes, I forgot to make a reservation), I’ve got a ways to go before I get my turn.

But it’s no bother. The wait gives me time to soak in the scene, and during this hectic pre-Christmas week, it forces me to slow down, catch my breath and, maybe, actually get in the holiday mood.

As I sit in the balcony, waiting for my number to be called, I observe a community in action, a community that, despite its occasional shortcomings, has a lot to give. Truth be told, this city can be pretty damn impressive when it wants to be.

This is my last column of the year; a good time, I suppose, to look back on the last 12 months in Rutland.

Since moving back here in 2007, I have watched as Rutland has slowly but surely taken itself forward. While there are many people around here who still think otherwise, I really do believe it is becoming a better place to live — we are headed in the right direction.

I can think of more than a few examples of that positive energy.

Look at the success of the farmers’ market. It has become a year-round celebration of local food and an incubator for all types of young businesses that are now appearing in and around Rutland.

Similarly, the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link has matured into a well-respected and influential advocate for agriculture throughout the county. RAFFL, through it efforts and support of the farmers’ market has put fresh, healthy, local food in the forefront of people’s minds and plates.

In downtown Rutland, the Partnership has found a renewed energy and drive as it continues to promote business development and market the city’s best assets through special events and new grant and loan programs for business and property owners.

In its fourth year, Friday Night Live, a major part of the DRP’s summer programming budget, saw its biggest year to date, drawing hundreds of people downtown every week.

While empty storefronts have always been an easy target for naysayers, downtown Rutland still maintains a first-floor occupancy rate of around 85 percent — right around the national average.

Sure, there are some big holes to fill, but that takes time. This year saw a new art gallery (LuLu’s), three new eateries (Izapa Burritos, Vegas Deli, Ana’s Empanadas), several new/newly renovated bars (Last Call, Center Street Alley, 3D’s) and a new performance space (Merchants Hall). And next month, another restaurant (Roots) will open on Wales Street.

Back on Center Street, the Paramount Theatre has enjoyed one of its most successful seasons yet. The theater is steadily building a name for itself as a destination performance space for first-class talent and big name acts like Ani DiFranco, Victor Wooten, Robert Randolph and Ron White.

Meanwhile, Killington and Castleton State College scored a win in entertainment when they brought the Snoe.down music festival to Spartan Arena for a huge weekend last March. The festival, featuring the popular jam band moe., will return again in 2011.

In August, the downtown sadly lost one of its biggest champions when Steve Eddy, the former owner of Book King, died unexpectedly. Steve was a friend and an inspiration. While he will be missed, his memory lives on in all the positive work that continues to be done in Rutland.

And it’s truly unfortunate that Steve never got to be a part of what was perhaps the most notable event of all in Rutland this year when “The Blood in this Town” premiered at The Paramount Theatre in October. It was moment that would have given Steve great pride in the community to which he gave so much.

It’s 1:30 p.m. now back in The Paramount. I’ve got at least another hour (if I’m lucky) before I get my turn to give. The tally is up to 215 units on its way to the goal of 1,178.

Still sitting in the balcony, I watch the happenings below, trying to observe it as an outsider would: I watch the young student volunteers bounding about, the numerous white-coated collection specialists taking blood onstage, the many, many other volunteers shepherding donors through the process.

I search for what Art Jones, the director of “The Blood in this Town,” saw last year through the lens of his camera as he began to realize he was capturing much more than a small town blood drive. He was capturing a community with a unique spirit and a strong will — a work in progress with great energy and even greater potential.

Sometimes it takes an outside eye to see what the rest of us take for granted.

Throughout the night, long after I’ve donated, I periodically check Facebook for updates on progress of the drive. My news feed is buzzing with news from various local sources – 625, 970, 1,150. Finally, before I call it a night, I sign back in one last time to see 1,393 at the top of my feed. We did it. We beat Boston (was there ever any doubt?) with 215 pints to spare.

Congratulations, Rutland.

As we enter 2011, let us continue to keep Rutland moving forward in this positive direction; let us be proud of what we have here, continue to celebrate our successes and work through our shortcomings.

Happy New Year.

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