Whole hog for Rutland

Photo by Cassandra Hotaling Hahn / Rutland Herald

Originally published in the April 19, 2012, edition of the Rutland Herald.

Last week, Rutland was witness to something unique: A Chamber of Commerce mixer that people were actually talking about. Wales Street became a spectacle as scores of people crowded inside the large tent to mix, mingle and enjoy the complimentary food and drinks.

Donald Billings, chef-owner of Roots the Restaurant — which co-hosted the mixer with Earth Waste Systems — threw down with a menu dominated by locally sourced food. The centerpiece, a pig roast, helped build anticipation as it cooked slowly in Roots’ driveway — its smoky scents wafting through all of downtown a full day ahead of the event.

The buzz around the mixer was unprecedented for these typically humdrum Chamber gatherings. Clearly, the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce knew it had something special, as it was especially effusive in its promotion of the mixer via email, print ads and social media.

In my experience, Chamber mixers are pretty uneventful. They are often mechanical affairs characterized by forced small talk, exchanges of business cards and “networking.” Rutland is not alone here; I’m pretty sure your average Chamber mixer looks the same no matter where you are.

But why settle for average?

As I watched the crowd and the energy last Tuesday on Wales Street, I wondered why we don’t do this type of thing more often. This is how a business community should celebrate itself — showing off its relevance more consistently with this sort of eagerness and flare.

That’s not to say every Chamber mixer needs to meet this standard; that would be an unfair expectation of businesses that may lack the capacity to pull off such a feat — though, I do hope those that can will rise to the challenge.

At the end of the day, I am just talking about a Chamber mixer. To make so much out of it might seem superficial. However, the last week’s gathering demonstrated a confidence and enthusiasm that we don’t see enough of in Rutland.

As a Rutland native who has left and come back, it is not difficult to observe the culture of mediocrity that exists here. Often, we set the bar a little too low both in perception and execution. This pervasive “good enough” attitude is holding us back.

Call it Rutland’s low self-esteem: the belief that this is as good as it’s going to get here; that we can’t aspire to be anything higher; that those who show too much ambition are trying too hard or forgetting where they are.

We must overcome this fatalistic attitude. Granted, we’re not Burlington or Montpelier, but that doesn’t mean we can’t think just as big or be as innovative while remaining true to our community identity. That begins with taking ourselves seriously. Believe it or not, there are things we actually do well here. And we should acknowledge that fact.

This summer will see the beginning of construction for both the Rutland Creek Path and Center Street Alley Marketplace. The path is a key component to the area’s ever-increasing outdoor recreational offerings, improving the quality of life for residents. The Alley will make a long blighted space usable once again for the community, with potential for retail development in the core of the downtown.

On the organizational front, the Rutland Redevelopment Authority has a clear focus once more and is in the process of getting a handle on the city’s many blighted properties — a project that will help mitigate the most visible indicators of Rutland’s hard times.

The Downtown Rutland Partnership continues to promote the city’s food, entertainment and retail assets while working to make the downtown attractive to more development and investment — no easy task in this economy. Around the state, the DRP has been lauded by its peers for initiatives like the revolving loan fund, its micro-grant programs and Friday Night Live.

Financially, the city is in good standing. This year, the treasurer’s office announced a clean audit — something that has not been achieved in 32 years.

In agriculture, Rutland County is steadily becoming a local food hub. The farmers’ market continues to grow and, in the coming months, looks poised to make a major investment in the city, further solidifying the strong farm-to-city bond that has been developing in recent years.

This growth has been made possible by community support of local farms through weekly markets and CSAs, as well as the increasing presence of local food restaurants like Roots, which spent $90,000 at local farms in its first year, according to a recent press release. (Imagine the added impact if more restaurants spent even a fraction of that amount.)

Indeed, it is because of these examples and others that Green Mountain Power is making an investment in Rutland, bringing with it a new operational headquarters in the downtown, a center for energy innovation and the yet to be defined promise of making Rutland a “solar city.” It is a promise that the city has been proactive in seeing realized as demonstrated by the recent potential partnership with AllEarth Renewables to place a 105-kilowatt solar installation within the city.

To be sure, there are obstacles we still need to overcome. Our infrastructure is in dire need of repair. While it feels slow-going, the city is not ignoring this need. This summer will hopefully bring us some tangible projects that should quell this long-standing but justified criticism.

As always, more storefronts need to be filled, not just downtown but throughout the city. Organizations like the Chamber, REDC and the DRP need to keep working to attract development by actively recruiting businesses. That’s not to say they are not currently doing their job; rather, they need to remain committed, attentive, open-minded and innovative on this front.

And our existing businesses need to be equally as innovative. The small businesses that have survived and even thrived in this economy are those that recognized the big picture trends and responded, not with defeat, but with innovation. Successful businesses provide customers with a unique experience through engaging marketing campaigns, quality customer service and community-mindedness.

No doubt, growth has been slow, but most indicators point to the positive. Let us not forget that Rutland and all of Vermont has weathered the last few years better than many parts of the country. For that we should be grateful.

In the meantime, we need to celebrate what we have and what we have done right. As a community, we need to go from “meh” to “yeah” — we must set aside our fatalism for enthusiasm, embrace with pride what we do well and constantly ask ourselves, our businesses and our leaders how we can do it even better.

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