Even though the recession caused that decline in tourism, Christine ticks off a host of individual reasons behind a rash of retail closures over the past two years. Two businesses relocated just outside the city limits to save money on taxes. One closed because the owner developed a serious illness. In a few cases, proprietors decided it felt like a good time to retire. Also, heavy rains the past two summers caused serious flooding downtown, which created mold problems in some of the buildings.
Christine won't discount the recession played a role in some of the business district vacancies, but thinks drawing a direct line of causation between the national economy and the local situation would only be half the story. In Rutland, unemployment is running around 8.7%, slightly below the national average, so it hasn't suffered like some areas of the country where joblessness has caused a loss in population. By contrast, in Millen, Georgia, where a number of local residents told me the community seemed on the verge of becoming a "ghost town," a halt in industry at the local industrial park had led to nearly 20% unemployment and an exodus of residents moving away in search of work elsewhere.
In Rutland, the flood of retail vacancies has created opportunity for one group of local artisans. In an initiative designed to revitalize shopping in the historic district, the Downtown Rutland Partnership gave its first entrepreneurial grant this summer. According to Mike Coppinger of the DRP, they had such an overwhelming and positive response to the inaugural grant that they're hoping to budget for another one next year.
Without the subsidization of one year free rent, artisans of the Catamount Crafters Cooperative don't know how they could have afforded to launch their business, particularly with the renovations they did at the outset. Now about four months into the venture, they've established a rhythm and presence that looks likely to carry them through once they start paying rent next summer.
At the age of seven, Sophia Noceti began to learn the craft of woodworking from her grandfather. She now creates cooking utensils and various tchotchkes in bright multi-colored wood sanded smooth as plastic.
Kara Soulia and her husband make animal treats and toys, as well as human consumables like jams, pickled veg, and candy. (Believe Kara when she warns you about the "Dark Matter" habanero candy. I had to nurse a cup of ice on my drive to New Hampshire after deciding to chew and swallow one just to get the heat out of my mouth. Ouch.)
Prior to establishment of the new co-op, Catamount artisans had lived a peripatetic existence of craft shows and special events. Sophia, one of the founding members, evinces pride when she tells me: "I haven't had a week yet that I haven't been paid."
The co-operative currently has eleven members displaying goods in the shop, with crafts including handmade jewelry, knitted baby clothes, caned chairs, chainsawed wood sculpture, paintings and photography. The business model projects basic expenses would require membership dues from thirteen crafters, but the retail space looks capable of holding even more.
Since opening in July, Kara says business "has been building every week. When holiday shopping ramps up, we'll do really well."