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For struggling N.E. towns, revival is a work of art

Galleries, music seen luring newcomers

HARDWICK, Vt. - What to do about Hardwick?

This Northeast Kingdom village fell into a deep slump decades ago with the shuttering of its granite factories, leaving a hard-edged downtown of rowdy bars, an X-rated movie theater and troubleseekers. Ideas came and went; little changed. So there was ample skepticism when a band of residents proposed righting Hardwick's woes with an infusion of artists. The town, some said, had enough struggling souls.

But the group persevered. They raised $260,000 to refurbish the opera house. Its reopening in 2003 is credited with spurring other changes: An art gallery opened last spring in a former meat locker, wine tastings were inaugurated in a downtown park over the summer, a bistro featuring an Alsace-trained chef is opening in February. While Hardwick still looks the part of a dowager, with run-down Victorian homes and empty storefronts, many in town, including a growing circle of newcomers, say the town has a toehold on cool.

"We wanted a community with cultural awareness," said Tracy Martin, a historical curator who moved to Hardwick with her husband, a geologist, a year ago. "Frankly, if it hadn't been here, we probably wouldn't have moved here."

Hardwick is among a constellation of towns across New England that are court ing artists as the foundation of newly emerging economies, or as some call the practice, cultivating "sophisticated rural living."

Artists long have been catalysts of revival in urban hubs, such as New York's Soho and Boston's Fort Point Channel. In Lowell and North Adams, they are credited with gentrifying cities once written off. Now, artists are being recruited by small hamlets, many of them former industrial hubs surrounded by farmland. Officials in the towns say the artists are not a panacea unto themselves. Rather they are part of a complicated choreography that goes like this:

After years of seeking new manufacturing outfits to fill empty plants - a practice known as "smokestack chasing" - towns have decided that their aim should be attracting technical and professional workers, such as engineers, software developers, and writers, who in the age of the Internet can live and work far from their companies' home-bases.

The hitch is that while these workers might be keen on living in an uncongested setting with a low cost of living, they also want cultural amenities such as art galleries, bookstores, theater spaces, eclectic restaurants, and live music stages. So the towns have set their sights on artists who can create these sorts of amenities. Some have provided financial incentives to the artists; others have fixed up sidewalks and parks to make their downtowns attractive to new galleries, theaters, and museums.

Artist enclaves, in turn, are popping up in New England's outlying towns.

In Bellows Falls, Vt., a one-time paper mill town, an aged opera house debuted in 2006 after a three-year renovation, and empty buildings were converted to affordable housing for artists in 2000. In Bethlehem, a lapsed summer resort in New Hampshire's North Country, the refurbished Colonial Theater was converted in 2005 to an art-house movie theater and live performance venue. In Houlton, a long-depressed hub of Maine's northern-most county, a Main Street storefront began selling locally made crafts and offering gallery space three years ago. Wood-working shops and art galleries dot Brandon, Vt., a former foundry town that hosts elaborate art installations, most famously, in 2003, of life-size fiberglass pigs.

Twenty-somethings in vintage T-shirts and chunky glasses now stroll the streets of White River Junction, a former railroad hub that is home to the 3-year-old Center for Cartoon Studies, the Northern Stage theater company, and a bread factory that was converted four years ago to artist studios, media outlet space, and a bistro. Eastport, Maine, a former sardine-canning center, now hosts an arts center that moved into a revamped church in 2005 and a symphony orchestra that launched this summer.

"People thought Eastport was dead and gone!" said Jean Wilhelm, a former Goucher College theater professor, who helped spearhead the arts center creation.

In municipal development circles, the approach is known as the pursuit of a "creative economy," a term made popular by Richard Florida, a University of Toronto professor, in his 2002 book "The Rise of the Creative Class." Even as some skeptics worry that the approach is being oversubscribed, the "creative economy" is a buzzword in town halls and state houses.

Governor Deval Patrick has named a creative economy liaison, is creating a program to provide financial aid to towns seeking to expand their cultural offerings, and pushed through tax credits for filmmakers who work in Massachusetts. Maine's governor convened a statewide creative economy conference in 2004 and has provided grants to communities, while the Vermont Council on Rural Development, a nonprofit, has been charged with leading creative economy brainstorming sessions in towns across the state.

Advocates say New England is uniquely poised to employ the approach because of a high concentration of "creative workers," those who produce innovation and ideas, rather than widgets or services. According to the New England Council, an alliance of businesses and academic institutions that promotes economic growth, 2.1 percent of New England's population qualify as creative workers, compared with a national average of 1.5 percent, owing to the region's wealth of cultural and educational institutions.

Some say Hardwick, sandwiched between the Lamoille River and hillsides, had its moment of arrival a few weeks back when the opera house was packed to capacity on a Sunday afternoon for the visiting Vermont Philharmonic Orchestra's performance of Giuseppe Verdi's overture to "Nabucco," among other offerings. Yet in a small town, population 3,200, momentum can be hard to maintain. The woman who led the opera house's restoration moved away in June and repairs have slowed. A landmark building that the town wanted to turn into artist studios is tangled up in real estate negotiations. A facility that was to house start-up artists is now being looked at for specialty agriculture products.

Still, some say perspective is required: Just a decade ago, Hardwick was the butt of jokes across Vermont.

"It feels like the little town that could," said Shari Cornish, a rug designer and a regional sales representative for a Boston company who moved to Hardwick with her husband, an actor, three years ago from North Carolina. "That's something I look for in a place where I am going to plant myself."

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