The one that got away?
ITVFest, after a successful two-year run in Manchester, is considering other locales for its October festival, and seeking a fairly significant outlay of cash — $250,000 a year for five years and $200,000 up front, for a total of $1.45 million — to grow what it hopes will become an economic development machine and independent TV content pipeline as well as a
yearly festival. An announcement is due soon.
The organization says it's keeping its offices here, and remains committed to putting on smaller events at times the region could use an influx of visitors. But this is a fact: Having a signature event that draws more than 1,000 creative people to Manchester is better than not having such an event, even if it's in October when it's already busy here.
The narrative from ITVFest executive director Philip Gilpin Jr. is that the non-profit needs financial support to hire staff and grow as a marketplace for independent television content, and as a regional economic catalyst. He's expressed some frustration about whether sponsors in town have sufficiently stepped up to financially support the festival, or whether a state desperate for workforce growth understands and supports what that industry could offer.
But this is also true: Manchester did welcome the festival with open arms two years ago, and a number of people have volunteered, helped with visiting productions, supported lobbying efforts, and contributed financially. The festival has in fact grown since it arrived, and every attendee we've talked to has said they felt welcome here. Those things didn't happen by accident.
A great deal of philanthropy takes place in Manchester, and it makes a significant difference in its quality of life. Think about it: Most rural towns Manchester's size would be happy just to have a vibrant community library or a well-equipped public park. Manchester has both.
And an arts center, two chamber music organizations, a museum dedicated to the Lincoln family, well-regarded independent and public schools, two nearby acclaimed summer theaters, and multiple human service organizations supporting those in need. Most of those entities are non-profit organizations; all benefit from grant funding; some also receive government support.
Manchester's streets are not paved with gold. There is want here, and many families live paycheck to paycheck. But Manchester surely does not rely upon the kindness of strangers. It has proven it can support quality of life initiatives that matter. We think this festival is worth such support.
Yet, it would seem that ITVFest is seen differently from other nonprofits by some potential benefactors. Perhaps would-be donors see economic development as a business or government role, rather than a nonprofit cause. Perhaps they only see ITVFest, the one-week festival, and miss ITVFest, the year-round arts organization that promotes TV production in Vermont and has given Burr and Burton Academy students hands-on industry experience.
No, ITVFest's attendees are not local. But this is a four-season resort town where the majority of residents moved here rather than being born here. And if it weren't for outside visitors, the Manchester we know would not exist. Does it matter if skiers or leaf peepers are Vermonters? Do we ask the bride and groom at a destination wedding to correctly spell "Vergennes" before they say I do?
Local taxpayer contributions are a thornier proposal. As town manager John O'Keefe pointed out, the up-front municipal contribution ITVFest is seeking would be about 20 percent of the town's local option tax revenue — the town's take of a 1 percent tax on hotel rooms, food, alcohol and some retail items. That's a big chunk of change and an opportunity cost dilemma pitting the festival against other municipal needs. And that would be true for nearly every Vermont town we can name.
This is where the State of Vermont should come in. So far, it hasn't.
ITVFest, the Vermont Production Council, local Legislators and would-be Vermont filmmakers have argued that state incentives or tax credits are vital to building a TV and film industry here. For better or for worse, that's how the industry's math works. But despite that testimony, Montpelier has yet to act. In October, the state's representative at an ITVFest panel said Vermont is too small to compete with its neighbors' generous financial incentives.
But incentives don't have to be the sorry spectacle we saw in the Amazon HQ2 sweepstakes, in which cities shamelessly wooed billionaires with tax breaks. All that's needed is enough goodwill to convince people who want to be here that we want them here, too, and that we're willing to put up some seed money in the name of supporting their vision. Those who "get it" will find a way to be here.
We've heard there have been "productive conversations" at the state level on supporting TV and film. That's nice, but it's time for Montpelier to put its money where its mouth is — if not for ITVFest, then for the next producer or entrepreneur who recognizes the star power in Vermont's beautiful landscapes and authentic people.
We urge the Scott administration to revive the state film commission, and direct it to invest in a TV and film production public-private partnership to attract educated, creative, ambitious young adults to the state, especially here in Southern Vermont.
We do not advocate a giveaway; the industry should be required to meet benchmarks proving that the investment is creating employment and growing its workforce.
The state's political and business leaders have been sounding the alarm about the graying of the state's population and its shrinking workforce. Their concern is justified: A recently released study showed Vermont while having the nation's fifth-lowest unemployment rate, is 50th among states in terms of workforce growth. Dead last.
A television and film production industry could do something about that. And the state has a legitimate role to play in economic development.
Gilpin has a vision and ambition, and we can understand his desire to get after the business of growing the organization by shopping the festival elsewhere. Perhaps it's too late, but we'd be remiss if we didn't ask for a little more patience. Non-profits such as ITVFest do take time to build, and that can be a frustrating process. But ITVFest's two years here, and the flashes of youthful creative energy that it has provided show the promise of a more interesting and vibrant future for Manchester as well as mutual benefit for all involved.
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