Sustainable Jersey: Artists and creative powerhouses roll up their sleeves to cultivate a sustainable community

SJ frenchtown 1

What are the unique qualities that make your community feel like a vibrant place to live?

In Frenchtown, a volunteer group set out to document and map the creative people, places, events, businesses, and resources throughout Hunterdon County in an effort to build a creative network. Their effort yielded far more than the 179 initial entries on the first Creative Assets Inventory in Hunterdon County.

“I think we’re really on to something,” said Leigh Marino, the chair of the Hunterdon County Creative Team and a local artist. “There is a buzz about this work. We’re optimistic. It feels like we are building an important movement that our community needs.”

About 150 people converged on March 11 at ArtYard, a contemporary art center in Frenchtown, to connect and celebrate the launch of the inventory at a kickoff event
organized by Sustainable Frenchtown and the Hunterdon County Creative Team, partners in the project.

Creative community building does not happen overnight

SJ Frenchtown The idea for the project took form at a green team meeting two years ago. Volunteer members of Sustainable Frenchtown were dividing up the tasks for the group’s Sustainable Jersey recertification application. When the Sustainable Jersey Arts and Creative Culture suite of actions was proposed, Leigh volunteered to work on the effort.

Here’s how they did it:

The first action in the Sustainable Jersey Arts and Creative Culture category is: Establish a Creative Team. After meetings and discussions, the members of Sustainable Frenchtown decided to broaden the creative team to represent the whole region and appointed Leigh as the official representative and coordinator. Leigh hosted the inaugural meeting in her backyard, and the team is now called the Hunterdon County Creative Team. It includes artists, local business members, community groups and members of the Frenchtown Green Team (Sustainable Frenchtown), Holland Township Green Team, Alexandria Township Green Team, Kingwood Township Green Team and Lambertville Green Team.

Conducting an inventory of all things creative

Frenchtown Borough has a long history as a haven for artists and creative entrepreneurs including writers, musicians, chefs, performers, fine artists and designers. In order to understand the full capacity of the cultural community, the Hunterdon County Creative Team decided to work on the Sustainable Jersey action: Creative Assets Inventory.

Sustainable Frenchtown was awarded a $10,000 Sustainable Jersey grant that was used to secure consultants to help guide the inventory process and provide technical expertise.

Project consultants Susan Mania and Iana Dikidjieva from Environmental Connection, Inc., were hired. They have considerable experience in the arts, community-engaged asset mappin,g and the creative community in Hunterdon County.

“This is my community, so it has been a total joy to do this work,” Susan said. “The process has been a true grassroots effort. First, we worked with the core group of stakeholders to define what a creative asset is and then we provided ideas on how to categorize them. After we had direction, we got started on the outreach and built out the online inventory site.”

The Hunterdon County Creative Team separated the directory into seven categories:
Sj Frenchtown 51) Creative People-Cultural Professionals and Artists
2) Cultural Industries and Businesses
3) Creative Places-Cultural Facilities, Natural/Urban Spaces, Potential Resources
4) Cultural Institutions, Nonprofits and Educational Organizations
5) Community Cultural Associations
6) Cultural Events and Festivals and
7) Supporting Resources.

SJ Frenchtown 3_n

Then the team embarked on conducting the inventory. The idea is that when you know what you have, who the creative people are, and where they work and play, you will have a good foundation to build a creative network, Susan said.

“It was hard explaining the concept of a creative inventory in the beginning,” she said. “We had to rework our pitch and messaging a few times to get people interested; at first community members thought we were selling something. The idea of doing an inventory of our creative assets is so different that the project took some nurturing to get it moving.”

“This was a ‘boots on the ground, knock on doors’ operation. We had to go door to door to our friends and neighbors and get them excited,” added Susan.

A mobile kiosk was placed in select stores like coffee shops, a bookstore and hardware stores in Frenchtown and window decals were placed on store windows. Each kiosk had a computer with information about the inventory and provided an easy way for people to enter their information into the directory on-site.

“The window decals brought local awareness and involved the businesses,” Leigh said. “The business owners know their customers and they directed the right people to our online kiosk. Our business owners became invested in the project and showed us that the community cares about what we are trying to do.”
SJ Frenchtown 4What’s next?

When asked about the next steps, Leigh said, “We’re not sure what the future of this project looks like. It’s like we discovered a seed that we’ve planted and have been nurturing. Now that seed has sprouted and we’re all wondering what kind of plant it will be. Not knowing the answer is part of the excitement.”

After the event, project organizers have made connections with the Hunterdon Arts and Cultural Commission and the County Economic Development officer in addition to fielding requests from groups in New Jersey and beyond who are interested in replicating the project. Leigh added, “We hope that other local surrounding green teams and creative groups will build on what we are doing. My advice to them is don’t get discouraged. The right people will show up when you need them. I know our creative community will take our project to the next level. The more people that join, the more powerful it becomes.”

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