In one week, Rensselaer has five world class street artists coming to exhibit creativity that Jasper County has never seen. Five individuals who’s background, experience, travel, and livelihood spread across the globe. There is one question that I’m going to get from all of them. “What is Rensselaer’s identity?”
What defines a community? This is a conversation I’ve had in my head for years. Maybe not simply “what”, but “when” and “how”.
My degrees say psychology but almost 20 years beyond formal education, my head and heart are marketing and sociology.
Since living in Rensselaer and planting my livelihood here, I’ve always thought about “what defines us?”. It’s unfair to compare our community to more urban settings or European towns and cities I’ve been to but at the same time, why can’t I?
There is no reason for a tiny city like Rensselaer to create an identity that can attract traffic and tourism through that said identity.
Let’s look at why and how places “become”. St. Louis (Mississippi River), Chicago and Milwaukee (Lake Michigan), New York (Hudson bay), Cincinnati (railways), Cleveland (lake whatever)...
Too big? Ok. Lafayette (wabash), Valparaiso (really smart people) ...now fill in the blanks with South Bend, Ft. Wayne, Bloomington, Columbus (IN), Muncie, etc, etc… the answers get simple. Location, location, location.
Where is Rensselaer on the map? It took a wedding years ago to make me realize. The bride was from Cincinnati and the groom was from Milwaukee. They wanted a middle ground. Yep. Rensselaer. So I looked at the map. What’s in the middle of Merrillville and Lafayette? What’s in the middle of Chicago and Indianapolis? What’s in the middle of Milwaukee and Cincinnati? Rensselaer is literally in the middle of the north Midwest universe defined by one of the most traveled highways in America. Our downtown is literally jogging distance to that potholed goldmine of I-65.
I am 100% convinced that with effort and vision, there would be incredible growth in two key factors:
Resident expansion from surrounding community with higher SES (socioeconomic status)
Local and regional tourism inclines.
If these two components can happen to our community, the city has more revenue in the annual budget for more city employees and infrastructure upkeep and growth. This would be more desirable than a city chasing its own tail.
Senator Hershman spoke a few years ago at rotary in eMbers explaining why we don’t see growth in industry and manufacturing. His reason was reliable in the form of lack in human resources, we simply don’t have the proper workforce locally. Hell, I can’t even find a cook for the station.
Though he didn’t try to formulate a solution, a big piece of the answer is simple; The quality of life quotient.
Business and people flock to areas where the quality of life quotient is greater. Looking at the engaged theory, there are four domains in assessing the quality of life: ecology, economics, politics, and culture. Break it down even further to ideas, beliefs, creativity, recreation, identity, engagement, well- being, health, etc…
Aside from surveys that provide qualitative and quantitative data, where does Rensselaer fall in these categories? It’s relatively pointless to examine without an identity.
Typically, identity happens organically. Farming is an organic identity (all pun intended). Jasper County is home to strong, rich land with wonderful, experienced farmers. This is definitely an identity. This identity, however, only relates to five percent of the population. What about the rest of us? How does this inspire residence and tourism? It doesn’t. This means there has to be complementary identity. There needs to be something tangible, relatable, excitable, inspirational, and marketable for there to be purpose in identity.
Can public art be an identity? It can. But it doesn’t define Rensselaer. Determining who we are as a community needs a holistic approach. There are great strides being made in the parks department with the Parks for People campagne. That’s huge as it promotes movement and dynamic/kinetic energy. But where is that energy going? From park to park? What distinctions and point of difference are there in the experience of movement? This is where art comes in. Creating a scattered approach of points of interest increases mobility. In simple terms:
We are here, we see this.
Let’s go there and see that.
Now let’s go there and see that.
Mobility of points of interest creates a collection of experiences. A collection of experiences creates exploration. Exploration creates patronage and sales in local business. Increased sales in business creates a higher probability of more business and hence, growth.
Let’s go back to that kind of a big deal highway. Travelers look for hidden gem deviations from weary driving. Sure there’s the unhappy meal chicken mcnugget and go crowd, but that’s not the demographic that fits in this concept. It’s the exploratory demographic. Many travelers aren’t about point A to point B. It’s about the journey and the experiences they encounter before they get to the destination. We get it daily at the STATION. Travelers who don’t want fast food but want a local experience. Boom, welcome to Rensselaer. Please, explore and stay an hour or two. On the way back, stay at one of our hotels and explore more. Simply put, this is tourism. This is dollars in our community. This is sustainability and growth.
Can identity be forced? Yep
Who creates the identity? Whomever the heck needs to
What? Whatever the community can buy into
Discuss and create an idea of identity.
Create committee and budget for identity
Create infrastructure for that identity
Develop components of said identity
Promote identity locally
Market identity regionally
Rinse, lather, repeat
As much of an advocate of public art and creativity as I am, I’m not going to necessarily say it will be our main identity. That’s for smarter people to figure out. Instead, when these artists come and go, art will become woven into the fabric of our downtown and plant the seed of future endeavors of creativity in public spaces and become an essential component to who we are as a community identity...whatever that is.
Information about the artists work and whereabouts will be published on social media between Mainstreet Rensselaer (visit rensselaer on the book of face), Economic Development, Rensselaer Parks, Prairie Arts Council, Jasper Foundation, eMbers, and so on. Please take the time to be part of this. During the first week of July - explore, find the artists, observe, give a hi-five, steal a can of spray, whatever. See Rensselaer, Be Rensselaer.
Oh ya, and don’t forget to get tickets to our WHISKEY AND WHISKERS event supporting the Friends of the Animal Shelter. TICKETS AND INFORMATION BELOW (CLICK THE BOX)