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Frog Hollow directors launch fund-drive to keep center viable

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Directors of the Vermont State Craft Center at Frog Hollow (VSCC) are working aggressively to raise money to help the 37-year-old, nonprofit arts organization navigate some choppy financial waters heading into its key holiday sales period.

The VSCC currently hosts galleries and a wide range of arts education programs at its locations off Mill Street in Middlebury and Church Street in Burlington. But this year has been tough for Frog Hollow, which this summer closed its Manchester branch in reaction to sagging revenues and a slumping economy. And the economy has only gotten worse this fall.

“We are finding ourselves in the same situation that a lot of retail and sales-based businesses are finding themselves in,” said VCSS Executive Director Deidre Healey. “We’ve been hit as hard as any Main Street business and our focus right now is finishing the 2008 season as best as we possibly can.”

With that in mind, the VCSS is seeking to raise $50,000 in donations before the end of January. That effort could be greatly boosted by the potential offer of an anonymous, $100,000 matching grant the VCSS is now trying to secure.

Frog Hollow leaders met last week with local legislators and state and county economic development officials. Healey said she and her colleagues made a request for $75,000 in state aid. They were told it’s unlikely such a request could be honored, in part due to the fact that the state’s economic aid programs are geared toward for-profit businesses.

“We are looking for any support the state can give us,” Healey said. “But we have not be able to secure any of the financial support we have needed from the state.”

Robin Scheu, executive director the Addison County Economic Development Corp., said her organization has been able to offer help other than direct finances to the VSCC — such as analysis of the organization’s business plan.

Frog Hollow leaders have been asking for a lot of advice — from all corners, including lending institutions. The organization is also considering some restructuring moves to make it stronger and more viable during the years ahead.

“We’re looking at having conversations around the table about what Frog Hollow is going to look like five, 10 and 15 years down the road,” Healey said.

And it’s important that Frog Hollow remain intact and vibrant in the years to come, Healey said. The organization represents more than 300 Vermont artists and has generated millions of dollars in sales of artwork since it was established during the early 1970s.

In an effort to help itself, Frog Hollow will begin marketing itself more aggressively, particularly this holiday season, and hold some special Friday evening openings in December. Healey noted that December sales generate as much as 30 percent of the organization’s annual income. The VSCC has an annual budget of approximately $1 million.

Recently elected VSCC board member Krista Conley Lincoln is optimistic Frog Hollow will weather the current economic storm. Echoing the words of Rahm Emmanuel, the Democratic Congressman who is slated to be President-elect Obama’s chief of staff, Lincoln said tough times often make for prime conditions in which businesses can make themselves stronger for the long run.

“Rahm Emmanuel said ‘a crisis is a terrible thing to waste,’ and I am of the same mindset,” she said.

She added the VSCC needs to “re-brand itself,” enhance its visibility in the community and solicit new ideas on how to sell itself and its products.

“It’s an opportunity for ideas and incremental investment,” Lincoln said.

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