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Small Towns Program supports economic development from within

May 20, 2023 - Economic development comes in many shapes and sizes. The programs and practices that are effective in a bustling urban setting may not have the same impact in a quiet rural town.

HandMade in America of Asheville, has built a successful model for strengthening the local economies of Western North Carolina’s small towns. Judi Jetson, Director of the Small Town Revitalization Program, said that the program is designed to create economic vitality in small communities.

“What’s interesting is that North Carolina has more than 450 towns with populations under 10,000 people; more than 75% of our towns are small,” said Jetson. “In western North Carolina, because of our geography, we have a much higher percentage than that. HandMade chose to work with towns so small that they have no town planners and the counties don’t have economic development people…our Small Towns Program is really unique in the country in mobilizing all-volunteer organizations to undertake community improvement efforts.”

Originally conceived as a means of supplementing the declining manufacturing industry in the region with a thriving tourism industry, the program helps small towns create new revenue streams and jobs. “The program was also designed to make sure small towns are interesting and attractive places for visitors to go after they’ve been to Asheville, or on their way here,” said Jetson. “So the question was: How do you create other opportunities for visitors to have a mountain experience that’s authentic and worthwhile? And that’s what we aim for.”

HandMade takes an asset-based planning approach – focusing on what the town has, rather than on what it lacks – to develop a strategic economic development plan. “Some of their assets have to do with the history and the culture of the town,” said Jetson. “Others have to do with the physical beauty of the region. Other times, the assets are oriented toward historic buildings or unique businesses. Most of all, in a lot of towns, the assets are the people and the skills that they bring to the task.”

In the case of Chimney Rock, the challenge was to capitalize on the tourism that Chimney Rock State Park brings to the town, and the obvious asset was the river that runs parallel to Main Street. “[The river] is flowing primarily across private land,” said Jetson, “so what they ended up having to do was create access for visitors to be able to get to and enjoy the river. The first set of investments went toward making two public access points for the river walk. Before, you had this lovely river that you could only see while you’re driving down the road.”

The addition of the Rocky Broad River Walk drew the town’s attention to other necessary projects: constructing parking lots and restrooms for visitors to use. More recently, they have wrapped up construction of an amphitheater for public concerts and events.

HandMade holds meetings twice a year for all of its participating small towns to attend and discuss successes and challenges that they’re facing. “There’s an important part of learning that goes on with people-to-people contact,” said Jetson. “It’s about relationships, it’s about being able to pick up the phone and call if you hit a snag. You’re not likely to ask for help from a stranger. We’re all in it together, and together is how they make the changes needed in their town.”

As part of HandMade’s broader mission of growing handmade economies through craft, the Small Town Revitalization Program applies to where artists live and where they sell their work. “Eighty percent of the craft galleries in western North Carolina are in small towns,” said Jetson. “A lot of the craft artists in our region who are nationally known live in small towns. They choose the small towns as the place they want to be. Most of them grew up somewhere else and came here. They’re attracted by the emphasis on craft in the region, the value that’s put on craft, and the beauty of the area.”


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