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Playing to strengths to revitalize small towns

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I had the great pleasure of traveling to Asheville in May to visit HandMade in America and Mountain Housing Opportunities. During my time with HandMade, Interim Executive Director Elizabeth Russell and Director of Operations Donna Abranches took me to visit the town of Chimney Rock so that I could learn about their Small Towns Revitalization Program firsthand. We had the opportunity to tour the town with Mayor Barbara Mileski, and to discuss the projects that Chimney Rock has undertaken since becoming one of HandMade’s 13 Small Towns Program participants. In addition to being extremely informative, the trip was a photographer’s dream-come-true (you can see my pictures from MHO’s Ramp Festival here). Chimney Rock, for those who haven’t had the chance to visit, is a gorgeous town. It’s the type of place that makes you really grateful to live in North Carolina. So I wanted to share that experience with you through the eye of my camera, and give you the additional pleasure of hearing about HandMade’s Small Towns program straight from its director, Judi Jetson.

Erin: I learned a lot about the Small Towns program when I visited in May, but in your own words, what is the purpose of the program?

Judi:
The purpose of the Small Towns Revitalization Program is to create economic vitality in small communities. To help them stay alive and grow as much as they want to. 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. In western North Carolina, because of our geography we have even 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. Very few of them have full-time town managers. These are towns that are so little – only 150 to 2,000 people – that they don’t have full-time staff to do the work of improving the community to meet the needs of residents. So for these towns to be relevant, to be successful, to have viable business districts, to offer events and amenities that residents want, there needs to be a volunteer effort. And our Small Towns Revitalization Program is really unique in the country in mobilizing all-volunteer organizations to undertake community improvement efforts.

DSC_2273Erin: Tell me about HandMade’s asset-based approach to revitalizing small towns.

Judi:
Our asset-based approach has really been the hallmark of the program since started in ’95. Rather than focusing on what the towns don’t have, we focus on what they do have that makes them unique and we build on those assets. Some of their assets have to do with the history and the culture of the town. 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.

A story I’ve heard time and again is the story of people who grew up in town, they go off to college, find work off  – and they often use that expression, “off” –  and then they have to go somewhere else to find a job. When they get to retirement age they come home. So that’s good news and bad news. The good news is you’ve got highly educated and experienced people who come back and retire with time and interest to invest in their community. Sad news is that they had to leave for 40-50 years. At first I thought it was kind of bad when I saw this picture emerge, but what I realized is, that’s how it works.

In Hayesville, a Cherokee exhibit is being developed by volunteers, most are retirement age. And they’re building replicas of winter and summer houses that Cherokee Indians actually used to live in that are more realistic than those that you’d see in Cherokee. Not long ago, retired executives and business owners came out and made a canoe out of a fallen log. The people are the resource, as much as the physical and economic resources in the towns. They don’t just talk about what they want to see, they make it happen. And HandMade connects them with funders and other agencies that support these projects.

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Erin: What are some examples of the funding sources that your small towns use to finance these projects?

Judi: The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, the NC Rural Center, Blue Cross Blue Shield, the Conservation Trust Fund of NC, the Forest Service. Those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

Erin: What has been the strategy with Chimney Rock?

Judi: There’s two parts to the Chimney Rock strategy. The first is the river that runs through town. That is flowing primarily across private land, 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.

And then they had parking problems, so we helped them find money to build two parking lots. And then, of course, people need restrooms, so those came next. So the river was the natural asset, and for many years they worked on making that accessible to visitors while preserving as much of the natural beauty as they could and providing what people need. In turn, people stay longer and they spend money at local businesses.

In the last few years, they’ve been working on building an amphitheater so they can have public concerts, and for that they’re taking advantage of the gorgeous view of Chimney Rock. They used empty land adjacent to the town hall, smoothed it out, put in a pad where bands can play, put in electricity, and they just finished building the seating. They’re actually having a grand opening next Thursday [September 30, 2010].

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Erin: What sort of partnerships have formed between participants in the program?

Judi: We’re working on one partnership right now to help small towns that are working to renovate some major historic buildings. As you can imagine, this is a huge task for a group of volunteers. In Bakersville, they finished a $1 million renovation of a 100-year-old court house. It’s now a community meeting and education center. So they were doing everything from replacing walls, replacing floors, building bathrooms, fixing leaking roofs, to putting high tech equipment in there so they can do teleconferencing in rural areas. Two small town leaders responsible for that project are providing technical assistance to other towns in our program that have historic buildings to renovate.

There’s a historic courthouse in Hayesville where they’ve done the outside already, but now the inside needs to be done, and that’s a $1 million plus project. There’s an old church building that’s 14,000 square feet in Andrews. What’s interesting about that one is that a group of volunteers has been working on it for almost 25 years – renovating one stained glass window at a time. Volunteers painted the walls, volunteers updated the electrical system. They have shows and plays and events there, they’re actually using it, but it needs a major re-do.

In both of those cases, volunteers need help figuring out how to raise money, how to work with contractors, how to actually fill the facility with activities that will generate enough money to maintain it. So we help with all of these things through peer-to-peer training. HandMade serves as coach and facilitator, and we’re going to publish a how-to guide based on what’s being done in this project. That’s a new wrinkle I’m bringing to it. Because it’s not enough to just teach people, you need to also put it down in black and white and color! With pictures! And I think, in turn, that has to be coupled with training. It’s not enough to just do it with a publication.

There’s an important part of learning that goes on with people-to-people contact. It’s about relationships, it’s about being able to pick up the phone and call if you hit a snag. And I don’t think for most of us, you can do that with a book. So the other part of what we do at HandMade is we have regular meetings with all the small towns twice a year. We talk about successes and challenges, network, build relationships and help each other. 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.

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Erin: How does the Small Towns program tie into the broader mission of HandMade?

Judi: Eighty percent of the craft galleries in western North Carolina are in small towns. So the program connects to our mission in that retail sense. It also connects because 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.

The Small Towns Revitalization Program applies to where artists live and where they sell their work. It was originally conceived as a tourist recruitment strategy for economic development. As traditional industry continues to leave the region, which is primarily textile and furniture factories here, tourism becomes increasingly important in creating 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. 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.