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HandMade Communities

by Fred D. Baldwin

The shops and many of the houses of Chimney Rock Village, North Carolina, line a steep, three-mile stretch of state highway. The road winds more or less alongside the fast-flowing Rocky Broad River, in sight of the huge mountainside stone outcropping that gives the village its name. People have lived in this Rutherford County village since the days of the Cherokee Nation. The hundred or so people who now call it home are dependent on tourism and want to tempt nature-loving travelers to linger.

The town of Mars Hill, in Madison County, grew up around and took its name from Mars Hill College, which was founded in 1856. Unlike the residents of Chimney Rock Village, who have always been eager to attract travelers, many of Mars Hill's roughly 1,600 residents felt their lifestyles threatened by plans to build an interstate highway exit ramp less than a mile downhill from their Main Street. Although they want to attract tourists, they also want to avoid becoming part of a gas-and-go economy.

Both Chimney Rock Village and Mars Hill are now in a process of planned change, but they're not so much reinventing as rediscovering themselves. They're two of six communities in the Asheville area participating in the Rural Small Town Revitalization Project sponsored by HandMade in America and including a leadership development component supported by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

The histories and traditions of these towns play a large part in that rediscovery process. The coalitions brought together by HandMade in America for economic and community development planning include not just the expected representatives of government, education, and business, but also local artisans and artists.

"It sounds like we make and sell baskets," says Becky Anderson, HandMade's executive director. "We were never intended to do that. We first thought about ourselves in terms of economic development, but that quickly became community development. Civic change comes about from working with people's culture."

Funding an Idea

HandMade in America grew out of a 20-year strategic plan developed in 1994. Anderson, then with the Asheville Chamber of Commerce, was one of several principals whose ideas gave it shape. The area's craft community was undervalued, she says, and artists and business leaders initially eyed each other with mutual suspicion. Nevertheless, the Pew Charitable Trusts' Pew Partnership for Civic Change "funded an idea," an organization that (in the words of the HandMade in America mission statement) would "celebrate the hand and the handmade" as part of a strategy "to preserve and enrich the spiritual, cultural, and community life of our region."

Economic considerations are important, of course. A 1994 study of a 20-county area in North Carolina found that handmade objects were contributing approximately $122 million a year to the area's economy. Over $70 million of that total came from retail shops and galleries; almost $26 million came from full-time professional artists and artisans; and $23 million came from part-time, second-income producers. Anderson refers to the area's 4,000 craftspeople as an "invisible factory."

In 1996 HandMade published a 120-page guidebook, The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina, which lists hundreds of galleries, private studios, and shops, plus historic inns, bed-and-breakfasts, and restaurants serving traditional regional cuisine. (The guide is soon to be updated.) In the course of planning tourist routes and tours, the leaders of four towns—Chimney Rock Village, Mars Hill, Andrews, and Bakersville—discovered a common interest in downtown revitalization. They also found that they were too small to hire professional planners or to participate in the North Carolina Main Street Program.

In response, Anderson sought and secured support from the Kathleen Price Bryan Family Fund and later from ARC for what would become the Rural Small Town Revitalization Project. The money goes for planning help and training; a modest amount also goes to project grants that must be matched locally. (The project recently added two towns, Robbinsville and West Jefferson, to the original four.)

The idea is cooperation, not competition. A rule for the project's grants is that participating communities sink or swim together; that is, if even one town is unable to raise its matching money, no one gets grants. In one instance, Anderson says, a community offered an extra $500 to cover another community's apparent inability to make its match, a remarkable gesture that, happily, turned out to be unnecessary.

Ray Rapp, mayor of Mars Hill and director of marketing and communications at Mars Hill College, describes how his community's planning began: "When they turned the first shovelful of dirt to build that exit ramp here, people snapped to attention." Indeed. Almost half of the town's 800 households replied to a long opinion survey. "There were 37 or 38 questions," Rapp recalls. "People not only took time to answer those questions, but some wrote thoughtful essays."

The survey and subsequent meetings yielded 47 recommendations, many connected with downtown revitalization. One of the most creative involved beautifying the once-dreaded exit ramp and the road that connects it to the town. The North Carolina Department of Transportation was persuaded to contribute $120,000 for landscaping, and another $50,000 is expected this fall. For nine-tenths of a mile, visitors will approach Main Street along a curving drive lined by trees, flowers, and flowering shrubs. Soon they'll be greeted at the head of the hill by the planned Madison County Visitors Center.

That at the sign on the center will read "Madison County"—and not "Mars Hill"—is significant. According to Rapp, noncommunication and even outright hostility between Mars Hill and the rest of the county date back well into the past. Now, he says, community leaders across the area are both talking and cooperating.

Mars Hill hopes to grow by making the town especially attractive both to retirees and to what Rapp calls "mobile entrepreneurs" drawn to the Asheville area. But the town's residents have rejected the notion of growth at any price.

"Our police chief calls eight or ten elderly or sick people every morning just to make sure they're okay," he says. "If we don't want to lose that, we've got to plan very carefully."

Finding a Theme

Chimney Rock Village's planning process involved looking at other small resort towns, including some that had turned themselves into something resembling a theme park.

"We finally came to realize that we already had a theme," says Peter O'Leary, mayor and owner of a general store and an outdoor recreation outfitter. "Most of our buildings were built in the 1920s and 1930s and have the look of that period. We decided to enhance what was here rather than pick something artificial."

In general, Chimney Rock Village merchants are replacing stocks of inexpensive souvenir items with items aimed at people who love the outdoors and who have upscale tastes. In addition, the village will try to make the most of its natural assets.

Barbara Meliski, owner of three shops, has served as the village's representative in meetings of the communities participating in the Rural Small Town Revitalization Project. "Our meetings are like a roundtable discussion," she says. "We can lay everything out—good, bad, and ugly. We've gotten so many ideas from the other towns!"

In fact, the towns have contributed more than ideas to each other.

In 1996, when a flood on the Rocky Broad River dumped debris on yards and streets in Chimney Rock Village, sister towns not only sent money and prayers but were instrumental in enlisting help from students at Warren Wilson College, located east of Asheville. Some 340 of them cleaned the main roadway, picked up six dump-truck loads of debris, and collected rocks for a riverside walkway now under construction along the river.

That walkway, a planned replacement of an aging bridge, a small riverside picnic area already completed, and another park-like access point to the river are all part of a long-term survival strategy.

"One of the things people would ask," says O'Leary, "was, 'How can we get down to the river?' There was no way because everything was private property. Economically, this will be a boost by keeping visitors in town longer."

The four other communities participating in the Rural Small Town Revitalization Project have also been hard at work. In Andrews (Cherokee County), town leaders have created a master landscape plan. By the end of 1997 the town had attracted just under $1 million in private investment, leading to four business openings, 12 building renovations, and ten facade improvements. New jobs total 13. In Bakersville (Mitchell County), a quarter-mile Cane Creek Walk is under construction. Four new businesses are open, and nine new jobs have been created. In Robbinsville (Graham County), 75 people turned out for a town cleanup. Almost $200,000 has been invested in four building renovations and three facade improvements. In West Jefferson (Ashe County), several renewals are under way. Public investments of $185,000 have been more than matched by private investments totaling well over four times that amount.

Altogether, HandMade in America reports that the Rural Small Town Revitalization Project has generated about $450,000 in public funds and almost ten times that sum in private investment. Volunteers have contributed more than 14,000 hours. The net job gain is estimated at 40.

Preparing for New Challenges

Each success brings new challenges, however. The projects that are emerging from the revitalization program will increasingly require sophisticated management skills, and rural small towns can seldom afford to hire a professional staff to translate their goals into reality. The result is a heavy reliance on volunteers, many of whom have little or no experience in community planning or project management.

A leadership training grant from ARC will address this issue.

"The ARC training," says Kim Yates, project director of HandMade, "will be about how to put big projects together in small towns with few resources. They'll learn management skills and how to divide the pieces up among themselves."

Anderson remains confident that economic growth won't distract the towns from their original vision—learning how to be part of a larger and fast-changing economy while remaining good places to call home. The way HandMade begins meetings with development-oriented communities illustrates the organization's overall approach. Anderson says staff and consultants open the meetings by asking three questions:

"What are your sacred places?" (These are places that residents do not want to see cheapened.)

"Tell us where you don't want any visitors." (The idea is that a community, like a household, can be hospitable to strangers without letting them take over the house.)

"Where are the heritage sites that you want to share?" (Only after a community-building spirit of trust has been established does the focus shift to "attractions.")

That kind of attitude resonated with people in Chimney Rock Village and Mars Hill. Part of what they want is for the world to recognize that Chimney Rock Village was almost certainly a sacred place for Native Americans and that Mars Hill College took its name from a hill in Athens from which the apostle Paul once preached to skeptics. Anderson sums up the process with a quote from Wendell Berry's book What Are People For? True community building, Berry writes, must be done "not from the outside by the instruction of visiting experts, but from the inside by the ancient rule of neighborliness, by the love of precious things, and by the wish to be at home."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.