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Kentucky's Creative Marketing Boosts Artisan Businesses

by Carl Hoffman

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Sarah Culbreth and Jeff Enge may not look like engines of the new economy—Culbreth is wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and sweatpants, her husband an orange T-shirt and beard. Both are bent over potter's wheels, turning lumps of clay into graceful pitchers and candlesticks in their studio, Tater Knob Pottery and Farm. But looks can be very deceiving: Tater Knob is, in fact, a thriving business and a case study in successful modern craft marketing. Culbreth and Enge count customers throughout the United States and in 34 countries, and last year sold seven tons of pottery, some through the business's Web site. And even though finding the studio can be a challenge—it's tucked on the edge of winding Wolf Gap Road in the Red Lick Valley, about ten miles outside of Berea, Kentucky—on a busy day, hundreds of customers will pass through the studio.

Kentucky has long had a substantial crafts industry (craft sales in the state totaled $252 million in 2000), and Berea is known as the folk arts and crafts capital of Kentucky. Craft businesses in Berea are "a significant piece of the area's economy," says George Clark, vice president of the People's Bank of Madison County. "And it's not just from the sales of crafts, but also [from] people coming in to stay at our hotels, eat our food, and buy our gas."

But business is a broad term. Craft businesses in the area range from long-established concerns near downtown Berea to sole proprietorships operating in artisans' homes in distant hollows. Most have never had a Web site; and, for most, finding a market can be difficult. Two projects in eastern Kentucky—Kentucky Artisan Heritage Trails and the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea, both undertaken with support from the Appalachian Regional Commission—are working toward two goals: helping artisans market their wares, and attracting tourism dollars to the region.

Showcasing Kentucky's Best

The idea for an artisan center in Berea began in 1996, after a tornado wreaked havoc on the town. Local leaders met to discuss ways to bring in more tourists to reinvigorate the city's economy. "There's a huge amount of traffic on I-75, and we figured there was a need to create some presence there to bring people in," says jewelry maker and former city councilman Ken Gastineau. With help from Cheryl Moorhead Stone, executive director of the Center for Economic Development, Entrepreneurship, and Technology at Eastern Kentucky University, local leaders and artisans held a three-day design retreat, and the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea was born. "A half-dozen people will tell you that it was their brainchild," says Stone, ". . . it's that shared collaboration and ownership that a project like this needs." As the center developed, the partnership expanded to include state government.

Opened in July 2003 as an agency of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the center stands within sight of I-75 at exit 77. It's an airy, modern building of Kentucky limestone, showcasing the best in Kentucky arts and crafts in 26,000 square feet of gallery, retail, and tourist assistance space, complete with café and meeting rooms. While the center—which houses works by over 500 Kentucky artisans—sells something for every budget, it abounds in high-end craftsmanship: Turned wooden bowls. Custom-made furniture. Hand-forged lamps. Raku pottery, blown glass, jewelry, hand-sewn quilts, and whimsical, nearly life-size folk art figures.

"Our goal is to exemplify Kentucky's quality products and experiences," says Victoria Faoro, the center's executive director, "and people are bowled over by the range of fine work being made in Kentucky . . . there aren't many places where people can see it all gathered together." Every Friday and Saturday the center hosts an artisan demonstration, and throughout the center works for sale are displayed with biographical information about their makers. In its first year of operation, the center grossed $1 million in sales. On a busy day, 1,000 people will pass through its doors. "It's amazing the number of people who go through there," says wood turner Chris Ramsey, who makes turned wooden hats and bowls at his studio in Somerset, "and they're selling a tremendous amount of my stuff. The center is buying everything I can make."

The center is not only a destination, however, but also a gateway to artisan shops and studios throughout the state. "We're an artisan referral program," Faoro says. The center's staff regularly send visitors to nearby businesses like Tater Knob Pottery and Farm and also provide referrals, putting customers directly in touch with artisans across the state. These referrals often lead to orders for a major piece of furniture or a custom set of dinnerware. People driving along the highway may stop in for a quick visit, get a taste of Kentucky's crafts, and budget more time and money the next time they pass through. "The full impact is clearer," says Faoro, "if you think of the center as a statewide enterprise rather than just as a single retail space."

Artisans and shop owners in town agree. "I wouldn't have considered opening this shop if it weren't for the artisan center," says Terry Fields, owner of Top Drawer Gallery. Fields bought a building in Berea's Old Town area and in April 2004 opened his shop, which sells crafts made largely in Kentucky. "You don't stop at an interstate exit without a service station, and the more service stations there are at an exit, the better," says Fields. "The same is true here. The center brings a lot of tourists in who wouldn't be here otherwise, and the more of us there are here, the better. Together we become a destination, and that benefits us all."

"Without question, the artisan center has increased the business we have in our studio," says jeweler Ken Gastineau. "There are simply more tourists coming through because of its presence on the interstate. And yet, at the same time, the center is consistently my best wholesale customer."

Mapping Cultural Destinations

Eastern Kentucky University's Center for Economic Development, Entrepreneurship, and Technology developed the Kentucky Artisan Heritage Trails (KAHT) to propel craft-buying tourists beyond Berea and to help the state's disparate artisans market themselves. "You have all of these little studios that are a long way from the highway," says Chris Cathers, KAHT program manager. "They have no signage and little marketing experience, and the question was always, how do you give them the same opportunity as the [studios] right by the interstate?"

The KAHT trailhead begins on a Web site that identifies over 400 Kentucky cultural destinations, including artisans' studios, bed and breakfasts, and restaurants, divided into one-day driving tours. For $50, each participating business gets a Web page highlighting its story and products (and technical help putting it together), and a sign identifying it as a KAHT-sanctioned location. In exchange, the business must agree to be open to visitors at least two regularly scheduled days a week. "Seventy percent of them have never had a Web site," Cathers says, "and this is an easy, affordable way for them to participate in a marketing umbrella that forces them to clearly identify who they are and what they do—to tell their stories."

It's hard to measure exactly how many people are visiting the trails, but the KAHT Web site has over 4,000 unique visitors a month, and 47 percent of KAHT participants say their customers have mentioned it—participants like Carolyn Carroll of Carroll's Quilts and Crafts in Drip Rock, Kentucky, who started helping her mother quilt when she was seven and completed her first quilt by herself when she was a teenager. For years Carroll made quilts for clients out of her home. Now she has a KAHT Web page and a sign inviting visitors into the "rustic old house," as she calls it, that serves as her studio, which is open to the public every Sunday and Monday (and receives clients by appointment on other days). "It's helped my business a lot," she says. "A lot of people are coming by the shop now." Perhaps even more important, she says, "When I go to shows, people recognize me from the Web and are more apt to buy."

Crafts are objects made by hand, and both the artisan center and the trails market not only the products, but also the people and places behind them. While some artisans may be just beginning to recognize the value of that approach, potters Sarah Culbreth and Jeff Enge have it down to a science. Both Berea College graduates, Culbreth and Enge operated their business out of Berea for its first 12 years. They took a big risk when, in 1992, they packed up and moved it ten miles out of town "to the middle of nowhere," Culbreth says. "But we've been able to survive because we're real people making quality products and offering the public the opportunity to see us and interact with us, every day, year-round, sleet or snow . . . that's our secret to success. When people are looking for something to do in the region, they come out and find us." Over the years they've amassed a mailing list of 7,000 names. For Tater Knob Pottery and Farm's 25th anniversary celebration in 2004, Enge and Culbreth offered wagon rides, all-you-can-eat ice cream, and pizza baked in a wood-fired oven that Enge built in the front yard. You don't come to Tater Knob just to buy a piece of pottery, in other words, but to experience a bit of Kentucky's heritage. And it works: "We've got motor coaches full of elder hostel groups and schoolkids that come by," says Enge, "and they stand here 30 deep while Sarah throws pots, telling them where the clay comes from and how it's made, and then she'll make them sit down at the wheel. Then when they make coffee in their handmade Tater Knob coffeepot, they remember that experience."

Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
July 2005