How to reinvent a rural economy? $100 at a time

The invitations, hundreds, had been sent out. Advertisements were played on the radio and in the Tribune of Elkin. And Jeff Eidson, 57, still wasn’t sure if anyone would come to the Explore Elkin launch in March 2017. At first, guests didn’t seem sure either, even as they walked through the door to the venue. Liberty event in downtown Elkin.

“People showed up and said, ‘I came because I didn’t think anybody else was coming, and I know you worked hard on that,'” Eidson recalled with a laugh. “When 300 people showed up that night, it was easy to get excited.”

At the time, a salvage company was bulldozing the closed textile mill in Chatham, once the town’s largest employer. Downtown Elkin had 17 empty storefronts. The population held steady at around 4,000 as large cities like Charlotte and Winston-Salem siphoned off residents. Asked by the mayor to lead a committee on reviving downtown Elkin, Eidson gave him six months. He had seen this kind of effort before, a firework of interest that inevitably faded into nothingness.

And yet, the crowd size at the Explore Elkin event grew and grew until there was standing room only. There was an energy that brought the Evangelist out of Eidson. At one point, he grabbed the mic and shared a poker metaphor. “We have to throw away our chips,” he said. “We need to get involved and commit to developing a common vision, and then take the steps necessary to achieve that vision.” He pointed to the red poker chip stickers they had handed out at the registration table, stuck on folders all over the room. “Now ask yourself the question,” he said. “Are you all? »

An Elkin Explorer hike. (Photo provided)

For Explore Elkin, being “all in” came with a specific request: to join Elkin Explorers, a group that would act much like a grassroots economic development cooperative. Instead of the typical strategy of soliciting local businesses for donations (although they do that too), Explore Elkin urges residents to put their money where they say it belongs by joining a group that sponsors and creates events for attract visitors and potential residents to the city. For $100 per couple, you could become an Explorer, or for $200, an Elkin Explorer Leader. Local doctor Skip Whitman stood up and offered to match all donations made that night, up to $10,000. “We raised $28,000 that night,” says Eidson.

What went well? Partly by courier, Eidson believes. Instead of focusing on failures, he ticked off hits and trumps that belied any cliche of “the struggling old mill”. Like the school system, ranked among the top five in the state. The Yadkin River which ran through the city. The trails that hundreds of volunteers had carved into the mountains, including one that connected Elkin to Stone Mountain State Park, North Carolina’s most popular. Location in the fertile Yadkin Valley wine country, the South’s answer to Sonoma. “I think people were hungry for an optimistic message and something they could believe in.” By reminding people how much there was to love, Eidson created the feeling that Elkin was on the verge of something better.

He also used the $55,000 the band raised over the past two years to create “something better” himself. Explore Elkin hired a local company, Cavu Marketing, to create a weekly events email because, says Eidson, “I got sick of hearing about something on Tuesday morning that went wrong. spent on Friday evening and which I would have liked to go to.” They donated seed money to events. For the Reeves Theater, a historic theater turned farm-to-table cafe and downtown music venue, Explore Elkin subsidized some performances and advertised others in state magazines.

A block party in downtown Elkin, North Carolina. (Photo provided)

The group also hosts its own slate of activities to liven up downtown, including monthly Food Truck Fridays, a Music at the Market event, and a biannual comedy show. “They do a lot of things that bring people downtown and indirectly help downtown businesses and help us,” says Debbie Carson, co-owner of the Reeves. They also don’t just focus on downtown. For the upcoming North Carolina Trail Days, an outdoor-centric event to be held the weekend of May 31, Explore Elkin has hired a coordinator.

In Eidson’s mind, the purpose of Elkin Explorers is primarily to “train our employees to be ambassadors”. Eidson himself protests, talking about strangers at gas pumps on I-77 near Elkin. “Where do you come from?” he asks. “What brings you here?” If they stay, he says three or four things he thinks are special downtown, “whether it’s Harry’s Place for the crab legs or the Reeves for the music.” I hope they will think about staying and coming back. If we can get 500 or 1,000 people to do that, we’ll have something.

To that end, Explorers periodically creates members-only events, including a Thanksgiving Dinner, a walk on the trails and a family float on the Yadkin River. According to Leslie Schlender, the city’s director of economic development and planning (and explorer), the morale-boosting effect is powerful. Participating in a fully-equipped river trip “excites everyone: “Wow, we live in this great place! We have a river right in our backyard and this fun community with people who are ready to get out there and enjoy it. Even though the money is used for events, there’s this community side to being an explorer because people see how great it is to live here.

Since the launch of Explore Elkin in the spring of 2017, the number of vacant properties downtown has dropped from 17 to 8. Anecdotally, “people in town are much more positive than they were before. says Natalie Eidson, 27, of Explore Elkin. “chaos coordinator” (and stepdaughter of Jeff). “I think people are interested in opening businesses and storefronts. You see new businesses coming in and renovations happening. They just seem more excited than they were before Explore Elkin.

The mill will not return to Elkin. And if they want to capture the location-independent escapees from the rat race, Eidson knows they need more market-priced housing. But his small-town, “I’m all for it” approach seems to make a difference to Elkin. “I think about that phrase a lot when I’m asked to do things in this community,” says Crystal Morphis, an economic development resident who runs her consulting business from a historic building in downtown Elkin. “Sometimes I’m asked to volunteer for a committee or help out at an event, and I’m like, ‘Am I totally okay? Am I really in? Yeah, I totally agree.

Melody Warnick is a freelance journalist who lives in Blacksburg, Virginia. She is author of This is where you come from, a book described as “a practical guide to loving where you live.”

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