Redefining Rural Economic Development Through Outdoor Recreation
In a recent article in BETA Mountain Bike Magazine author Graham Averill described the town of Old Fort’s decline this way:
"This is how a town dies. The first thing to go is the jobs. The plant that employs 30 percent of the town shuts down. Everyone knows it’s coming but it still feels like it happens overnight. The other plant on the other side of town goes next. Textile jobs move overseas. Then the people disappear, longtime residents migrate to other towns for work, and the shops wither away. The ice cream store, the mechanic, the drug store ... they all close one by one, replaced by vacancy signs. The plant sits empty, tarps covering holes in the roof. Kids throwing rocks bust out the windows of brick warehouses. Storefronts are boarded up. Some people hang on, but the population shrinks to triple digits, down from a few thousand. A skeleton crew really, just enough people to keep the lights on. There are a few jobs to fill. McDonald’s. Security at the old plant to make sure the local kids, bored and nothing to do but look for shit to break, don’t take it over."
A town’s decline is easier to describe than its resurgence. We have written accounts of the past to help narrate an all-too-familiar story in Appalachia, but the future is opaque and unwritten. Yet, what happens when a diverse group of community leaders come together to reimagine a town’s future, by drawing on a diversity of dedicated and vested people in the present armed with a patchwork of less-appreciated pasts? A vision begins to come into focus that serves as an outline for new stories. The present is where that future’s outline, that vision, is daringly imagined on the basis of telling new stories about the past—different, equitable, and more inclusive stories—that honor diverse voices and experiences. These are new future-focused storylines that everyone helps to craft.
That is exactly what is happening in the small Southern Appalachian town of Old Fort, North Carolina. A team of visionaries made up of community organizers, public land managers, community development leaders, business owners, archaeologists, outdoor recreation leaders, elected officials, and foundation partners are building a new model for rural community revitalization centered on equitable development, local assets, and a shared future vision.
The Old Fort project, spearheaded by the Catawba Vale Collaborative (CVC), is redefining rural economic development through outdoor recreation. This means identifying outdoor recreation assets that have the capacity to spur significant economic development, positioning marginalized communities to take advantage of this growth from the beginning, leading the project with a push for workforce and affordable housing, and storytelling to enrich locality, memory, and identity through community-engaged archaeology.
The CVC is a ground breaking partnership whose mission is to comprehensively redefine rural economic development in Appalachian communities. The primary organizations making up the Collaborative are Camp Grier and the G5 Trail Collective, Eagle Market Street Development Corporation, The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), and Texas Tech University. Camp Grier’s G5 Trail Collective is a non-profit partnership with the US Forest Service (USFS) to build and maintain trails on USFS public land. Eagle Market Street Development Corporation is a not for profit, but for public benefit, community development corporation whose mission is to develop people, property, and businesses in communities of color across North Carolina. Finally, UNC-CH and Texas Tech bring community engaged archaeology strategies to the project that speak to the deep history of pre-contact Native American societies, remnants of colonial settlement, civil war era groups, railroad and timber development, mining, National Forest lands, African American communities, and others whose lifeways have left recoverable traces in and around the National Forest. The overarching goal is to leverage natural riches in a sustainable way, position marginalized communities to benefit from the resulting economic growth, and help the community retell their stories in a way that uplifts all residents and redefines a community’s sense of place.
This work has been happening in Old Fort for two years and the community is now launching into a new era of growth that creates a braided and equitable economic ecosystem from the beginning. Recently Camp Grier’s G5 Trail Collective was awarded a nearly $500,000 grant by the Dogwood Health Trust to build Phase I (7 miles) of a 42-mile trail project on USFS land surrounding the town. Eagle Market Street Development Corporation was awarded $280,000 to purchase a small business incubation space downtown to proactively position small businesses from communities of color to take advantage of these new opportunities. The partnership has also submitted a grant to the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina to fund Phase I of a novel interpretive archaeology project to use the trails to help reframe and retell the community’s story in collaboration with American Indian and African American community partners.
The Research Laboratories of Archaeology (RLA) at UNC-CH and Texas Tech University are key players in this last initiative. Led by Dr. Jennifer Gates-Foster (Assoc. Prof. of Classics and Archaeology, UNC-CH) and Dr. Christopher Witmore (Prof. of Archaeology and Classics, Texas Tech), the archaeology team is supporting the CVC’s exploration of the diverse pasts in the project area by developing innovative interpretive materials that will support broad community engagement with the newly-built trails and supporting archaeological work in the project zone. Led by Dr. Heather Lapham (RLA, UNC-CH), they are also building collaborative partnerships with American Indian stakeholders and exploring ways to diversify participation in the Old Fort community’s collective storytelling.
Other partners in the project include the Town of Old Fort, the McDowell County Tourism Development Authority, the McDowell Chamber of Commerce, Gateway Foundation, People on the Move Old Fort, McDowell Technical Community College, and local businesses like Kitsbow, Hillman Beer, and Mill Creek Properties. These partners, along with the CVC have undertaken the audacious goal of creating a just community that is healthy, economically durable, and grounded with an inclusive sense of place.