Monday, April 29, 2002

Conference focuses on arts-based economies in Appalachia

Associated Press Writer

        RALEIGH, N.C. — In Buncombe County, visitors pay hundreds of dollars to work in someone else's herb garden, cook in someone else's kitchen and then eat a seven-course meal. In Yancey County, methane gas from a former landfill fuels potters' kilns and glassblowers' furnaces.

        And throughout western North Carolina, tours of farms that grow produce as varied as daylily and bonsai are so popular that a new guidebook of 500 sites is available.

   Handmade in America:
   National Endowment for the Arts:
   Appalachian Regional Commission:
        These destinations are examples of the arts- and cultural-based economy that delegations from across Appalachia will discuss Monday and Tuesday at a conference in Asheville. About 330 people are expected at the conference, titled “Building Creative Economies: The Arts, Entrepreneurship and Sustainable Development in Appalachia.”

        Originally envisioned as a conference for the 13 states of Appalachia — Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia — the program has instead attracted people from about 30 states. They include representatives from the Adirondacks of New York, the Sierra Nevada of California and the Cascades of Oregon.

        “We've touched off a recognition nationwide of what mountain economies and communities are facing,” said Becky Anderson, executive director of Asheville-based Handmade in America, one of the conference sponsors.

        The traditional economic engines of mountain communities — mining, timber, furniture and textiles — are in a decline, Anderson said. The conference is about “what do you do in their place and how do you build on it?”

        “I think this is the beginning of a movement. We've got a great culture, a great heritage. We're talking about the handmade object, music, even the venue of storytelling.”

        Handmade in America, begun in 1994, is a nonprofit that serves 23 western North Carolina counties by helping them develop economies around crafts.

        Craft sales in the United States range from $12.3 billion to $13.8 billion annually, according to a 2001 study commissioned by the Craft Organization Directors Association and done by the Center for Business Research at Appalachian State University in Boone.

        Western North Carolina is home to more than 4,000 artisans, including more than 700 full-time craftspeople who earn an average of $35,000 a year, the ASU study indicated.

        The conference came about due to a partnership of the Appalachian Regional Commission, — which focuses on the economic conditions of the region — and the National Endowment for the Arts. They looked at “how to build an economy around the heritage and culture of a region,” Anderson said.

        They organized a conference with seminars on topics that include conserving local heritage and tradition, marketing and distribution, and incubating arts businesses. State delegations include artists, cultural specialists, business people, and philanthropic and government leaders.

        Among them will be Ron Daley, campus director of the Knott County, Ky., branch of Hazard Community College and one of the leaders of a plan to develop an arts-based economy in the town of Hindman, population 900.

        Those plans include a Kentucky School of Craft, an artisans' center, a business incubator for artisans and classes at HCC's Knott County campus. The artisans' center was dedicated in December, while the groundbreaking for the craft school will be held next month.

        As a result, one man is building housing in the Hindman area because of the students and faculty the school will attract and the craftspeople who will work in the artisans' center, he said.

        “I think, for whatever reason, in Appalachia we haven't believed in ourselves so much,” Daley said. “We have let other people do some thinking for us. We know a lot of people have attempted to define our region from outside the region.”

        One of the many advantages to an arts- and culture-based economy is that it can weather almost any disaster, even the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Anderson said. For example, in every month since the attacks, hotel sales in Buncombe County have been better than the same month a year earlier, said Laura Chase, spokeswoman for the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

        While that could be partially explained by a greater number of hotels, the large increases — such as 28.7 percent more sales in February 2002 than in February 2001 — cannot, Chase said.

        She interviewed people in early October on the Blue Ridge Parkway, asking them why they decided to vacation there. Most said something like, “We planned a trip elsewhere and changed our plans to come to a place we know from our childhood, that we know makes us feel good,” she said.

        These are the people whom Anderson calls “serenity seekers” — who make Handmade in America's craft trail system such a success. The trail system guidebook, which has sold 40,000 copies, includes 500 galleries, private studios, shops, and bed and breakfast inns. Shops and galleries on the trail have increased their income 29 percent over the past four years, Anderson said; for individual craftspeople, the increase is 24 percent.

        Handmade learned through the craftspeople that their gardens were popular with visitors, so it published an agri-tourism guidebook that focuses on farms, gardens and countryside trails.

        “We're teaching a lot of (artisans) how to stay where they live and how to earn a good living on the land that is there,” Anderson said.

        In Yancey County, for example, Handmade is one of the sponsors of The Energy Exchange, where potters' kilns and glassblowers' furnaces operate on the methane gas of the nearby closed landfill. The methane also runs the boilers that heat greenhouses where native ornamental plants are grown.

        “The ultimate goal of the project is not only responsible use of landfill gas, but also to create jobs and economic development to help build community,” said Terry Woodruff, project manager at the Energy Exchange, adding that he expects to attract about 2,000 visitors a year.

        And at what is literally the end of the road in Graham County, North Carolina's most remote county and with one of the state's highest unemployment rates, three couples live in homes near a pasture. One couple makes pottery and cheese, another runs a bed and breakfast, and the third makes beeswax candles imbedded with native dried plants and flowers.

        Karen Mickler is the potter and her husband, Bruce DeGroot, makes the cheese for Yellow Branch Pottery and Cheese. They moved in 1980 from a college town in Iowa to Graham County, where DeGroot and his family purchased a 50-acre farm.

        Several hundred people visit their shop each year, Mickler said, and demand for their work always outpaces supply.

        “It's a lot of work, and we love it,” she said. “We love the physical work and being out of doors. And we meet some wonderful people who come here. It works for us.”

        The three couples “make a good living,” Anderson said. “They like what they do and they like the place they live in. I don't know a better combination than that.”


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