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Volume 24, Number 7 — July 2017

$16M Artisan Center coming to Abingdon

By Debra McCown | Bristol Herald Courier | December 28, 2007

*** This story appeared in the Bristol Herald Courier on Saturday, Dec 08, 2007.***

ABINGDON, Va. ? A $16 million artisan center will break ground on the
campus of Virginia Highlands Community College as early as this summer,
project leaders say.

Heartwood: Southwest Virginia's Artisan Gateway is the facility's recently
chosen name, and organizers say it will help drive tourism for the region.

"They can see the product in the artisan center, but the ones that are very
interested in how it's made, they have to go on the artisan trail," said
Diana Blackburn, executive director of Round the Mountain, Southwest
Virginia's artisan network. "You're going to have to venture off the
interstate to be able to see those things."

Blackburn said one of the center's goals is to give visitors a glimpse of
life in the far reaches of Southwest Virginia, and entice them to drive
around the region, spending money in the small communities along the way.

Others go so far as to say the center is symbolic of a new regional
identity ? one that capitalizes on Southwest Virginia's unique culture
rather than chasing lost industrial jobs.

"The artisan center itself has come to be seen as pretty much symbolic of
this new economic strategy for Southwest Virginia," said Todd Christensen,
deputy director for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community
Development. "It's being designed to be the most unique and interesting
building in the entire region."

Doug Covington, project manager for the building's design, said the
center's look was inspired by the old barns around Southwest Virginia.

"It sits on a very prominent site next to the interstate, and it'll be very
visible," Covington said. "So the idea is for it to be an intriguing shape
and form set against the hillside for people to say, 'Hey, what is that? I
think I'll get off the interstate here and go see what that is.'"

Rob Jones, project manager for Heartwood, said it was just awarded $6.1
million from the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization
Commission.

The amount is in addition to the $3.3 million already earmarked for the
project by the Virginia General Assembly and $500,000 apiece contributed by
the town of Abingdon and Washington County, Va.

Jones said plans are still in the works for the balance of the project's
financing. He said once it's operating, the center will be self-sustaining
but most likely will not turn a profit.

"It's not about running a for-profit center," Jones said. "It's about
increasing the economies and the livelihoods of artisans in the region."

He said a recent market study estimates in three years the facility will
have 270,000 annual visitors and will generate $2.2 million in revenue each
year from the sale of crafts, food and beverages.

The total economic impact for the region is estimated around $28 million,
Jones said.

"We are no longer isolated by our geography," Jones said of Southwest
Virginia. "We are not isolated by our economic circumstances anymore. All
of that's changed and is changing."

Christensen said the artisan center represents the "widespread economic
restructuring" of the region in the form of tourism marketing and downtown
revitalization efforts across Southwest Virginia.

He said economic development and tourism officials have realized in the
last few years that to escape the boom-and-bust cycles of industry, they
need to put their eggs in the basket of tourism ? and to draw people into
the region, they need to package Southwest Virginia as a single destination.

"If I'm coming from Cleveland [Ohio] and I hear about the Crooked Road
[music trail], to me, Floyd and Galax and Abingdon and Norton, they might
as well be 10 miles apart," he said. "They're not coming so much to go to
Galax or to go to Floyd or so much to go to Abingdon. They're coming
because they want to come to Southwest Virginia and experience this
culture."

He said people around the region have begun to accept, if grudgingly, that
Abingdon is the region's cultural capital ? but in that role, Abingdon also
has a responsibility to market the rest of the region to the world.

"Southwest Virginia has some of the most distressed communities, and a lot
of its economy has been greatly adversely affected by the closing of the
textile and the furniture plants, the decline of the coal industry, the
decline of tobacco," Christensen said. "[Part of my mission is] trying to
help that region get a new identity that's based on its culture."

He said a group of 15 people from tourism-related departments met in
January 2003 to discuss the goal; five months later he brought together a
group representing most of Southwest Virginia's localities to talk tourism.

"With all the things that people see of the problems with development ?
like global warming and tainted food and tainted environments, a lot of
things in Southwest Virginia ... are really ahead of where a lot of the
country wishes it could go," Christensen said. "It didn't lose things that
the rest of the country lost."

He said marketing the region's artisans is another part of the same picture
that includes the Crooked Road, the region's growing network of hiking and
biking trails and a slew of downtown revitalization projects in the
region's communities.

Other area venues also plan to draw from and work with the artisan center,
including the William King Regional Arts Center not far from where the
artisan center is to be built.

"We look up on the artisan center as being a cultural sort of visitors'
center that's the hub of the many-spoked wheel that includes other centers
like the arts center here," said Betsy K. White, director at William King.
"We have other places like this all around the region, and the artisan
center will encourage people to go out and visit all of those different
places."

She said the arts center is completing plans for a $2.5 million "artisan's
courtyard" which will be set in the hillside in front of William King to
showcase artist studios, which is also scheduled to break ground in the
summer.

Blackburn said after a year and a half of planning, the Heartwood project
is starting to come together.

"When they walk in the door, they're going to have the feel of Southwest
Virginia craft and culture," Blackburn said. "It's going to be reality
before we know it."