September 10, 2019|By Kendra Briechle and Julie Graham| Community Development

Stronger Opportunities in Appalachia through Gateway Communities

America’s public lands are full of vast landscapes and pristine wilderness. While many of these sites have been protected for generations to come, the “gateway communities” adjacent to these natural wonders often struggle economically despite their rich cultural and tourism opportunities. The Conservation Fund has always believed that environmental and economic success should go hand-in-hand. Helping our gateway communities succeed exemplifies this belief. 

Since 2007, The Conservation Fund’s Conservation Leadership Network has worked to expand tourism, the arts and other economic development opportunities in Appalachia's gateway communities through its Appalachian Gateway Communities Initiative (AGCI). Generous support from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has resulted in developing and strengthening partnerships in more than 100 Appalachian communities. 

The AGCI has delivered several programs within the 13-state region of Appalachia that stretches from Southern New York to Northern Mississippi—including regional and place-based action planning workshops, a newly developed advanced course, community assessments that recommend sustainable tourism opportunities, and seed grants that help build capacity and partnership. The courses help communities identify their natural, recreational, and community assets and find opportunities to grow their potential.
regionmapThe Appalachian Region—depicted in this map in white—includes all of West Virginia and parts of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The Region is home to more than 25 million people and covers 420 counties and almost 205,000 square miles. Map and information from ARC's website

Julie Graham of the Middle East Tennessee Tourism Council is a vigorous advocate for connecting conservation to the arts, the economy and communities. Kendra Briechle, the Conservation Leadership Network's Manager for Community and Economic Development, spoke with Julie about her work across four separate AGCI courses—where she served first as a coordinator and participant, then as a practitioner and a speaker. Here’s what Julie had to say about sustainable tourism, her AGCI experience, and attracting new business opportunities in small towns.

Kendra Briechle: How did the AGCI courses affect your work?

Julie Graham: I worked as CEO and President of the Union County Chamber of Commerce from 2007 to 2014. The AGCI courses introduced me to new partnerships, new roles, and broader opportunities for the community and the region. 

The “new” partnerships were with agencies in the public and private sectors that do not usually intersect. The AGCI emphasizes bringing together communities. Networking with other communities and learning their stories and challenges taught me to see opportunities that I might not otherwise have seen.

Kendra: Can you tell me about the Union County, Tennessee project and how it came together?

Julie: In 2011, Union County applied for and was selected to host a three-day AGCI workshop to identify community assets as a springboard to on-the-ground change. Building up to the application, local governments in the county questioned whether investing in tourism was worth it. Most of the economic focus looked outward to landing a large industry in the county. 

The Conservation Fund led us through a several-month planning process, culminating in the three-day workshop, and the realization that this was “beyond tourism.” The program focus was on working together to identify what was unique and special about Union County, and what the community valued, first, then using that to diversify economic opportunities. 

The workshop engaged wide-ranging partners—public land managers, the county, the Chamber and tourism experts, business leaders, and cultural and heritage advocates—to help participants set differences aside and instead focus on areas of agreement and shared “ownership” of the benefits. Together the participating teams realized that the tiny county’s best assets were Norris Lake and their country music heritage. [Before Norris Lake wasn’t viewed as “being part of Union County” since the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) owns the land.]

9 10 19 BrianStansberryRiver in Union County. Photo by Brian Stansberry.

Kendra: What were the major takeaways of that project?

Julie: Post-workshop we embraced our need to more deeply understand and document our tourism assets, by broadening our scope and inviting the expertise of the state parks, historic society, musicians and music heritage specialists. 

One big outcome was the creation of the Cradle of Country Music. Union County embraced their musical heritage and viewed music as critical to the community. Now when any festival or event is held, Union County always ensures it includes live music. The county further holds a yearly Opry, held at the high school, with five events each summer. 

Another outcome was the installation of two Civil War trails in the area to recognize the county’s role in the Civil War—a story that had been lost over time, despite the long-standing tension between the Northern and Southern troops across Tennessee. 

9 10 19 IMG 20190811 141944081 HDRSignage in Maynardville, Tennessee, welcoming you to The Cradle of Country Music.

Kendra: In 2014 you moved to a more regional role. How did that develop?

Julie: I joined East Tennessee Quality Growth (ETQG) as executive director. The organization wove community and economic development parameters together across 16 Appalachian counties. In that role I brought in one of the AGCI workshop’s regular speakers, Ed McMahon, Charles E. Frazier Chair on Sustainable Development and Environmental Policy at the Urban Land Institute, and former Vice President of The Conservation Fund. 

Ed introduced the area to “placemaking,” that is, to “know who you are, preserve your story, and create places that people want to visit.” We recognized that while many long-term residents wanted to stay in the area, we needed to invest in and welcome others to visit, and even to stay. This resulted in one of the area’s first outdoor recreation businesses, a small kayaking business launched by a former resident from Maine. These actions, along with entrepreneur and workforce development, help locals see opportunities. 

Kendra: How did you make the connection between conservation and tourism?

Julie: Since 2016, I’ve led the Middle East Tennessee Tourism Council, which launched a partnership with the National Geographic Society on sustainable geotourism (tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place) to capture the Tennessee River Valley’s history and heritage through an interactive Website. The goal is to bring 125 counties under the brand. 

9 10 19 Screen Shot 2019 09 10 at 4.31.09 PM

Given that tourism is one of the best economic opportunities for Appalachian communities, caring for the resources is critical. We’ve learned that tourism: 1) provides a first impression of community; 2) creates opportunity for entrepreneurs to start businesses, especially with broadband; 3) puts a filter on how you see your community—you need to look at things through “tourism eyes.” Communities can attract visitors and residents by valuing their sense of place and the resources.

A great local example is Morgan County, adjacent to the Cumberland Plateau. The county wanted more people to come to the town of Obed to hike. Initially the community had no benches, no motorcycle parking, no bike racks, and no funds for tourism. Now the county is providing tourism funding. This has attracted smaller industries like a microbrewery with locally grown hops. Now the community’s visitors can climb, paddle, camp, eat, and hike. In the words of the National Geographic Society, this is “a story worth telling.” 

Kendra: What is your biggest piece of advice to other gateway communities? 

Julie: Take time to listen and learn. Be all in for the asset inventory, as it is the single most important tool to develop a tourism work plan. The lesson for me was that there were place-based assets that did not seem viable as attractions. Seeing these assets through a different filter allowed me to capitalize on something I otherwise would have not seen. 


Register now for our upcoming national course on Balancing Nature and Commerce in Rural Communities and Landscapes held February 11-13, 2020 at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, WV.

Similar to the Appalachian course, but open to participants across the country, this 3-day workshop is designed to help teams of 5-7 people from rural communities work together, find common ground, and develop an action plan to implement back home. The course focuses on economics, community character, natural resources, and partnership skills that generate new ideas and help partners build common ground—the key to making successful communities. Participants will hear from inspiring speakers, examine case studies from past participants, and learn about the latest trends in outdoor recreation, asset-based economic development, new business opportunities, and ways to maintain their unique local culture while strengthening their community’s future.

The deadline to register is December 16, 2019.