November 29, 2019|By Eric Wuestewald| Community Development

How Hayesville, North Carolina, Transformed Itself

CCCRA worked steadily to promote, develop and uplift the places and experiences that residents and visitors could connect to—from their forests and sacred Cherokee sites to the music and heritage of Appalachia—all which contributed to new economic opportunities. Through community engagement and strategic partnerships, CCCRA’s work has led to the creation of 15+ miles of biking trails, the development of several Cherokee heritage sites and an annual festival, a complete overhaul of the town square and preservation of the historic Clay County Courthouse, and a summer concert series. Collectively, these concerts, festivals, trails and restoration projects have propelled Hayesville’s town center from largely abandoned to bustling—with new restaurants, two breweries and a boutique hotel underway. CCCRA’s programs and partnerships have leveraged each other, and as a result Hayesville is now a place where people connect with each other, the surrounding forests and their cultural heritage to build a thriving local economy.

We spoke with lifetime resident, local retailer and a director of CCCRA, Rob Tiger,about his experience living in Hayesville, his recommendations for running a small economic development nonprofit, and how Hayesville’s success can serve as a replicable model for other distressed rural communities. 

Eric Wuestewald: You were born and raised in Hayesville. How has the town changed over the years?

Rob Tiger: We had a pretty vibrant retail presence in town from the 1950s through the 1980s. Then they built highway bypass US-64, and that was the first big change. It wasn't so much that people in town moved. They just closed up shop and didn't reopen. The pharmacies, which were pretty critical to downtown, were bought out and then shut down. We were gaining quite a bit of traction before 2008, and then the recession pushed us back. It took a decade, but we’ve turned things around. We've gone from two eateries to five in about a year and a half. There's a lot more traffic downtown. There's a lot more vibrancy. 

I'm a fourth-generation Clay County resident and business owner in Hayesville. My grandfather had a keen interest in history and preserving it. He always told me, "If you live in a community, you need to know that you've got to give back. You can't sit around and run your business and go home.”

CCCRA Rob tigerRob Tiger owns and operates Tiger's Store and Chinquapin's Ice Cream and Soda Bar in Hayesville. Photo courtesy of Rob Tiger.   

Eric: Can you tell me more about that upturn?

Rob: A lot of our resurgence is a result of the CCCRA and its partnerships. We've developed a lot of partnerships, but one of the most critical has been with The Conservation Fund. We realized we had a lot of great assets, cultural and natural environmental assets. We just didn't how to maximize the potential out of that. It turns out that partnering with The Conservation Fund and its Resourceful Communities program was just a really good fit for what we wanted to do.

Resourceful Communities really understands partnerships and rural economic development.  Their first investment in our organization was in 2008, providing funding for one of our small heritage parks.  Over their 10+ year commitment to CCCRA, they have supported both our work (providing funding and project planning support) and the organization itself (for example, helping us build a stronger Board, leading us through strategic planning and helping us leverage new partnerships).

The Conservation Fund also provided support that will allow us to add 5 miles to the Jackrabbit Mountain Bike and Hiking Trail, which now averages nearly 3,000 users per month. 

CCCRA bike 1Visitors and residents alike enjoy the Jackrabbit Mountain Bike and Hiking Trail that the CCCRA and Southern Appalachian Bicycle Association partnered in building. Photo by Nathan Burton.

The Fund also helped us with construction of our Cherokee Homestead exhibit. It's been a great thing, not only for education, it's also been a good economic boost. It gives folks another reason to come to town, and a heritage festival held there the last few years has drawn 500 to 700 people to that single event. It really makes a difference from the standpoint of ringing cash registers in town on that day. 

CCCRA CCDP 60A9191CCCRA has developed and built a Cherokee Homestead Exhibit, which hosts the annual heritage festival pictured here. Photo by David Smart.

Eric: Hayesville also took on restoration of the Clay County Courthouse. Can you tell us about that?

Rob: For an economy that's primarily tourism, historic buildings like the Clay County Courthouse matter. You just try to take advantage of your cultural and natural assets and transform the economic landscape.

I've been trying to save that building since 1990, so it's been a long time coming. It was in considerable decay by the time we got the restoration started. The CCCRA always considered it sort of the hub for the whole county. It's absolutely great to see the Courthouse up and operating as a unique community and event venue.

CCCRA courthouse 1Workers repair the roof during restoration work on the courthouse. Photo by Bob Hanson.

Eric: I know you're a musician, can you tell me more about the music festival and the songwriting festivals you host in partnership with Peacock Performing Arts Center?

Rob: We started sponsoring a Friday night concert event in the early 2000s. In the early days we would have 150 to 250 people at an event. At our last show, I think they estimated the crowd at 1,100 people. The concerts bring into town people who have never been here. 

Our songwriters series began about five years ago as an idea with a couple of people in the theater and it has continued to grow. We sold out three of the four songwriters workshop events this year. 

CCCRA courthouse promotion
What are some of the big takeaway lessons you have learned through this experience? 

Rob: The first thing you need to do is develop partnerships. We tried to partner with anybody and everybody, including the Town of Hayesville and all the nonprofits here in town—the Lion's Club and the Rotary and Historic Hayesville Inc. and the communities and schools. Then we expanded out to The Conservation Fund, The North Carolina Arts Council and others. None of our success would be possible without community outreach and volunteer nonprofits and partnerships—especially The Conservation Fund and Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.

I think the good thing about our group is that we always had people who just refused to quit. Everybody kept a pretty optimistic attitude. When you've been at it for 25 or 30 years, there can be dark moments. You worry about failing, but when you have people who have been there and done it and they can guide you through these rough spots—it's the difference in making it or failing. 

Eric: What are your hopes for the future?

Rob: I still look at our economy here as being very fragile. I hope that all of Hayesville’s restaurants can co-exist and thrive. We're a tiny little town of about 375 residents and when you add up all the eateries within a mile radius, it's pretty substantial now. I hope that we can add two or three more retail shops on the square and give people a reason to come into town and stay all day—just hang out, wander around the shops and eat at one of the restaurants. I hope we can continue to preserve the ambience of our town.

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Resourceful Communities
recognizes that this type of work takes years of time and investment. We appreciate the funders who have supported this long-term effort, including the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, USDA Rural Community Development Initiative and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

Resourceful Communities uses a triple bottom line of environmental stewardship, social equity and sustainable economic development. Rather than addressing these community challenges as isolated issues, this integrated approach nets sustainable, comprehensive improvements. More importantly, Resourceful Communities values trusted relationships with community partners, which means investing time, assistance and funding in community organizations. 

Written By

Eric Wuestewald

Eric is the Digital Content Marketing Manager for The Conservation Fund. He leads the development, writing and editing of strategic content for the Marketing and Communications teams to reach key audiences and partners through blogs, social media, web content and more. Prior to this role, he was the Marketing and Communications Specialist for the Fund's Conservation Services programs, supporting communication and outreach strategies for projects which promote environmental preservation, economic development and social justice.