June 3, 2024 |Susan Elks

Connectivity and Conservation in Gateway Communities

gateway community is defined as one that borders or is near publicly owned lands such as national and state parks, forests and waterways. Public lands are rich in resources that offer economic benefit, individual and public health improvements, and educational opportunities to their gateway communities, providing value to visitors and community members alike. Stewarding the natural resources found in and around those public lands, while intentionally connecting those resources to the community, can promote positive outcomes for all.

The Conservation Funds engages with community organizations, local governments and businesses to advance strong economies while preserving these crucial natural resources. A fundamental part of our collaborative efforts is the Appalachian Gateway Communities Initiative (AGCI), which supports gateway communities in responding to opportunities and challenges created by proximity to public lands, and fosters economic opportunity to generate lasting health for people and place.

Developed in 2007 through a collaboration between the Appalachian Regional Commission, National Endowment for the Arts and The Conservation Fund, ACGI has helped more than 70 gateway communities across Appalachia expand tourism and other economic opportunities through technical assistance, training workshops and seed grants. The program has strengthened leadership in communities that are in proximity to public lands across 150 counties and their natural, cultural, and recreational assets and amenities. We are grateful to Hargrove International for their continued support of the program, and to the many speakers and team coaches who bring their expertise to AGCI.

Seven community-based teams from across Appalachia are currently taking part in ACGI’s 2024 cycle, which includes multiple webinars, a three-day workshop in northern Alabama and individual coaching support. Teams are guided from asset identification through action planning to implementation, and the program is currently advancing toward the final phase – awarding seed grants specific to the teams and their self-identified projects.

Teams at ACGI 2024 came from Buckeye Hills, Ohio; Deep Gap, North Carolina; I-22 Region, Alabama; Little River Canyon, Alabama; Murray County, Georgia; Patrick County, Virginia; and Waverly-Piketon, Ohio. Photo by Chris Flores.

Collaboration is an essential element throughout all levels of the ACGI program. At the April 2024 workshop in Decatur, Alabama, the seven teams brought together almost 40 public land representatives, elected officials, business and tourism representatives, civic leaders, arts representatives, and recreation and natural resource interests. Joining the teams through webinars and at the workshop were national and regional experts on asset-based economic development, destination stewardship, trail development, arts and culture, natural and recreation resources and community branding. One team member said that the highlights of the workshop were “collaboration, idea sharing and the ability to travel away from our communities for time together to dream and plan.”

Another participant shared that ACGI workshop allowed their team to “truly build an idea from the ground up, and look toward the coach for guidance on more high-level questions and potential challenges that we predict we may face.” And others remarked that the activities “really dialed us in on projects and ideas, and kept everyone engaged and realistic on goals.”

Photos by Chris Flores.

Arts and tourism play a special role in AGCI, with its focus on how to foster engagement and create experiences between people and place.

“A great reason why we are so interested in this program is because of our belief that art truly can play a role in building a better quality of life for not only visitors but for residents.”

- Chander Grooms, Tourism Development Director for the Pike County Chamber of Commerce

The workshop included a walking tour of Decatur’s main street and a farm to fork dinner in nearby Athens that highlighted the strength to be found when arts, agriculture, history, and entrepreneurs intersect. Participants also had the opportunity to visit the Jesse Owens Memorial Park while immersed in the extensive history, natural wonders, arts, and music that North Alabama offers. One participant shared that they “left inspired by the work they are doing in both downtowns.”

Our walking tour of Decatur was led by local business owner Dede Quarry. Photos by The Conservation Fund (left) and Chris Flores (right).

Just as each gateway community’s geography is unique, so are their individual assets and challenges. While some teams had been working together for years with specific projects already in mind, others may be gathering for the first time. The action-planning process threading through the course is designed to work with teams regardless of the specific starting point and advance their ability to successfully collaborate and implement action around the challenges and opportunities facing gateway communities.

It was wonderful to engage with the teams at this year’s ACGI workshop. They brought energy and great questions, and the program provided a structure-to-action plan along with creative ideas and examples to inspire them. We look forward to seeing each of them advance solutions to economically lift their regions while caring for their land, residents, visitors and natural resources.

Keep an eye out for project implementation news from these communities and find out more about implementation by past participants through ARC. You can also hear directly from participants and experience our recent workshop by watching this video:

Written by

Susan Elks

Susan Elks, AICP, is The Conservation Fund’s Balancing Nature and Commerce Program Manager. Through her work Susan advances collaborative planning and placemaking that balances conservation and economic opportunity, and builds lasting results for vibrant communities and their environmental and cultural assets.