It's a huge goal: make Southwest Virginia famous all over the U.S. and the world for its natural beauty, for its unique culture and for its friendly people. But that's what Heartwood and the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation is all about.
"The Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation started in 2008 to help develop a creative economy in Southwest Virginia and to help communities transition from industries that are declining: textile, furniture, tobacco and mining. Our focus is trying to work with communities and help them look to the future and how they can use the region's assets and natural and cultural assets to renew and revitalize themselves and attract businesses and tourism. The showplace for this effort is Heartwood," says Todd Christensen, executive director. The foundation serves as an umbrella organization for The Crooked Road, "Round the Mountain and Appalachian Spring.
Heartwood is designed to serve as headquarters for the various organizations working to create a creative economy in the region and as a destination for visitors.
"Heartwood is meant to attract people off the interstate," Christensen says. "They can come into this place and discover there's another world they didn't know about."
The showplace offers a wide selection of juried crafts, a restaurant, and a coffee, wine and craft beer bar. It is one of the major venues of The Crooked Road and hosts music jams every Thursday night, youth concerts and a Youth Music Festival. Heartwood also hosts conferences and workshops on marketing, downtown development and resource management, giving community leaders a chance to pull together across the region to accomplish common goals. It also holds events such as the Southwest Virginia Wine Festival and the Outdoor Expo.
The Outdoor Expo ties into Appalachian Spring. Appalachian Spring links communities with outstanding outdoor opportunities throughout Southwest Virginia and helps them locate and provide services that outdoor enthusiasts need and want.
The program connects the Blue Ridge Parkway, Appalachian Trail, New River Recreation Area, Clinch River, Breaks Interstate Park, High Knob and the Daniel Boone Trail. It seeks to promote those areas as tourist destinations.
"We help them cross promote and raise awareness that they're all in the region and connect the trails, rivers and parks to communities. Several towns along the Clinch River are gaining awareness that the river is a tourism draw. They're revitalizing their downtowns and adding businesses that serve the outdoor recreation industry and enable the towns to act as base camps," Christensen says.
The town of Damascus, Virginia, recently received $1 million in funding to help revitalize the downtown area to help it become more focused on its role as an Appalachian Trail destination and to encourage more businesses to locate there.
One of the foundation's most recent projects is developing a branding package for Southwest Virginia. "This is the first time the region has been promoted as a destination itself," Christensen says.
The new branding will be used in the Virginia Tourism Guide next year. Christensen says an example of why they felt this was necessary is because some people hear about The Crooked Road, but aren't quite sure where it is. "Some people think it's in West Virginia," he says. "We're trying to get people aware of Southwest Virginia."
These efforts are working. "Tourism is up more than 50 percent since The Crooked Road started, and there has been a 100 percent increase in tourism-related government tax assets," Christensen says.
It isn't all about tourism though. "Tourism is the most immediate way to get people into the area," he says.
"Southwest Virginia's communities and counties are working together to create a new economy for the future based upon cultural, natural and human assets," he says. "This is making the region more well known and has increased tourism a considerable amount. It's all about the region, not a single building. We have a robust comprehensive strategy to help transition into a new economy and create new business and economic opportunities.
"New businesses are developing, and jobs and tax revenues are coming out of this. We are increasing the 25-34 year college educated population in the region and getting kids who left the area to come home," he says.
The plans for the future are to use Heartwood and all the foundation's programs to raise awareness of the region. As their website proclaims, "People need to say Southwest Virginia with the same respect and affection that they feel for Tuscany or the Napa Valley."
>> The Crooked Road's economic impact