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May 13, 2022

A Train Town in Transition

Tony Treadway

Train tracks going into wooded area of Unicoi County/Erwin TN

Creative Energy has been assisting tourism and economic development organizations build strategies and messaging support to brand their points of difference for more than a decade. This is a great example of pulling the elements of success together into a successful, cohesive strategy. Here’s a story centered on my hometown….

I was born in a rural county at the northeastern tip of Tennessee that was a railroad town. Today, the economic engine of an historic railroad is gone. But the story isn’t sad. It’s aspirational. This town is at a moment in its history where a visionary strategy can trade rail tracks for its next 100-year meal ticket.

The Clinchfield Railroad was built by a visionary named George Carter. He was the first to link America’s Midwest with the coasts of the Carolinas. It was one of the last great stories of building America’s greatness with rail technology. The Clinchfield was the first to traverse the daunting Appalachian Mountain range to fuel the last half of the country’s industrial revolution with high-quality coal. His choice of Erwin as its headquarters made the village a bustling railroad town in the 1920s.

Ties from a famed railroad lay as a symbol of the story of a town in transition
Ties from a famed railroad lay as a symbol of the story of a town in transition

Carter hired renowned architect Grosvenor Atterbury, known for creating Forest Hills, NY, to design his railroad town called Erwin. Today, the homes built for railroad executives maintain a unique beauty that is unique to the town. The homes saw multiple generations of families who lived and prospered within easy earshot of train whistles and the humph of train cars coupling. My uncle and a grandfather came home with a great paycheck for their family and the smell of diesel and coal on their clothes.

The town’s good times faltered after the Clinchfield was sold to CSX and national attention turned against coal, blamed as a principal culprit of climate change. The coal market quickly crumbled. CSX felt the impact and saw its coal-hauling business decline, causing to close its maintenance and operations facility in Erwin. Two decades later, the next generation of Unicoi County residents is emerging without dreams of becoming a railroad engineer or conductor. This town is moving on in a different direction.

Abandoned Clinchfield Railroad site with sign.
Remaining heavy equipment from abandoned Clinchfield Railroad
The only sounds from the famed Clinchfield Railroad are its dismantlement.

A recent visit to Erwin’s downtown offered the best snapshot of a town in transition. CSX is in the process of dismantling the 100-year-old footprint of this railroad town with rail ties stacked 20 feet high as scores of tracks are being ripped from the ground, clearing more than 160 acres of flat, usable land for future development.

Its classic Clinchfield Headquarters Building could become available to the town for a multi-use future. Next door, the railroad’s former passenger depot is now a beautiful county library. Yet, something on Main Street was even more insightful of Erwin’s future.

High school students were busy mulching green spaces along the town’s recently renovated downtown preparing for the town’s outdoor festival. I meet Michelle, who recently moved her family from Illinois to open a new shop to be called Whiskey River. I spoke with an entrepreneur who is renovating the space above his furniture store and coffee shop for VRBO condo rentals. He tells me about a guy down the street whose two similar VBROs are generating more than $5,000 a month. There was a spirit of quiet optimism downtown during my 20-minute visit that I haven’t witnessed in two decades.

Where Does Erwin Go from Here?  

Much like Michele, the future Whiskey River shop owner, the town is being discovered by the great migration away from population centers that began during the pandemic. Homes are being swept up at a dizzying rate at inflated prices yet considered bargains by big city buyers. Most are in search of a quieter rural life within easy reach of more metropolitan amenities in Asheville, NC, or Johnson City, TN. For example, Travel & Leisure magazine recently ranked Erwin as one of Tennessee’s most charming small towns. The stunning beauty of its mountains, river, and streams is a place that’s ready for continued growth, with some coming to the community that’s ready to build a business.

Excite group of whitewater rafters paddling down stream
The Nolichucky is one of the world’s Top 10 whitewater rivers in the world.

With about half of the county’s land owned by the U.S. Forest Service, it’s easy to check the outdoor tourism box. With one of the world’s top 10 whitewater rivers, a rafting company gives thrills to tourism from around the world. Its eclectic campground also gives Appalachian Trail hikers a place to stop for a cheeseburger, a shower, and a night in clean sheets. The new Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park is another site drawing crowds with flyrods and backpacks.

As a native of the county, I treasured its nature. Now as the owner of a marketing firm, I wanted to tell the story of this little-known gem by building a brand and telling the world. County economic development chairman, Lee Brown, saw the opportunity and hired Creative Energy to do just that. Today, Real. Wild. Unicoi County is its mantra driven by digital outreach earning an award from the 5,000-member International Economic Development Council.

Lee Brown chuckles with joy as Town Manager Todd Wilcox cuts the ribbon to the new Unaka Bike Park.
Lee Brown chuckles with joy as Town Manager Todd Wilcox cuts the ribbon to the new Unaka Bike Park.

Today, Brown and his economic development team are doubling down on nature. The town’s new Unaka Bike Park just cut the ribbon for next-generation families who consider a mountain challenge as part of their quality of life. As President of Erwin Utilities, Brown has also brought another necessary amenity of next-generation families, 1 Gig Fiber to homes, businesses, and schools in the county. Brown’s grant application to T-Mobile earned a $50,000 check to help fund the bike park in a unique twist of technology funding nature.

Thus, some visionary leaders are setting the stage for success within the outdoor tourism and lifestyle segment. Entrepreneurship in crafting retail and commercial opportunities related to the positioning is emerging in the county and town. Dovetailing the industrial development of companies within the space is likewise natural. Starved for available flat land for manufacturing, the 160 acres from former railroad operations should be a focus for industrial development. Adjacent to the downtown, restaurant and service businesses can benefit from manufacturing workers next door. From kayak builders to backpack and RV manufacturers, the county offers a natural relationship and available infrastructure to scale quickly just a quarter-mile from Interstate 26 in the Mid-Mountain South.

Another great, and largely untapped, opportunity is lodging. One 250-acre mountain resort is being planned. More cabin rental developments are a logical consideration, and a branded business or resort hotel is needed. Today, existing manufacturers must send visitors, suppliers, and job applicants 20 miles away for an overnight stay. All of these lodging solutions would support outdoor tourism venues, restaurants, bars, and related retailers.  

Pulling It All Together

There are plenty of opportunities awaiting those who live in the county. Elected county and town government officials can go to work with the county’s economic development organization on building a strategic vision for the county. Those who grew up in the county and know its potential should also be part of the county’s quotient. These individuals have built careers outside the embrace of its valleys and mountains. They can bring their collective experience with a worldview of the potential for this little economic dynamo. Likewise, recent converts who’ve moved to the county to craft their future can be part of the strategic solution. For certain, multiple perspectives in building consensus can build ownership of a successful roadmap.

It’s a town in transition. I’m happy that our firm is playing a role in helping to share its story for generations ahead.

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