03 Nov Intrepid New Leadership in Unicoi County is on the RISE
For years, the Unicoi County area has been working to harness their natural resources and location features to draw businesses and professionals to the region. The work has been slow and difficult, and many times the challenges have seemed unsurmountable. Then something amazing happened. A new group of young driven professionals decided to add their energy and passion for the region to the cause, and RISE was born.
The name comes from their four core principals; Rejuvenate, Invest, Support and Energize. Made up of young professionals, and retirees, that have either grown up in the area or who have moved to Unicoi County to enjoy all the benefits available, the RISE group has begun creating new momentum for the region to grow and attract other likeminded individuals and businesses. We had an opportunity to discuss the group’s history, goals and philosophy with one of their founding members, Jamie Rice. Here’s a little of what we learned.
Interviewer: So, Jamie, how did you become involved with RISE, and what was the motivation to create this new organization to help grow Unicoi County?
Jamie: It all started out of the recognized need to reinvigorate the region when the railroad moved out of Unicoi County. A business partner and I had just opened a new wedding venue in downtown Erwin, TN. We had purchased a beautiful old building that had been closed for years and completely rehabilitated the facilities to create a new events venue to serve my hometown. Then CSX made the announcement that they would be closing their Unicoi County facilities—impacting hundreds of jobs in the region—and many in our community became very worried for the health and future of our cities and county. Having just opened our new business weeks prior to the railroad announcement, it hit us very close to home. Downtown Erwin had already been struggling with a lack of growth and stability in the past several years, and many felt like this was the last straw to major economic impact for Unicoi County.
Interviewer: So, the RISE program was in response to this need to develop new strategies to stabilize and grow the region’s economic development?
Jamie: In an indirect way, yes, but happened pretty organically through the guidance and support of some local leadership that recognized the need and acted. Lee Brown, President and CEO of the Erwin Utilities, realized there was a need to engage the younger entrepreneurs in Unicoi County to bring fresh perspectives to the region’s leadership. In 2016, Lee hosted a community leadership gathering called “The Vision 2020 Meeting” at our event venue, The Bramble, and invited any young professionals who wanted to be involved to attend. We had about 80 people attend that first meeting, and ages ranged between 25 and 45. We discussed all the potential needs and opportunities in the region and listened to ideas that ran across the spectrum. The attendees left feeling very empowered, energized and hopeful about the future of our region. Following that first meeting, a group of around 50 people began meeting regularly to make plans on what their goals and strategy would be to support the health of Unicoi County. Three months later, RISE was official organized at the beginning of 2017.
Interviewer: So, what has RISE been doing in the past three years since they started meeting together?
Jamie: We’ve been very busy, lol. It was so amazing to see how people began to be proactive about our city by simply being given the agency to contribute in a real and substantial way. One of the things I’m particularly proud of is that we’ve seen the building vacancy rate in downtown Erwin fall by 50% in the past three years. Since then, we’ve been working hard to help grow Unicoi County as a destination for tourists, businesses and professionals. In the past three years, we’ve helped organize and coordinate over 180 events to bring new life and interest to the area. Some of the new programs we developed include;
Interviewer: Can you share more about the elephant program? That seems to be a project that has earned a lot of interest even outside the region.
Jamie: Yes, we’re so excited by how well people have responded to that project. We even earned a special segment on NPR and several regional news media programs. It all started with a real, and honest, look at what our area is known for. It’s impossible to get around the history surrounding the death of Mary (the circus elephant that was hung for trampling a man). Most people in the area were so ashamed and preferred to just not talk about it or admit that it happened. We decided it was time to take a new stance on that part of our history and turn it into a positive force that we could use to benefit others. So, we worked with the city government to purchase several small baby elephant statues and then partnered with artists in Unicoi County to paint them and display them in the downtown Erwin area. We then auctioned off the statues and donated the money to support the Elephant Sanctuary organization, which provides refuge for performance and exhibition elephants from around the country. The Elephant Revival has allowed us to raise thousands of dollars to support this program and provide better lives for many elephants.
Interviewer: So, is the RISE program exclusively for young professionals?
Jamie: No, not at all! At this point I’d say that our group is made up equally of young professionals, experienced local leaders and retirees that want to positively contribute to the growth of our region. We are all inclusive, and value anyone’s perspective and experience to help us create an exciting new future for Unicoi County. We’ve realized that many retirees have the time and life experience that help us get things done more effectively. I can’t tell you how valuable ALL our contributors have been to our success.
Interviewer: So, what is the vision and goals of RISE for Unicoi County?
Jamie: Outdoor tourism is going to be huge for our region in the future. There are so many other tourism organizations in other cities, and states, that have been referencing our natural resources in their tourism advertising for years. It’s really time that we take ownership of how many amazing adventure, outdoor sport, and natural experiences are available right in our own backyard. We can’t keep seeing those tourism dollars continue to leave our area unchallenged. Thanks to federal regulations, these natural resources have been protected and managed for decades. It’s time that Unicoi County takes a leadership role in protecting and promoting our own amazing natural features, wildlife and experiences.
Interviewer: I have to imagine that RISE has been doing all this amazing work on a fairly modest budget? How are you engaging and communicating needs and opportunities to those interested in getting involved?
Jamie: Absolutely. We have depended greatly on social media to help communicate events, meetings, opportunities and directives from RISE. It’s been such a powerful tool for us. Our first goal with our social media campaign was to get to 1,000 followers so we could start effectively communicating with a core group. It only took us less than a week to reach the goal. That was a huge assurance that there was an untapped community out there that wanted to engage in improving and growing the Unicoi County region. One of the things that has been very surprising for us is how many people that grew up in our area, but have moved to other areas around the world, have gotten involved in contributing and sharing information about what we’re doing here. Social media has empowered them to share their hometown pride and draw more attention to what’s going on in Unicoi County.
Interviewer: So, what does the future look like for RISE and Unicoi County?
Jamie: We’re very excited and optimistic about the future of our area. We’ve seen such an outpouring of support and are always looking for new ways to create opportunities for new leaders to come in and own their contributions. I look back on all the things that have happened in Unicoi County in just the past three years, and I am so grateful. I actually have a word cloud of all the things people said they believed our region needed in order to grow and compete with other area regions. There are things like the need for a regional outfitter, taproom, dog park, downtown music, new grocery store, food trucks and bakeries that seemed like far-reaching goals just a few years ago. Now we have ALL of those areas represented by new, invested businesses in Unicoi County. We’re going to continue to listen to our community, and partner with local people that believe the best years are still very much ahead for us. We’re just getting started!
We want to thank Jamie for sharing some great news about the work RISE has been doing in Unicoi County. If you’d like to learn more, or get involved you can visit their website or Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.