In recognition of its extraordinary transition, West Jefferson’s Jefferson Avenue was recently awarded the 2015 Great Places in North Carolina Award. Town Manager, Brantley Price and Town Planner, Matthew Levi gratefully accepted the award in a ceremony in Raleigh in Mid-March of 2015. (Accompanying town officials in receipt of the award were State Representatives, the North Carolina Great Places Program Manager, Jason Burdette and North Carolina American Planning Association President, John Morck.)
You have to ask yourself, “How are small towns in America surviving?”
The outsourcing of manufacturing and major corporate retailers like Walmart squeezing out the “Mom and Pops” businesses over the course of the last several decades has been detrimental to Small Town America. What once was the major source of jobs, manufacturing plants, have closed leaving major unemployment in small towns.
One such small town was our town, West Jefferson, North Carolina.
A historic railroad town nestled in the comforting surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains, West Jefferson was once dependent on a commerce created by its timber, farming and mining industries.
Incorporated in 1915, the same year the Norfolk & Western Railroad Company completed its rails into town, West Jefferson became the heart of Ashe County. Like much of the northern part of the State, West Jefferson began flourishing in the 1930s with the rise of furniture manufacturing, textile and knitting operations and various milling endeavors. Despite the town’s remote location in the beauty and splendor of the mountains, West Jefferson’s population and economy continued to grow with the advent of increased transportation and industry. In 1977, the railroads left West Jefferson and so did much of the local industry – although one was not necessarily consequent to the other.
For the next few decades, West Jefferson held fast to its traditional mountain community roots, but the businesses continued to disappear. Downtown storefronts emptied.
Town Merchants Formed the West Jefferson Merchants Association in early 90’s.
The association called upon the Town of West Jefferson to join in their efforts to revitalize the town. The Ashe County Arts Council led the way. Owners of downtown buildings began updating their storefronts, sometimes, the entire building, while the Ashe County Arts Council provided colorful street murals on sides of the buildings. A complete cleanup of the town began.
The Town of West Jefferson Called Upon Local Townspeople and Businesses to Form the West Jefferson Revitalization Committee.
The townspeople along with Ashe County Arts Council, local business and other organizations formed the West Jefferson Revitalization Committee. They began to work with HandMade in America’s Small Town Revitalization Program, an initiative that started the transformation of this charming rural town. Collaborating with the program provided the town with technical assistance in helping to capitalize on West Jefferson’s own local assets in building the economy and culture of the community.
In 2002, the partnership between the Town, HandMade in America and the Revitalization Committee hosted students from the North Carolina State University system who joined efforts to develop the conceptual redesign of downtown. By 2005, West Jefferson had been designated as a part of the Blue Ridge Natural Heritage area, a distinction rendered by the US Congress and administered through the Department of the Interior. The Town also received a Business Development Planning Grant from the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center specifically for production of a storm sewer system and streetscape enhancements throughout the main thoroughfare, Jefferson Avenue. Total projections for such capital improvements exceeded $4 Million, a daunting price tag for such a small town even implemented incrementally over an extended period.
Through the cumulative efforts of the Town and Revitalization Committee, strides for funding were sought. The Town soon collaborated with the NCDOT to continue improving roads and landscaping of the downtown Jefferson Avenue area. Traffic lights were replaced with stop signs and pedestrian crossings to make the downtown more pleasant for walking and window shopping. The transformation was impressive. Concrete was replaced with sidewalk benches and planters. Street corners gave way to garden beds planted with trees, shrubbery and flowers.
Streetscape Enhances the Earlier Transformation Projects
Public art and murals adorn the brick sides of buildings both in and on the side streets of town. Large colorful murals depict life in Ashe County, its heritage and history. Even the occasional fire hydrant is whimsically painted. New street corner lights with welcome banners stand to illuminate the downtown blocks and cross streets in the evening.
And, as if by Magic, Three Cows Come to Ashe County Cheese
The addition of the “Three Cows” designed and created by Artist, Stephen Willingham for Ashe County Cheese is a most interesting and talked about addition to the town. This will be one of the town icons for many years to come.
The Town Merchants Attuned to a New Way of Doing Business
Many businesses began to adjust their goods and wears especially in an effort to compete with the mighty Walmart just on the outskirts of town. It meant a return to the traditions of arts and crafts from a century past. Hand-made quilts and dolls, primitive art and antiques, the restoration and re-fabrication of all that is old made new again. It was taking the tools and talents that once may have been taken for granted and rekindling the warmth and charm that only comes from true craft. In this spirit of tradition rose the many unique shops and antique emporiums that line Jefferson Avenue.
Artists welcomed by the inspiration of the majestic surroundings, the character of the town and its people, came to the area to amerce themselves in the gallery environment. Original works of fine art, sculpture, ceramics and a multiplicity of mediums are offered for sale and display in the storefronts that adjoin the downtown. Beside them, bistros and cafes, craft beer brewers and a local tavern in the Old Hotel give West Jefferson a diverse and eclectic menu to choose from.
Because of its designation as a Historic District, downtown West Jefferson offers tax incentives to business owners who renovate in compliance with historic restoration practices. West Jefferson’s façade is quaint and in keeping with a historic turn-of-the-century town complete with brick storefronts of no more than two or three stories. Since the completion of the capital project began in 2002, new business and tourism has increased ten-fold pouring economic resources and viable sustainability into the town’s mainstream and to Ashe County.
A culmination of almost two decades of planning, dedication and hard work, the town and its people have achieved the distinction of being the Mountain Region’s only recipient of the award for the year.
This prestigious award distinguishes Jefferson Avenue for its transitional role in revitalizing this historic railroad community through improved streetscapes, public art, public spaces, a BackStreet Park and local festivities. The community’s resurgence has been recognized as the embodiment of West Jefferson's community spirit.
The initiative Main Street Program was created through the National Trust for Historic Preservation to recognize downtown revitalization strategies of small towns resurging economically through the context of historic preservation. As the only Mountain Region community recognized in 2015, West Jefferson is honored to be distinguished for community-based planning at its best.
When you ask the Question, “How Are Small towns in America Surviving?”
One must look to the successful example of West Jefferson, NC. Put stock in the fact that this small town has accomplished great feats by proactively partnering to achieve successful economic and business development. How will small towns make it in America? By utilizing their spirit for community, working together and enhancing the heritage that has molded and shaped them, just as West Jefferson has done. They must reinvent themselves.
It reawakened its appeal as the quintessential small town, welcoming townsfolk and visitors, opening the avenue to tourism and trade. The town now bustles with day-to-day commerce, annual events and festivals, gallery crawls, and bi-monthly music event in West Jefferson’s Backstreet Park.
This rejuvenation came at the hands of a community that strove to enhance the beauty of its own small town USA.