Heartwood, the new "artisan gateway" heralded as a key to unlocking Southwest Virginia's potential, offers a striking facility with an ambitious mission — and, with any luck, a touch of magic.
"When (people) walk in the door, we want them to feel like they've fallen down a rabbit hole like in 'Alice in Wonderland,' where they've all of a sudden discovered a new, exotic and very interesting culture," said Todd Christensen, executive director of the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation, the coordinating body overseeing cultural heritage, tourism and economic development efforts throughout Southwest Virginia that include Heartwood.
"And that's," Christensen said, "the culture of Southwest Virginia."
On a hillside overlooking Interstate 81, Heartwood is a 29,000-square-foot edifice that from the outside resembles a barn, in an abstract sort of way. Once you enter the structure through a glass-and-metal silo, it looks like a handsome ski lodge trimmed out with native woods and punctuated with a domed atrium that, appropriately, is acoustically ideal for musical performances. The 1717 Design Group of Richmond designed the interior.
Heartwood, which opened last summer adjacent to Virginia Highlands Community College, serves the purpose of a glorified visitor center. You can pick up maps and brochures and seek answers for finding your way through this mountainous corner of Virginia. You also can browse the galleries and become acquainted with the history and culture, listen to homegrown music, or purchase handmade pottery, intricate wood carvings and $4,000 rocking chairs.
At the wine and coffee bar, you can sit at a counter and sip regional refreshments while you plot your itinerary on a touch-screen computer. At the restaurant, you can enjoy a bowl of brown beans and a wedge of cornbread (or something fancier, but just as local) while taking in a scene through the dining area's oversized windows that includes, on a clear day, a view of Virginia's highest peaks — Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain.
"I call it 'Downtown Southwest Virginia,' " said Christensen, whose background is in community development and who birthed the concept of The Crooked Road music trail a decade ago with Joe Wilson, chairman of the National Council for the Traditional Arts.
While Heartwood is ostensibly about showcasing the resources of the region — the twang of the music, the charm and breadth of the art and crafts, the rugged beauty — and inviting travelers to take a closer look, its underlying assignment is something larger, and its presence represents something more: a concerted effort to lift the most economically distressed region of Virginia.
Christensen and others talk about developing a sustainable "creative economy," which is where Heartwood comes in.
Such an approach is a new wrinkle in a region that relied heavily on coal, tobacco and manufacturing and, in more recent times, businesses such as corporate call centers, all of which have declined or disappeared, in part, because of cheaper overseas options. The economic model Christensen and others envision would capitalize on resources — culture, music, art, outdoor recreation and natural beauty — that aren't going anywhere.
As Christensen put it, "You can't outsource Ralph Stanley."
Heartwood can drive business to artists and tourists to attractions, Christensen said, but he hopes it also will make entrepreneurs take a long look at Southwest Virginia as a place to start or relocate their businesses. He said the region offers a high quality of life and an extensive fiber-optic telecommunications infrastructure that is rare for a rural area.
Woody Crenshaw fell in love with the quality of life more than two decades ago and moved his Crenshaw Lighting Co. from North Carolina to Floyd in 1989. Since then, he and his wife, Jackie, have bought and renovated Floyd Country Store and turned it into a destination for travelers with its live music and throwback atmosphere. Crenshaw now serves as vice chairman of the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation and president of the board of The Crooked Road, an early effort in tapping into the region's cultural resources.
Then came 'Round the Mountain, an artisan network of more than 550 members, for which Heartwood serves as a retail outlet. Both organizations have offices at Heartwood, which Crenshaw considers "ground zero" for developing the region's creative economy.
"I think it's both ambitious and doable," Crenshaw said. "I think we recognize that there are so many hidden treasures even we are uncovering, places like country stores and communities and jam sessions and artists living at the end of gravel roads. I think over the next 10 years or so, Heartwood is going to … shine the spotlight on a region that I think is one of the best-kept secrets in the Southeast."
The initial funding of $17 million for Heartwood came from the state, the Virginia Tobacco Commission and the Appalachian Regional Commission, plus various localities from the region. Long-term funding will come from Heartwood's retail and food sales, as well as regional programs and fundraising.
Proponents say the investment will pay dividends by ultimately drawing an estimated 270,000 visitors annually and generating more than $28 million for the region. The facility employs 30, and it is the flagship in a regionwide initiative to help create 1,000 jobs and attract 300 new businesses within its first three years of operation. Since its opening last summer, Heartwood has purchased more than $600,000 in goods from artists, farmers and small businesses throughout the region, Christensen said.
Complaints about the project largely have included concerns over the amount of taxpayer money involved, but Shannon R. Blevins, director of economic development at the University of Virginia's College at Wise, believes the gamble is "worth the risk."
"I'm a fiscally conservative person, and I think we have to be very, very good stewards of tax money, so I certainly understand where people are coming from," she said. "But the best chance we have is to create a regional identity, and I think Heartwood is going a long way to helping us do that."
There also were fears Heartwood might develop into an endpoint rather than a launching pad for travelers and could siphon business and visitors from the galleries and artists it was created to help.
"Initially, we were not sure what to expect," said Susan Yates, arts administrator for the Arts Depot, a former train station in Abingdon that was transformed into galleries and studios. "Heartwood's opening has affected our business in a very positive way. Many of our visitors tell us that they have been directed to the Arts Depot from Heartwood, or, if they stop by here first, we recommend that they not miss Heartwood before leaving town. It is a win-win so far."
For the more than 250 artists whose juried work is on display and for sale, Heartwood represents a welcomed opportunity, a chance to reach a larger audience than is possible for many artists operating in rural areas, said Debbie Grim Yates, a potter from Smyth County (and no relation to Susan Yates).
"It's always been a struggle for me packing up and hauling pottery to arts and craft shows (while) trying to raise a family with two small children," said Yates, also an accomplished fiddler and banjo player who performs old-time and bluegrass music with her husband, Tim, as Acoustic Heritage.
"It's been a blessing to be able to have such a facility where you can market your arts and crafts. Heartwood has just been wonderful."
That sort of centralized approach also appeals to the various localities of the region, many of which are well off the path of most visitors. The thinking is, pooling their limited marketing resources into a highly visible place such as Heartwood can benefit the entire region by reaching greater numbers of visitors, attracting them off the highway and encouraging them to explore the surrounding hills and hollows.
"Most of these places are so tucked back that you really don't know what's there," said Paula Kahn, a Bristol artist whose jewelry made from chinquapins is on display at Heartwood. "I have lived in this area for 17 years, and I did not know what was in another county as far as the art and music. It's really been fun to learn more about it after all these years."
Southwest Virginia is not exactly a rabbit hole, but it can seem a little foreign and even intimidating for travelers who find comfort in sticking close to interstate highways. Maps of Southwest Virginia are thick with miles and miles of narrow, twisting roads that connect one small community to another. Even many Virginians do not realize the state extends for 100 miles west of the I-81 exits for Bristol.
Heartwood aims to eliminate that trepidation and promote Southwest Virginia as a welcoming, accessible and not-so-mysterious place.
Said U.Va.-Wise's Blevins, "We've got a well-kept secret in this region. This gives us the best hope of getting the word out."