A Renewed Vision for West Virginia
alissa | April 11, 2016
In the mid 1990s, an appalachian river town was feeling the effects of the country’s industrial decline. It was touted as the most polluted city in America. People were leaving at alarming rates, home prices were falling, and businesses were relocating.
Twenty years later, this same city is a lauded destination for outdoor recreation and startup companies.This place is seeing an influx of young people moving into its city center. In fact, over this same time period, nearly 25,000 new residents have made the decision to move to this small city.
This place I’m describing is not Portland or Austin or any other far away town – this city is our next door neighbor: Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Leaders from the Chattanooga area say this success is due to focused support in just three areas: providing clear pathways for startup companies; embracing the wave of growth in the tech industry; and broad support for artists and arts-focused businesses.
When I first visited Chattanooga, I saw many similarities to this place we call home – assets in our landscape, our people, and our work ethic. What I realized: we can be this place. Cities and towns across West Virginia can be the next Chattanooga or Asheville, North Carolina.
Through our work at the foundation, we meet many business-minded, creative folks working to realize their dreams in West Virginia. We are working toward ensuring that these entrepreneurial West Virginians are supported on their path to success, and that they are given the tools they need to succeed. Tools like business training and coaching; a network of like-minded creatives who share their vision and passion; and responsibly-invested financial backing for their ideas.
The success stories of these West Virginians will serve to attract more, and more, creative entrepreneurs to our cities and towns.
And The Tamarack Foundation for the Arts must continue to push to be this connector, and to be this visionary. We are working toward building the next Fiesta and the next Blenko right in the backyards of West Virginians today. These business owners are some of West Virginia’s greatest cultural exports to the nation – and to the world. They represent not only an opportunity for improved fiscal health for our great state, but also the opening of a door to break down negative stereotypes about our culture.
A few weeks ago, I was in Baltimore with a group of artists at the American Craft Council Show. This prestigious trade show is one of many markets serving as part of our Rural to Urban Markets Program – where the foundation underwrites WV arts businesses to ensure they get much needed exposure to power buyers at the national level.
Joe Elbert, a furniture maker and the owner of Joseph Elbert Designs based in Leon, WV, had a game-changing week at this show. His products were gaining traction with buyers of all stripes – like retail shops, museum stores, and even everyday consumers who were stopping by his booth. As the days wore on, the excitement expressed in Joe’s updates to our team was only outpaced by the sales he was making. By the end of the show, he had written 125 orders – enough work to keep he and his small team busy for months.
Joe is just one of many business owners we work alongside to help with scaling up their creative ventures. West Virginia’s creative sector is filled with entrepreneurs – from graphic designers to potters, filmmakers and photographers – who are looking to be the owner of the next Joseph Elbert Designs.
The Tamarack Foundation for the Arts is positioned to make that happen.
Just last month, we shared four exciting announcements about how we’re on our way to becoming a national model in the development of creative businesses: a new mission, a new approach to our services, a new online platform, and plans for a new facility.
This new approach comes from research and data collected from the entrepreneurs who make up West Virginia’s creative economy today. In 2015, we led a study of professional artists and creatives residing in West Virginia. When asked about the pros and cons of being a creative entrepreneur in our state, 93% of responses were comprised of references to significant challenges related to topics like declining population, a poorly performing economy, and a lack of access to viable markets. We are directly addressing each of these concerns with this new vision for the foundation.
I look forward to releasing the full results of this study this month – we will be hosting a public virtual discussion to collectively consider these findings. However, what we learned outlined one glaring need.
While digital is certainly the wave of the future, nothing can replace the importance of in-person communication.
Given West Virginia’s largely untapped potential for developing this type of proven enterprise coupled with the stifling climate currently experienced by these business owners, it is essential that we both formalize and scale up our investment in creative entrepreneurs.
In partnership with the Brickstreet Foundation, Mills Group and Crawford Holdings, LLC, Tamarack Foundation for the Arts launched a campaign to raise funds to build a creative business incubator on the West Side of Charleston. This incubator will provide in-person training and education, business development programs, and will present artwork of those we serve.
Serving as the core tenant in the former Staats Hospital facility, the foundation has the ability to incubate the kinds of businesses that the developers are committed to attracting to the West Side. Established businesses like Kinship Goods, Bully Trap Barber Shop, and a few dance studios have already made the block their home. Up and coming businesses like Elk City Records will be moving into the space and we are hopeful to attract and incubate even more creative businesses to join us, there.
The Tamarack Foundation for the Arts enthusiastically joins this vision, as we work to reimagine economic development through art. Our space will include a gallery, training and meeting rooms, and offices – and our long-term vision includes artist studios and residencies, building on the model of Asheville’s river arts district. Our bricks and mortar facility will be the physical representation of our commitment to embracing and accelerating creative ideas into full-fledged businesses
You can visit our crowdfunding page to donate and watch our progress.
I must reiterate that we are at a pivotal time in our state’s narrative. For the health of our communities and for our economy, it’s imperative that we build a brighter future for West Virginia. These results are within our grasp, as we work toward defining clear pathways to accelerate creative innovation.
The Tamarack Foundation for the Arts is committed to this carrying out this vision.
Alissa Novoselick is the Executive Director of the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts, where she works to build the creative economy of West Virginia. Alissa volunteers her time as Policy Chair of the Generation WV Board of Directors and tweets at @alissanovo.