Blue Ridge Craft Trails Building Grassroots Support Across Region
The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area is blazing the latest path to economic prosperity for the 25 counties of Western North Carolina with the Blue Ridge Craft Trails project.
Authorized by Congress in 2003, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area covers 25 Western North Carolina counties and remains the only regional organization dedicated to the stewardship of five Appalachian cultural legacies – craft, music, outdoors, agriculture and Cherokee traditions.
The Craft Trails project builds on the groundbreaking work of HandMade in America, a nonprofit which created the original Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina in the 1990s, connecting visitors to hundreds of craft studios, galleries, schools, historic places and inns across the mountains. The 3rd edition of the Craft Heritage Trail book was published in 2003, featuring nearly 500 different sites.
This project will update those listings for the digital age, offering an online portal for desktop and mobile applications. As phases of the project are completed, technology will allow collectors to connect with craft artisans to purchase their wares and visit the studios, galleries and festivals in Western North Carolina. The Blue Ridge Craft Trails project is funded with a $90,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission and contributions from the North Carolina Arts Council and WNC Community Foundation.
Previously BRNHA had launched the Blue Ridge Music Trails guiding visitors to authentic traditional and bluegrass music venues across 29 Western North Carolina counties, as well as the Blue Ridge Heritage Trail which showcases 70 cultural and natural sites across the mountains and foothills.
Phase I Progress
The short term goals of Phase 1 are to conduct the listening sessions and build partnerships. An advisory committee of 27 members representing artists, arts groups, tourism development and others throughout Western North Carolina is providing guidance on the trail development.We also held listening sessions at the following locations:
- Blowing Rock Art & History Museum
- Museum of the Cherokee Indian
- Tryon Arts and Crafts School
- Yadkin Cultural Arts Center
- John C. Campbell Folk School
- Penland School of Crafts/Toe River Arts Council
- Folk Art Center/Southern Highland Craft Guild
The listening sessions drew more than 110 participants. Exposure and experiential tourism are themes that emerged in both comments and written surveys taken at the seven listening sessions. Key comments from participants included:
- Participants (artists, arts organizations, tourism entities) overwhelmingly welcomed the idea.
- Training artists in marketing and interpretation would be helpful. That came up repeatedly.
- Visitors should be educated in etiquette, expectations, and the significance of the traditions.
- Many suggested a robust itinerary builder on the website module that would allow visitors to the region to identify and navigate their way to specific craft artists in the 25-county region.
- The Blue Ridge Craft Trails project is a chance to gain national exposure. Tennessee and Virginia have made significant investments in marketing their craft artists.
- The website should be geared to the needs of visitors interested in authentic craft. Bottom line, artists need more visitors to get more sales.
- The market for crafts appears to be changing, and there may need to be greater emphasis placed on providing craft experiences, which could include studio tours, demonstrations, and hands-on classes. “Visitors really want something to do.” The millennial generation wants engagement and activity rather than just making purchases.
Identifying anchor sites
The Blue Ridge Craft Trails team and advisory board have identified 75 anchor sites in 25 counties to launch the online project. We are collecting initial documentation and images for the website developed by Integritive, an Asheville website company. The site is on schedule to be launched by year’s end. We envision the Blue Ridge Craft Trails website as a curated experience with a distinctive, welcoming “voice” to guide travelers in search of the best craft destinations across the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
A survey undertaken by Chris Cavanaugh of Magellan Strategy Group and Carol Kline of Appalachian State University had more than 2,400 responses from partner databases and purchased lists of general and Millennial-age travelers. Nine of 10 travelers of all ages and incomes surveyed in the Southeast have an awareness of the Asheville area and all of Western North Carolina as a top destination to see and experience authentic handmade craft, but most need more information about exactly where to go. The survey showed potential visitors have a strong interest in a drivable craft trail and curiosity about handmade craft when planning a vacation. There seems to be strong interest in packages that combine craft with local food, music and other activities in a mountain setting.
Chris and Carol are putting together a marketing plan based on their research. The early goals include
- Promote open-ended and/or guided experiences that combine culture and recreation.
- Extend visitor stays in small towns.
- Move “craft spectators” to “craft participants” for greater economic impact in our communities.
- Reinforce the history of Western North Carolina as a creative hotbed for crafts.
Our thanks to the Conservation Fund for a $9,000 Resourceful Communities grant to highlight Cherokee and Clay County artists, galleries and communities in the region-wide Blue Ridge Craft Trails launching this fall.
We met with local arts leaders August 7 at the John C. Campbell Folk School to kick-off this pilot project. This fall, our team will identify and document up to 30 craft artists, studios and galleries. We will complete artist profiles and add them to the Blue Ridge Craft Trails website, along with suggested itineraries for visitors eager to explore the rich diversity of traditional and contemporary crafts in the state’s far western counties.
In addition to the online information, we will design, produce and distribute a rack card. We will also complete an exhibit highlighting craft artist from Cherokee and Clay Counties for display at the I-26 Welcome Center in Madison County
Phase 1 of the project is generously funded through the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina and the North Carolina Arts Council.