A team from McDowell County recently participated in a three-day course designed especially for rural communities seeking to make the most of their natural and cultural assets. McDowell was one of only four communities in the nation to participate in this course.

Working with national and regional experts on sustainable tourism, economic development, natural and cultural resources, transportation, and branding, the five-person team from McDowell crafted a new vision that focuses on the unique assets that make the community an appealing place to live, work and recreate, according to the news release.

The Conservation Fund designed and delivered the program. Based in Arlington, Va., the Conservation Fund is an environmental non-profit organization which has two purposes: pursue environmental preservation and promote economic development. Since 1985, the organization has protected more than 8 million acres of land and water in all 50 states, including parks, historic battlefields and wild areas. The fund works with community and government leaders, business owners, landowners, other conservation nonprofits and others “to create innovative solutions that integrate economic and environmental objectives,” according to online sources.

The Conservation Fund offered a course in capitalizing on natural and cultural assets for economic development. Only four teams from across the United States were able to participate. They came from Utah, Vermont, Virginia and North Carolina. McDowell County was the community selected from North Carolina.

Each of the four communities was selected through an application process to participate in the program. These four communities formed a diverse team that included business and tourism representatives, elected officials, civic leaders, public land managers and engaged citizens.

The McDowell County team included Freddie Killough, executive director of the Marion Business Association; Steve Bush, executive director of the McDowell County Chamber of Commerce; Steve Pierce, president of the McDowell Trails Association; Nick Larson, district ranger for the Pisgah National Forest Grandfather District; and Heather Cotton, planning director for the City of Marion.

The team developed an action plan that takes steps to diversify and grow the local economic base by connecting people and businesses to the community’s natural assets, and identifies strategies that increase the connectivity between towns and big outdoor destinations by way of the Fonta Flora State Trail, according to the news release.

“The vision of this strategic plan is to capitalize on our geographic location and the natural and cultural assets that we offer by creating a warm and welcoming first impression of our community so that visitors will want to come often, stay and play longer, and share their experience with others,” said Cotton. “With the plan’s implementation, the team hopes that each action step will build stronger connections between people and resources, and fosters an environment that increases visitation numbers, grows business opportunities, and infuses more money into the local economy.”

“This effort will have a positive impact because the Fonta Flora State Trail is the conduit that connects our community and businesses together with our cultural and natural assets, and connects us regionally to two watersheds, three counties, both sides of the Eastern Continental Divide, and enhances the natural, cultural and economic assets of our entire region,” said Pierce.

The team from McDowell heard from a number of nationally-recognized economic development experts and learned how other communities across the country have strategically leveraged their natural and cultural assets to pursue specific economic, social, and environmental outcomes. The team is ready to implement similar strategies that are geographically appropriate to achieve the same success at home.

“It is now time to bring people and resources to the table to improve upon what the team accomplished during the course, begin to implement action steps outlined in the plan, and establish benchmarks to measure our success moving forward,” said Cotton.

“The partnership between leaders in McDowell County and the Pisgah Forest National Forest made this team an ideal candidate for this program due to the strong ties throughout the community and their passion for protecting and enhancing the area’s natural and cultural resources,” said Katie Allen, director of The Conservation Fund’s Conservation Leadership Network. “It’s our goal to help communities foster valuable partnerships, reinforce development plans that balance environmental and economic goals and provide technical assistance to enable places like McDowell County to become even more vibrant and thriving community.”

This national course is offered annually at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in Shepherdstown, W.Va., according to the news release.

For more information about the Conservation Fund, visit www.conservationfund.org

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