Embrace Your Unique Place: Asset-Based Economic Development

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Brevard White Squirrel cursing outThe White Squirrel. You may wonder what makes it white,  is it an albino or second-cousin to the common eastern grey squirrel? Did it originate in a carnival, victim of a failed science experiment, or was it simply a quirk of evolution?

What does a rare breed of a common critter have to do with economic development and this blog? Quite a bit, if you are the city of Brevard. Every year thousands of visitors head to the county seat of Transylvania County to attend the White Squirrel Festival, take a tour in hopes of a sighting and stay to play, eat and shop.

Brevard isn’t the only town in America that can claim the white squirrel but it has certainly made the most of it, just as other towns and cities across North Carolina have turned a quirky asset into a draw. Visit Mount Airy and feel like you’re taking a stroll down Mayberry’s Main Street on the Andy Griffith Show.  See Wilson and wonder at whirligigs. Welcome the snow season with the Banner Elk wooly worm and celebrate spring with the Fayetteville Dogwood tree.

Identifying and leveraging a community’s organic socio-cultural, environmental and economic advantages for sustained economic growth is known as asset-based economic development. The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) published a series of papers, Asset-Based Economic Development: Building Sustainable Small and Rural Communities, which profiles successful strategies ranging from the marketing approach identified here to adaptive reuse of historical assets. North Carolina examples of asset-based development can be explored the School of Government’s web-based resource, Building Assets for the Rural Future: A Guide to Promising Asset-Building Programs for Communities and Individuals on the Economic Margin. The topic has also been discussed in this blog in a previous post.

The marketing approach is about identifying a trait unique to your municipality, building a brand and events around it and taking advantage once the visitors start arriving.  Festivals dominate the landscape, but guided history and nature tours, craft workshops and regional storytelling trails are also among the many creative ways that towns, cities and regions promote their assets.

How do you identify what makes your town or city special? The Cleveland Community Partnership for Arts and Culture compiled the Guide to Mapping Neighborhood Arts and Cultural Assets.  The method is all about asking the people who know best: the residents. In formal and informal conversations with residents, you might directly ask what they believe makes the town unique or simply ask them to reflect on aspects of the town that hold special significance to them.   If you have a particular and very rare bird that stops in your town on the way to Canada, it’s likely that some in the bird-watching community have already discovered it. Speak to your visitors and find out what brings them there.

Remember, seasoned travelers in this day-and-age of TripAdvisor can smell a fake. It won’t help to invent an asset. If George Washington didn’t pick an apple off your tree, don’t say he did.  But was your town named after a formal general most famous for a failed attempt at invading Canada? Use it!

How do you fund the promotion of your uniqueness?  A variety of private and public sources are available for the cultivation of arts, culture and history. Corporate sponsorships and fees for booths are common sources for festivals. The North Carolina Humanities Council and North Carolina Arts Council are active supporters of arts and culture-based projects through their grant programs.  The National Endowment for the Arts highlights a few resources in their own guide to asset mapping.  Increasingly, economic development groups such as the Golden Leaf Foundation are dedicating resources to support asset-based economic development.

Every town has something special that is worth preserving and celebrating, whether it is the people, the history, the place… or something a little bit weird.  Bring visitors through the door in search of that azalea or white squirrel, show them all the wonderful places and spaces your town has to offer, and they will come back for more.

Sarah Odio is a first year Master’s candidate specializing in Economic Development in the UNC Department of City and Regional Planning. She is currently a Community Revitalization Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative.

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