Strong Towns contest puts Erwin among the elite

Sue Guinn Legg • Updated Apr 6, 2019 at 5:19 PM

ERWIN — For a small rural community that just four years ago lost 300 railroad jobs and a huge chunk of its identity in a single stroke, the town of Erwin has demonstrated a lot of economic resilience.

That test of the town’s mettle and how members of its business community pulled together to land on their feet recently caught the attention of Strong Towns, an international nonprofit association dedicated to making small communities across the U.S. and Canada financially strong and resilient.

Jamie Rice, Erwin’s communications specialist and the founding president of the RISE Erwin group that has been a driving force in town since the CSX layoffs, is a Strong Towns follower and had been applying its grassroots principles in Erwin for some time when she blindly entered the town in the group’s annual Strongest Towns competition.

And Rice could not have been prouder when Erwin was included in a group of 16 towns across North America in an online bracket vote designed to spotlight communities that embody Strong Town’s incremental, from-the-bottom-up approach to economic growth.

Strong Town readers and listeners and at large voters advanced Erwin to the competition’s elite eight in a head-to-head contest March 18 with Palmer, Arkansas, in which Erwin took 79 percent of the vote.

And while the town fell short of the final four in a close 51 to 49 percent matchup with Safe Harbor, Fla., when all was said and done, Rice said, there was still a lot be proud of in Erwin.

“We really feel like Erwin has turned a corner in our downtown,” she said. “Our vacancy rate has gone down from 15 buildings to seven in the past two and half years. Those were all empty dilapidated buildings that are now either rented or occupied by businesses. That’s something to be proud of.

“All of the effort that’s generating downtown, it’s not just outside developers, it’s locals who see our development and are willing to take a chance.

“Erwin Outdoor Supply, the (Union Street) Taproom and Noli (restaurant) coming, those are three locals that are open or are going to be open very soon.

“Union Street Gallery, that’s a great example of a woman from Ohio who was looking at Asheville (North Carolina), visited Erwin and knew she wanted this to be her home and to bring her family and business here. She saw Erwin is really on the cusp of something growing.

As for the town’s showing in the Strongest Town contest, Rice said, “We’ll hit it hard again next year.”

To read more about Erwin in its submission to the, contest visit strongtowns.org.

Email Sue Guinn Legg at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.

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