Case Studies

A Tourism Boost Through Placemaking and Partnerships in Western Carolina

Sylva, North Carolina
Case Study Image
Points of Interest Jackson County Data
Population 43,938
Per Capita Income $24,073
Median Household Income $44,028
Poverty Rate 16.7%
Minority Population 14.8%
Median Value of Owner-Occupied Housing Units $192,300

“We are all working together. It is not a competition. It is truly for the betterment of everybody.”

Sylva and the whole of Jackson County are enjoying a level of tourism unprecedented in their histories. Each year sees a precipitous rise in visitorship. Single months in 2020 outdo whole autumn seasons of less than a decade ago. This would be impressive under normal circumstances. For it to be happening in the middle of a pandemic—with a number of downtown destinations closed or at reduced capacity and with populations operating under safety precautions—is especially surprising.

Part of the success is natural: rivers and mountains playing host to fishing and hiking. The challenge of social distancing may actually serve as a benefit when trying to play up those widely-spaced activities. Still, that theory wouldn’t account for the six straight years of tourism growth before quarantine measures began in March. Nor would it explain the more than 10 percent year-over-year increase in four of the last five pre-pandemic years.

What led to this growth? The features in and around Sylva have been equally wondrous for decades. Many other towns tout similar attractions. What allowed Sylva, Webster, Dillsboro, and Jackson County to stand apart; to be able to not just economically withstand an otherwise-devastating pandemic, but to thrive within it? The answer is strategy and partnerships. Together, it is groundwork years in the making, and the turning point is a concept that flipped the traditional tourism approach on its head—one that prioritized place over patrons.

 

The Community and its History

Sylva and Webster stand as significant towns in the history of Western North Carolina. Both incorporated in the 19th century, Sylva became the bustling county seat in 1914 after getting a railroad, taking the mantle from Webster. The county as a whole was created in 1851. Bustling, however, is a relative term for those towns. Even as the county seat, Sylva’s population has never topped 3,000, and Jackson County presently has an estimated 44,000 residents, ranking 60th of 100 counties in North Carolina.

The natural environment has been a constant resources. Travel brochures from the 1930s highlight the same activities highlighted today: fishing, hiking, waterfalls. The county’s slogan in the 1950s was, “In the middle of the most.” Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains and abutting Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the municipalities of Jackson County tout some of the country’s most exciting natural areas, which as compiled by the Tourism Development Authority (TDA) include:

  • One of the highest waterfalls east of the Rocky Mountains, Whitewater Falls, at 411 feet
  • One of the highest lakes east of the Rockies Lake Glenville at 3,500 feet above sea level
  • More Mountain Heritage Trout waters than anywhere else in the state (Jackson County has 3)
  • More mountains – 185 named summits and Whiteside Mountain, which boasts the highest vertical cliffs in the Eastern United States, is considered by some geologists to be the oldest mountain in the world. (390 to 460 million years old)
  • The highest continuous cliff east of Rockies is at Laurel Knob (best viewed from Lonesome Valley). It is 1,200 feet of continuous rock cliff.
  • Largest box canyon east of the Rockies – Lonesome Valley

Important to note, though, is tourism competition. Neighboring counties and towns offer similarly stunning attractions. The mountains of western North Carolina touch nearly two dozen counties and more than 100 towns.

 

Strategy

Anecdotes from local leaders tell a similar story about the economic activity taking place in Sylva and the rest of Jackson County 15 years ago and prior. Sylva Mayor Lynda Sossamon described a downtown that closed at 5 p.m. In Dillsboro, the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad was a scenic tourist line had been a longtime economic driver for the area, but ceased operations in 2006. Jackson County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Julie Spiro estimated that 40 percent of retail shops in town went out of business.

The natural resources available to the area were apparent, but unlocking that value took creativity. It took a collective re-packaging effort. Put simply, it was placemaking and partnerships, each of which is described in greater detail below.

Place over Patrons: “A Better Place to Call Home”

Placemaking and partnership were the means and the engine for the efforts in Jackson County, but it is critical too to examine the larger ideological shift towards tourism that led to those approaches. That shift was one that, interestingly, turned focus away from the actual tourists. Instead, around a decade ago, attention went to the place itself.

“If your residents don’t visit your downtown, then your visitors won’t either,” said Jackson County Tourism Development Authority Executive Director Nick Breedlove, who pointed out that his role in overseeing tourism efforts went from destination marketing (think: advertisements) to destination management.

This outlook was formalized in formalized in Sylva’s 2017 economic development strategic plan, which reads:

“Sylva, N.C., is a vibrant mountain town with an historic downtown that serves as a cultural and culinary center. Its natural beauty, proximity to trails and waterways, and distinctive sense of community make Sylva an ideal business location, a great place to visit, and a better place to call home.”

Placemaking

Oftentimes, placemaking is associated with large redevelopment projects, such as a historic revitalization effort, downtown redesign or streetscape. And indeed, those efforts happened in the Jackson County municipalities as well. However, it is not those projects that yielded the greatest value, nor what has sparked the trajectory that the area currently enjoys.

Rather, it was projects that aligned with the new shift towards destination management that turned Sylva and Jackson County into a booming tourism spot. Often, these were smaller projects–the repackaging of current assets.

Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail

First, is the Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail, created in 2008 by Spiro. It was created out of economic devastation following the closing of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad.

Looking at available resources, what caught Spiro’s attention was the area’s most obvious asset: the natural environment, specifically the rivers and streams. Though advertised for centuries, she now looked closer. What was being offered? What made it specific and worth visiting as opposed to rivers and streams anywhere else in the country?

All it needed was a bit of branding. The result was the nation’s first Fly Fishing Trail. Spiro led the effort to create a physical map that highlighted the prime fishing spots and different experiences the trail offered, and then published it. Twelve years later, it’s been featured in national publications like the New York Times and has been printed and handed out “Hundreds of thousands  of times,” as Breedlove estimates.

“Big rivers. Wide open spaces. Long, looping casts. Such are the popular images of fly-fishing, as it’s practiced out West…But in the creek-laced mountains of western North Carolina, with several thousand miles of public and private trout water packed into a million acres, there’s another version of the sport,” a New York Times piece from 2009 on the Fly Fishing Trail reads.

Ale Trail

The second example follows almost an identical playbook, albeit on land. It’s the Ale Trail, or Jackson County Brewery Trail. Though not trademarked like its fly fishing brethren, its successful packaging of a somewhat common resource—in this case, breweries—is the same.

This project, formalized by Breedlove and facilitated by the towns, was essentially created by the community itself—a true testament to local pride and the creative environment created by the town and county leaders. Breedlove tells the story of seeing a woman in 2018 walking down Mill Street in Sylva with a hiking stick. When asked whether she had trekked off the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, she said no. Rather, she was trekking the mile between a brewery in Dillsboro to a brewery in Sylva. “I thought, ‘Every small town in North Carolina has a brewery now. But what do you do when you have four just along your Main Street corridor, and two more in neighboring towns?’” remembers Breedlove. “There has to be a way to turn these into an asset for the towns – a way that captures them collectively and brands them as something.”

Immediately after, he engaged the towns and began working with the county’s partners in public relations and advertising. Soon, the Ale Trail was born. Maps were created that not just highlighted the area’s top beers on tap and the route to get to them, but effectively cross promoted other attractions in the area too. “Hopefully it extends their stay and leaves them with a good experience,” Breedlove said. “It’s nice to be at the brewery, see visitors come through, look at your collateral and put it in their purse.”

Maps

Like the trails above, towns in Jackson County have distributed a hiking and waterfall map for years. Spiro estimates that 50,000 are handed out each year. “It sounds really simply to do a hiking trail and waterfall map, but you go try to find one somewhere else,” she said.

Downtown maps have also been created for Sylva and Dillsboro, with assistance from the TDA.

Then, there is the case of Cashiers, an unincorporated community in the southern portion of the county. Nestled in the Highlands-Cashiers plateau, cell phone and internet service is not reliable, and the need for wayfinding is substantial for a tourist-heavy spot that sees populations soar from a few hundred to approximately 20,000 in the summer and fall months. With the community so spread out and no real traditional downtown area, the county sought to create a map for the community that focused on attractions over cartography. It is now our most distributed item in Cashiers, ahead of the official Jackson County Visitor Guide.

Sustainability

Tourists and residents alike would not enjoy the pristine natural elements of Sylva if there were no pristine natural elements to enjoy.

Overseen by the Jackson County TDA and furthered by the towns, there are numerous initiative  ongoing for preserving the natural environment.

  • Keep our Mountains Clean and Green: an educational initiative about litter, hosts annual cleanups of roadways by volunteers.
  • NC Green Travel: a statewide initiative from N.C. Department of Environmental Quality embraced by Jackson County and its towns, which encourages businesses to be sustainable in their operations.
  • Tuckasegee River Cleanup: the largest single day river cleanup in the country, ensuring the river’s health and thus maintaining the fly fishing economy.
  • Leave No Trace: a national organization dedicated to protecting the natural environment, which Sylva and Jackson County heavily promote. The principles of Leave No Trace are shared throughout the TDA’s website, and Leave No Trace logos and messaging are displayed prominently throughout the recreation areas of the municipalities and counties.
  • Sportsmans Pledge: “As a true sportsman, I pledge to never litter and to avoid trespassing on private lands. I will respect the rights of property owners, and always leave the streams in better conditions than I found them.” The WNC Fly Fishing Trail was designed to promote an unparalleled fly-fishing experience, and users of the trail are greeted with the Sportsman’s Pledge on every distributed fly-fishing map.

Secret Season

It takes little effort to draw visitors during the weekends in October. It takes a different approach, however, to highlight the area in February.

And yet, the natural attractions remain. In fact, to many visitors and locals looking for a moment of solitude, it is this time that offers the purest natural experience. Research conducted by the TDA showed that some months of the year are at peak capacity with occupancy, which makes the experience not as enjoyable with increased traffic, long waits and more people utilizing the same trail. As part of its new strategic plan, Jackson County shifted marketing focus away from heavy-capacity months to promote and spread visitation year-round. The winter months became the “secret season.” And in the warm months, its the weekdays that are now most highly recommended.

This effort enhances both the visitor and resident experience, while promoting conservation efforts.

Partnerships

In evaluating the successes of the area, every person interviewed for this case study independently indicated the strength of the local partnerships as the pivotal factor. It is the consensus asset in how Sylva and Jackson County have been able to edge their tourism economy ahead of similarly attractive areas. The partnership aspect is so strong, in fact, that credit for each project is difficult to attribute. The lines of project ownership, development and support are blurred, beneficially and without ego.

“We are all working together,” Spiro says. “It is not a competition. It is truly for the betterment of everybody.”

The municipalities’ roles blend in as well, though some individual responsibilities do emerge. First, the towns, especially county chair Sylva, facilitates those partnerships and serves as their main hub. It is through Sylva that associations like Main Street contribute to the process; it’s where county-focused leaders like Breedlove and Spiro are based.

And second, the towns, as the builders of infrastructure, take on a significant part in solving logistical problems. The Town of Webster serves as a prime example. Mayor Tracy Rodes discusses the Fly Fishing Trail and the tremendous amount of attention it has brought to the streams. Visitors, economic development, and town pride are all increasing. Parking availability, however, has diminished. “We have done such a good job of getting the word out, that when everyone comes, you realize you have infrastructure needs,” Rodes said. With space limited and future road construction already scheduled to restrict needed routes, there is no easy solution. Still, being in the town and understanding the community, she doesn’t just pinpoint the problem, she contextualizes it. Then, she sends it back into the partnership apparatus where a variety of support and funding sources will begin tackling the problem quickly and efficiently, as they have in the past. “The need is identified and shared.”

It’s an arrangement that works, and the benefits speak for themselves, Mayor Sossamon says, keeping the low points of Sylva’s history front of mind. Again, just a few decades ago, downtown enjoyed almost zero nightlife.

 

Lessons Learned

Results

In terms of occupancy taxes, Jackson County is setting personal records.

The below chart lists the occupancy taxes collected in Jackson County. Each fiscal year enjoyed an increase in revenue, with the exception of the pandemic-ridden 2019-20, although the first three months of this current fiscal are the three highest in the county’s history.

Jackson County Occupancy Taxes Collected
Month FY 15-16 FY 16-17 FY 17-18 FY 18-19 FY 19-20 FY 20-21
JULY $105,354.28 $119,861.04 $119,152.80 $135,881.68 $122,421.68 $187,832.18
AUGUST $163,948.85 $180,394.59 $181,280.78 $191,736.34 $166,057.35 $233,601.43
SEPTEMBER $122,331.68 $135,649.23 $148,701.72 $152,650.37 $133,172.02 $228,850.82
OCTOBER $80,775.31 $94,100.41 $90,329.60 $106,838.84 $130,912.47
NOVEMBER $117,640.33 $115,576.40 $144,240.73 $127,342.88 $129,268.34
DECEMBER $66,956.10 $89,928.52 $84,754.30 $106,016.63 $93,829.84
JANUARY $39,690.82 $56,081.35 $56,029.08 $60,207.39 $79,652.13
FEBRUARY $26,696.45 $29,357.66 $37,210.91 $43,528.62 $55,878.75
MARCH $29,114.84 $33,603.67 $35,029.92 $45,185.00 $55,161.52
APRIL $37,797.19 $40,794.81 $44,116.59 $64,498.34 $34,404.69*
MAY $46,472.01 $61,363.25 $53,695.68 $68,385.86 $15,854.63
JUNE $85,145.38 $76,932.28 $83,711.73 $89,275.51 $76,044.67
Totals $921,923.24 $1,033,643.21 $1,078,253.84 $1,191,547.46 $1,092,658.09
Accom. Sales $23,048,081.00 $25,841,080.25 $26,956,346.00 $29,788,686.50 $27,316,452.25
YOY Growth 12.12% 4.32% 10.51% Pandemic

Since 2015, Jackson County has increased tourism spending (retail, accommodations, lodging, attractions, etc.) by over $30 million. Additional, employment has gone up as have state and local tax receipts, offsetting the amount of taxes paid by residents.

Additional statistics on the economic impact to the area can be seen below:

Jackson County Economic Statistics
Year 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
Expenditures ($millions) $163.03 $171.16 $175.92 $188.45 $195.44 $205.81 $207.48
Year over year increase 4.47% 4.99% 2.78% 7.12% 3.71% 5.30% 0.81%
Payroll ($millions) $36.55 $38.78 $41.53 $44.91 $48.52 $50.87 $51.85
Employment (thousands) 1.61 1.66 1.71 1.81 1.85 1.89 1.87
State Tax Receipts ($millions) $8.94 $9.17 $9.79 $10.55 $10.86 $11.34 $11.36
Local Tax Receipts ($millions) $7.37 $7.75 $8.04 $8.63 $9.08 $9.50 $9.50
Tax Savings, per resident $399.55 $412.46 $428.70 $457.77 $462.46 $464.01 $470.46

Employment rose six consecutive years before essentially staying flat in 2019. Money earned and spent throughout the area continues to rise, as seen through the steady increase in payroll and receipts. These numbers ride on the backs of the individual projects mentioned above. The Fly Fishing Trail has been distributed hundreds of thousands of times, estimates Breedlove. The map of Cashiers has been distributed over 30,000 of these maps in two years, while costing just $2,000 in creative time. Sylva, despite a population of fewer than 3,000, comfortably hosts four breweries, with another one in Cashiers and a taproom in Dillsboro. These efforts may seem minor and tourist focused, but they’re a core piece of a strategy that benefits all, including residents, whose tax savings increase year over year.

Momentum

Less quantifiable is the value of the partnerships, though again, relevant parties point to this specific resource when looking at what has allowed the area to draw increased tourism year over year.

Sylva Mayor Sossamon compares the current environment to that of the 1980s, and sees a dramatic shift. Those were times defined by silos—an arrangement that, considering the environment and assets at play, don’t make much sense. Still, that was the status quo. And though she doesn’t point to a specific moment in which that situation changed, she can look back, compare, and see the clarity in their current approach.

“After all,” she said, “we’re in the mountains. Visitors don’t care about town and county lines.”

November 12, 2020