By Brad Hicks
The recent transformation of downtown Erwin both in terms of aesthetics and activity has not gone unnoticed by state officials who, earlier this week, recognized local leaders for their efforts to reinvigorate not only the heart of the town, but Erwin as a whole.
On Tuesday, the Tennessee Municipal League presented the Town of Erwin with the TML Achievement Award for Excellence in Economic and Community Development. The award was presented during the TML’s 78th Annual Conference held in Murfreesboro.
“Of course, it’s an honor to be recognized for our investment that we’ve put into downtown,” Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said last week. “It was a surprise.”
Several months ago, Pat Hardy, a municipal management consultant with the Municipal Technical Advisory Service, asked Erwin Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff to reflect upon some of the town’s accomplishments since 2014, a request with which Rosenoff complied in April. That list, unbeknownst to Erwin officials, was used to nominate the town for the award it received Tuesday.
Hensley said Hardy made her aware that the town had been nominated for the TML Achievement Award for Excellence in Economic and Community Development during the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s retreat held May 12-13. She said the town received word it had won the award the week before last.
While the list previously provided to Hardy lists accomplishments such a beautification and access improvement projects, the securement of a highly competitive grant, and new festivals and events launched since 2014, perhaps the chief accomplishment among the list is the completion of Erwin’s Downtown Revitalization project.
The three-phase Downtown Revitalization project was completed in the summer of 2015. The enterprise got off the ground in 2012 when the Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved the project master plan. Work on the first phase was completed in 2013, and the remaining two phases were completed after the start of 2014.
Rosenoff said the recently-completed Downtown Revitalization project was the first major renovation to Erwin’s downtown area in around four decades.
In a release announcing Erwin as the winner of this year’s TML Achievement Award for Excellence in Economic and Community Development, Hardy described the downtown revitalization work as “unbelievable,” adding that the recent completion of the Pat E. Brown Memorial Bridge, otherwise known as the railroad overpass, is an example of the dedication to community betterment town leaders have displayed in recent years.
“This area has once again become the focal point of the community,” Hardy stated. “In fact, it is a destination in itself. Only a decade ago no one would have envisioned the completion of the bridge and related infrastructure. It would have seemed out of reach, too expensive, too complicated, and involved too many agencies and private sector actors. But looking beyond all these complications and envisioning a new era for the community, was the strong suit of the mayor, (Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen), and administrative staff. Working together, they pulled off one of the most amazing transformations of downtown infrastructure I have ever seen.”
Although integral components, Erwin officials saw the Downtown Revitalization project as more than the widening of sidewalks, paving of streets and upgrading of infrastructure. These officials viewed the undertaking as a catalyst for economic development, as it was felt that a facelift would serve to draw more visitors and prospective entrepreneurs to Erwin.
“The Downtown Revitalization was definitely a financial investment with the hopes, of course, to not only draw new downtown businesses and folks, but also have a ripple effect on other places and other corridors,” Rosenoff said.
And, according to Erwin’s leaders, the investment in the downtown district is paying off as downtown Erwin has served as the base of several events and festivals launched since the project’s completion that have attracted or continue to attract scores of attendees.
As an example, Rosenoff pointed to the 57th Annual Southeastern Autorama car show, which was held on June 3. This year’s Autorama, for the first time in more than 40 years, was held in downtown Erwin. Rosenoff said both the event’s return downtown and its success this year to Erwin’s upgraded downtown district.
And the Autorama is hardly alone when it comes to successful events held downtown.
“All the way to the Great Outdoors Festival to the Elephant Revival festival to the Farmers Market, those were all successes after the downtown revitalization was completed,” Rosenoff said.
Rosenoff said while the town’s efforts have not solely been focused on revamping the downtown, he said having a dynamic downtown is an essential part of economic development. He also said the bustle and energy found in the downtown area since the revitalization project’s completion has been “contagious” because, as Erwin officials intended, the project’s impact has spread beyond downtown.
“Having the vibrant downtown seems to have a significant ripple effect,” Rosenoff said. “If you look at Johnson City, they’re getting back to the core of what used to be the city, which was the downtown and having a vibrant downtown. Well, that’s what we’re looking at. Back 40, 50, 60 years ago, your downtown was vibrant. There were shops open. They had people walking and customers going in and spending money, spending local money, and bringing tourists. So we are full-throttle right now in trying to attract folks, not only just local, but regionally and beyond to come into Erwin and experience our town and the county.”
“With the revitalization, it’s not just a downtown beautification project, but it is the revitalization of our town economically,” the mayor said.
Other projects to crack the list previously submitted to Hardy include the road rehabilitation completed along South Industrial Drive, which serves the town’s industrial park, a beautification project completed at Exit 36, and the sale of the previously town-owned Elm Street School property to a developer who is currently working to convert the former school into a residential development.
Also making the cut were the town’s receipt of grant funding from the Tennessee Valley Authority through the agency’s InvestPrep program. This funding is to be used to prepare the former Morgan Insulation site for future industrial development. The town also recently launched its Downtown Erwin Redevelopment Loan Program through which small business and property owners can receive financial assistance to purchase or renovate downtown property or to purchase equipment for the purpose of business creation, expansion or retention.
On top of the items listed, Rosenoff said other town efforts include “all walks of life in the economic development field.” He said town officials are continuing to work with officials from Mountain States Health Alliance on the development of the new Unicoi County Memorial Hospital. Town officials are working with someone who potentially wants to develop professional offices on the other end of town. Earlier this year, the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen also approved certificates of compliance for a pair of package stores to be located within the town’s limits.
“There’s just a lot of activity, a lot energy, going into the whole town,” Rosenoff said.
Hensley said the TML’s recognition serves as a symbol of how the community overcame and survived the job loss resulting from the October 2015 closure of the CSX office in Erwin and other losses. She spoke on this subject during the multi-day TML Annual Conference.
“They had asked me to speak on Sunday about the revitalization and how we have come back as a town and grown economically, so I’ll be presenting some information to all the other cities down there on how we survived losing 368 jobs,” Hensley said last week.
And Rosenoff said the list he provided to Hardy could have been longer. Additional events and projects include the recent hanging of banners announcing Erwin as the “Proud Hometown of the Erwin Nine” throughout the downtown, as well as the Nativity Parade held around Christmas and Welcome Home Veterans Parade, which will be held again this year on July 4 in downtown Erwin.
“I think overall accoplishments have been that the town has invested financially, emotionally and professionally in growing, not only the downtown, but also looking at the town in general, whether it’s housing, business or industrial,” Rosenoff said.
Hardy, in the release announcing Erwin as a winner of the award, stated the town was living up to its motto – “Advancing Erwin Through Economic Growth and Community Development.” Hardy added that the efforts city leaders working hand-in-hand with citizens and local agencies has created is “the perfect example of a community partnership.”
“They have realized amazing possibilities because they work together to identify and act on common goals,” Hardy stated. “In the minds of those in the town of Erwin, nothing is impossible, and anything can be achieved if you dream, work hard, and act in the spirit of togetherness. This is what local governance is all about, and Erwin exemplifies these ideals.”
Each year, the TML honors cities throughout the state for overall excellence, improvement, specific outstanding programs, or department accomplishments. Other award winners for 2017 include Bristol, for Excellence in Human Resources; Chapel Hill, for Small Town Progress; Chattanooga, for Excellence in Green Leadership; Collegedale, for Excellence in Community Planning and Development; Dyersburg, for Excellence in Police Services; Germantown, for Fire Services; Harriman, for Small City Progress; Livingston, for Excellence in Downtown Revitalization; and Townsend, Progressive Leadership Award.