By Richard Rourk
The Town of Erwin is once again being recognized by national media as several local entrepreneurs and officials will appear on the web series American Paycheck on Thursday, July 23.
American Paycheck is a show that travels the country to see how people make money, how they spend the money they’ve made and how they cope with adverse financial situations in their communities.
According to American Paycheck filmmakers, Brad Hunt and Andrew Daly, the Erwin episode will feature:
• Jamie Rice, who grew up in Erwin, and as many small-town folks do, left for a bigger city after college. But her hometown kept calling her back, so she returned and opened The Bramble, a wedding and events space. The same month she opened her doors, CSX left, devastating the town. Rice became the leader of RISE Erwin. She also ended up taking a job as the communications specialist in the mayor’s office.
• Doris Hensley, the town’s 70-year-old mayor, played a key role in Erwin’s resurgence. Like many small-towns, even before the railyard closed down, Erwin was plagued by young people leaving for greener pastures. Following the 2015 disaster, Hensley partnered with RISE to figure out how to make Erwin an attractive place for people to live.
• Husband and wife, Tyler and Brandy started their business Erwin Outdoor Supply to cater to the region’s tourist community.
Their grand opening brought in 1,600 people and they speak to their impact on Erwin and the benefits of doing business in a small town. They are also members of RISE Erwin.
• Jason Howze is the owner/operator of the Noli Food Truck. While not a member of RISE Erwin, Jason speaks to Erwin’s entrepreneurial spirit and revival. A decade ago he was a competition barbecuer and he says there were no food trucks in the entire region. He started his truck and traveled around the region building his brand until he returned full-time back to Erwin at the start of 2019.
According to Daly, Erwin was the perfect spot to film.
“I was looking for a story about young workers in the South between Atlanta and West Virginia. Nothing in the big cities really inspired me, so I kept researching and the second I learned about Erwin and its revival I knew that’s the story I wanted to tell,” Daly said. “When I shared it with Brad (Hunt) he instantly felt the same. What was so great here was that the effort to rebuild Erwin encompassed RISE members in their 20s and 30s to folks like Lee Brown and Mayor Doris Hensley who had been in Erwin for decades. We saw people from different generations working together, not in conflict like what’s often portrayed.
“The story of Mary the Elephant, of course, was very compelling. The town had dealt with a stigma from being the location of Mary’s execution, and was currently dealing with the elephant in the room for communities throughout America – deindustrialization. The loss of industrial jobs has hit the South particularly hard and CSX leaving Erwin is no isolated incident.”
According to Hensley, the opportunity to showcase Erwin to the rest of the world is exciting.
“I am very grateful that Erwin was chosen for this project,” Hensley said. “The production was amazing. It showcased the natural beauty, personality and hospitality of our community. This film will, undoubtedly, reveal the hidden gem in Northeast Tennessee.
Hensley acknowledged that in 2015, it was important to think outside the box.
“In 2015, when our economy went south, our young people were leaving this area to seek employment elsewhere, and those who lost their job were also moving to other locations,” Hensley says. “Erwin is mostly an aging community. The young people are our next generation – our future leaders. In order for Erwin to continue to grow and improve the economy, we need to provide an atmosphere that is attractive to the young adults and professionals.”
For Rice, having Erwin featured in American Paycheck is another achievement in a series of accomplishments for Erwin.
“Seeing the perception of Erwin slowly change has been a great accomplishment,” Rice said. “We are not a dying coal-impacted town. We are strong mountain people who are resilient and will survive whatever challenges life throws our way. I love it when my own kids want to walk downtown to get a sweet treat from the new bakery, or watch smiling families taking pictures of their favorite painted elephant. Those were not options just a few years ago. We are creating great memories for the next generation of locals of their hometown.”
Brandy Bevins said the project was a way to express the importance of community.
“Our roots are in this county,” she said. “There’s no better way to live life to its fullest potential than in your hometown as a business owner contributing to the community and raising our family to respect and admire it as much as we do.”
Tyler Bevins agrees with Brandy.
“Investing in our community allows us to pay tribute to what our forefathers cherished as well as helping it sustain and thrive for future generations,” he said. “First Friday events help us show the community what attracted us to open a business here. We extend business hours, showcase local artists and products, and offer specials at these events. It allows those attending the opportunity to walk along our beautiful downtown area and truly take in what our town has to offer.”
Like Erwin, American Paycheck came from humble beginnings.
“The inspiration for American Paycheck came after I filmed a video for Million Stories in Austin, Texas, asking millennials personal finance questions,” Hunt said. “I was surprised by how many didn’t know basics like what a good credit score is. But I was shocked by how many had to work additional jobs to make ends meet – tech employees with college degrees drove for Uber to earn extra cash. Was this due to the cost of living in Austin or was it happening across the country?
“I decided to create a series exploring how millennials are navigating our economy nationwide, with each episode exploring the major industry in a different state. A few weeks into my research I received a happy birthday text from my high school friend, Andrew Daly. I’ve always considered Andrew to be one of the smartest people I know, so when he told me he was pursuing a career in film, I told him about the project in hopes that we could work together,” Hunt continued. “He loved it and we started collaborating. Through making the series we were able to showcase how people deal with an economy they didn’t create, the obstacles and opportunities they face, and a spirit of grit nationwide allowing people to survive and sometimes thrive.”
For Daly and Hunt, their experience in Erwin was a positive one.
“We want to thank everyone in Erwin for their wonderful hospitality, and single out Jamie Rice in particular,” Daly and Hunt said. “Without her we wouldn’t have been able to make an episode we are so proud of. Also, thank you to Matt Moses of USA Raft for hosting us on a beautiful whitewater rafting trip down the Nolichucky”
To view the Erwin episode of American Paycheck, tune into millionstories.com on July 23.