By Richard Rourk
The past year has taken its toll on the world, including Unicoi County, but several local ofﬁ cials are cau-tiously optimistic for 2021. According to Town of Erwin Communications Specialist Jamie Rice, several events for the upcoming year may be somewhat COVID-19 proof.
“The Farmers Market will start the ﬁrst Tuesday in July as always,” Rice said. “Despite COVID, it was the best year we have had at our farmers market with foot trafﬁc and vendor attendance in 2020.”
Sadly, in the Town of Unicoi, the weekly farmer’s market event is permanently canceled. “The Unicoi Farmers Market and Community Yard Sale have been permanently discontinued,” Town of Unicoi Director of Communications and Programs Ashley Shelton told The Erwin Record. “One Community Yard Sale will be held sometime in June or July but a date has not yet been set.” Fortunately, the Town of Unicoi will continue playing host to several popular events in the future. “There will be a few changes to this year’s event calendar,” Shelton said. “All events are subject to change. The ‘Movies in the Park’ Summer Movie Series will go back to its regularly scheduled months of June, July and August but will keep the drive-in format and a new location at the Tourist Information Center in an effort to be more COVID-friendly.”
According to Shelton, dates are tentatively June 18, July 16 and Aug. 6. “The movies worked well at the caboose this past fall because the venue makes social distancing easy and gives the community a night of entertainment with a much lower risk of exposure,” Shelton said.
In Erwin, the “Nolichucky Opry,” organized by Kiwanis, was a huge success and will hopefully expand this year into the fall, according to Rice.
Much like the “Movies in the Park’’ series in Unicoi, the Town of Erwin hopes to feature some family-friendly fun this year.
“A preliminary new event organized by RISE Erwin will be ‘Movies on Main,” Rice said. “RISE is hoping to offer a free double-feature film on Saturday nights. Starting dates are still to be determined.”
The Town of Erwin is hoping to be able to host one of their classic festivals this year.
“The Great Outdoors Festival is tentatively scheduled for May 1,” Rice said. “We are hoping for the best, but planning for the worse. Preliminary plans have started, however, unless our region’s COVID-rate numbers drop significantly, this festival will likely be canceled. At this point, I feel like it is still safe to do weekly local outdoor events. Larger annual festivals could still be potentially dangerous in 2021 for community spread and we will follow all recommended safety precautions. That may cause us to cancel many again this year.”
In Unicoi, one major annual event has already been canceled for this year, but many others are still being planned depending on COVID-19 numbers.
“The Fiddlers & Fiddleheads Festival has been canceled as a precaution against the virus,” Shelton said. “We are planning on hosting the Wayne Scott Strawberry Festival in May, but COVID will of course be the deciding factor on whether that can occur safely. That event is tentatively scheduled for May 15, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. at Unicoi Elementary School. Freedom Fest is also ‘a go’ as long as COVID numbers allow. That event will be held July 4 beginning at 5 p.m. and ending with a firework spectacular at dark.”
Weekly events and festivals are a big part of Unicoi County, but so are other events that define the county and like the weekly events and festivals, those events are up in the air.
“We are moving forward with the Yarn Bomb, set for March 1 for the Read Across America Campaign and a new public art project is set to debut mid-April,” Rice said. “It is still in the works and sort of a secret. Of course, our elephants are scheduled to be delivered in late February with debut in May-June. We are still looking for artists and sponsors for this herd. Please contact Jamie Rice at Townhall or visit erwintn.org for more info.”
In Unicoi, many events will no longer be held in cooperation with the town. “Pick’n on the Porch is not currently running, but the group is looking to be back to their pick’n as soon as COVID allows,” Shelton said. “Decisions regarding the Monday night event series will hopefully be made in the next couple of months.
Other events such as Easter at the Cabin, the Ice Cream Social, Heritage Days, Veteran’s Day Luncheon and more, are projects of the Unicoi History Group and will be coordinated solely by that volunteer group going forward.”
COVID-19 had a very unusual effect on the county. “Tourism in Unicoi county for 2020 had some unexpected results,” Rice said. “While all of our annual festivals were canceled, the mountains, rivers and trails were swarmed with people trying to escape the reality of a pandemic. On any given sunny day, the beaches of the Nolichucky were full of people enjoying the great outdoors of Unicoi County.”
Tourism flourished on the north side of the county as well.
“People just didn’t travel as much last year, and we saw a decline in the number of visitors coming off the interstate to use the Tourist Information Center facilities,” Shelton said. “That didn’t mean tourism completely died off; the Pinnacle Trail continued to have a significant amount of usage even during the height of the pandemic. Tourists come to this area for outdoor activities; we’ve known that for a while, so it’s no surprise that our trails and other outdoor spaces were actually more utilized during a time when being outside in nature was the only safe form of recreation. Most of the visitors during this time have been either town residents or regional residents rather than out-of-state travelers.”
According to Shelton, the pandemic has affected many small businesses around the country and Unicoi is no different.
“Our businesses are resilient and local entrepreneurs are dedicated to finding ways to survive and even thrive during these challenging times,” Shelton said. “With the help of the town, Maple Grove and Fit Clean Meals both received contracts to provide meals to senior citizens through the Center for Aging and Disability. This occurred around the time of the lockdown and was instrumental in keeping these businesses open.
“Good Things Subs & More had to close because of the pandemic, but after reconfiguring their business plan,”Shelton added. “They have reopened as a donut shop and I know the response to their new donut sundaes has been excellent. People have raved about how good they are, so we invite everyone to swing by their location on Unicoi Drive and try something new while supporting their neighbors.
“We have also had discussions with Las Guacamayas, another restaurant that was forced to close because of the pandemic, and they are hoping to reopen sometime in the spring,” Shelton continued. “So despite the virus causing unprecedented challenges for local businesses, we are proud to see them still doing well and we encourage the community to continue supporting their efforts by shopping local.”
Heading into 2021, COVID-19 will continue to cast a shadow over the county. “I believe that we will still be under a heavy pandemic
cloud and we must continue to adapt our lifestyle for the sake of public health, however, continue to support our small locally owned businesses,” Rice said. “There has been a mass exodus from larger urban areas into smaller communities, any realtor can verify how well the housing market in Unicoi County has been. I believe people will continue to use our natural resources, rivers, trails, mountains and we must be positioned in a way that can capture the sales tax revenue when they come and visit.”
Shelton confirmed that Unicoi will continue to monitor COVID-19 when planning for 2021.
“COVID numbers will continue to be the deciding factor as to whether we can hold any event safely,” Shelton said. “We are going to move forward with planning for these events and then make final decisions closer to the actual dates. Longterm planning is still a challenge because we just don’t know what this virus will do or how long vaccinations will take or if the vaccinations will be effective. All we can do is make sure event attendees have access to plenty of hand sanitizer, are encouraged to wear a mask, social distance and, of course, keep an eye on the regional numbers in case we need to cancel something altogether.”
According to Shelton, the Town of Unicoi will focus on tourism but will be more diverse when it comes to providing for its citizens.
“The new administration’s approach is centrally focused on citizens’ needs and while tourism will still play a small role in town operations, the overall focus will be to fund projects that directly benefit our residents’ daily life,” Shelton said.
Town of Unicoi Mayor Kathy Bullen confirms the town will shift focus from tourism to focus more on its citizens.
“Tourism has its place, but we want to make sure our residents are the main beneficiaries of town initiatives,” Bullen said. “This is their money and their town, and we want to target road projects and economic development opportunities that will improve their quality of life.”
Shelton hopes as we turn a corner in the fight against COVID-19, that small businesses will have an opportunity to bounce back. “Outside of tourism, we do hope to see our businesses bounce back even better than before as they continue to adapt to the pandemic and, of course, we are hoping that our major festivals can continue as planned because last year was hard on everyone,” Shelton said. “People were going stir-crazy. Any time we were able to safely host an event last year we had almost record turnout because people were so desperate to get out and do something.”
According to Shelton, her office continues to find ways to promote all that Unicoi has to offer. “The town is working on a new brochure that will give residents and visitors a quick reference guide for shopping, eating and having fun in Unicoi,” Shelton said. “We hope to have those on the shelves at our Tourist Information Center no later than April.”
Rice confirms that the community keeps Erwin strong in the face of all of the challenges of life during a pandemic. “We have the most resilient and supportive community,” Rice said. Shelton agreed with Rice.
“Town events would not be possible without the generous support of our sponsors and volunteers, and despite the pandemic, they still came through for us last year,” Shelton said.
“We were surprised at how many local businesses were able to sponsor our new COVID-friendly ‘Christmas at the Caboose’ held in December. But more than 20 small businesses signed-on and it was truly heartwarming to see them continuing to give back to their community during these difficult times. Our volunteers are the other side of that coin and their dedication and support have never been more visible than it was in 2020. Events were canceled, reformatted, and created out of thin air with little to no planning time as coordinators scrambled to keep up with the ever-changing pandemic mandates. But our volunteers never waivered.
“They jumped in and helped make things happen that would have never been thought possible with such a short timeline. From the new drive-in movies to Christmas at the Caboose and even the Santa Squad Toy Drive and Food Distribution, it was ‘all hands on deck’ and our volunteers were the key to making it work. The Unicoi Volunteer Fire Department and several dedicated citizens including Jean Mull, Leisa Willis, Dale and John Foster and many others gave hundreds of man-hours to see these events come to fruition.”
Shelton and Rice aren’t the only ones that see the benefit of working hard for the county. “We do it for the people,” said Unicoi Volunteer Fire Department member Valerie Haney. “We want to do anything we can to give people a sense of normalcy while still making sure they are as safe as possible.”
According to Shelton, the Town of Unicoi extends the most heartfelt appreciation to our amazing group of volunteers and our dedicated sponsors.
Rice echoed Shelton’s sentiments. “We are so appreciative to everyone that makes Erwin a great place to live.”