By Lisa Whaley

This small town is thrivin’.

Don’t believe all the hype. Small towns are not dying — or at least not this small town, if the weekend’s Apple Festival is any indication.

Now in its 42nd year, the Apple Festival has become synonymous throughout our region as the place to go to enjoy everything hearth and home — from crafts and food to music and art and, of course, apples.

But walking through downtown Erwin Saturday, something else caught my eye.

It was the realization that I was witness to the celebration of a living, breathing community – small town America at its best with little to no signs of decay.

I know. I’ve read the articles and seen the empty store fronts. As a girl who grew up in a town of just 300, I’m very familiar with the challenges small towns face.

And Erwin has had more than its share. The pulling out of CSX Railroad in 2015 was enough for a knock-out. The decision to close Morrill Motors was another such blow.

Yet the Erwin I saw this past Saturday looked neither down nor out.

Women swapped stories on one corner. Family members reunited on another. A group of millennials, handsome and eyes alight with all the promise of the future, joked with each other on a third.

The crowds were filled with everything from giggling children skipping down the street to old men sharing their tall tales, and all ages in-between. It was an irresistible combination of wisdom and promise, heady joy and cool-headed common sense that seemed to promise a bright future for anyone willing to grab this small-town comet by the tail.

And it wasn’t just the audience that seemed to shine. Within the booths and behind the tables, visitors found a collection of hard-working dreamers, not necessarily from Unicoi County, but part of this community nonetheless.

These would-be authors and artists, bakers and woodworkers, jewelers and craftsmen were all working to create a future that could include something they loved to do. And they were happy to share those dreams with anyone who would stop, look and listen.

That, I believe, may be the secret to our success.

Small town America needs jobs. It needs young people willing to put down roots in rural communities. It needs roads, a solid infrastructure, good law enforcement and dedicated mayors. All of these things can be crucial.

But I think, more importantly, small town America needs to be proud of what we have, to celebrate its value and to look excitedly toward the promise of tomorrow.

While this past weekend may have been a festival —  and festivals do indeed bring people from all over —  what I saw Saturday was pure Erwin. The Valley Beautiful has an amazing future ahead of it, as long as we never stop believing in its power.

Erwin is in no danger. I believe that. And I can’t wait to see what we bring to tomorrow.