Heartwood — the multi-million dollar, self-proclaimed “artisan center” in Abingdon — opened this week but there’s a lot of trouble brewing behind the fancy building that sits just off Interstate 81.
Funded with taxpayer-supported grants and tobacco-settlement funds, Heatwood is the showcase project of Southwest Virginia, a new area promotion organization headed by a former state government official. It promises to be an artisan center that serves Southwestern Virginia and boosts the creative economy of the region.
But some have their doubts, including Mark Sage, editor of Southwest Virginia Community Newspapers — the Media General chain that owns several newspapers including the Floyd Press.
Heartwood, if the folks who draw a check promoting such things can be believed, is going to save us all. Milk and honey will soon flow out of these mountain hollers. Well, first will come the music, then the quilts, wooden bowls, clay goblets and leather chaps, followed closely by the honey and then the organic, raw milk, but it will still be flowing. Promise.
The idea of a creative economy is more than a decade old now, and it’s every bit as tantalizing as it was back in 2001, especially since all the other economies it promises to replace tanked in spectacular fashion between NAFTA’s 1990s and TARP’s 2007.
The premise is that creativity is the new investment banking, which was a few years ago the new engineering degree, which was, some might remember, the old juris doctorate, which we think may have been related to plastics. The creative economy, as opposed to the information economy, the industrial economy and the hunter-gatherer economy, is somehow supposed to be more sustainable, if you like your bywords, and moral, if you like your judgments.
Proponents, who are likely to be the only ones to get rich in a creative economy, say that the idea is the thing and that creative thinking is worth its weight in gold. Unfortunately, as those with scales might attest, thoughts don’t weigh anything.
As one who has dabbled — and lost money — in the region’s “creative economy,” I can see some logic in Sage’s arguments. Few of the musicians, artists and creative types who practice their craft support themselves through those efforts. Most have day jobs to pay the bills.
Heartwood has also stumbled — spending 175 grand on a web site that still doesn’t work the way the organization wants and contracting with a national food service company to run the restaurant rather than hiring local chefs.
Over the last several years, Southwestern Virginia has spawned a glut of groups who promise to deliver a pot of gold to the locals. The mountains and valleys are littered with organizations that want to save define, redefine, promote, market and/or exploit what the area has to offer. There are a lot of type-A personalities trying to reshape the region into their idea of what it should be.
Perhaps we should slow down a bit before we turn the region into a plastic, commercially-defined parody of what a rural area really is.
Perhaps Sage said it best:
We all agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but a gentrified, defanged Appalachia will only produce art for beholders with cataracts, we fear. Hey, give them what they want.
The other fear is the bill of goods so many are being sold. Every quilt-stitching, chair-caning, clay-throwing type in 19 counties is being told that you can make a lot of money doing this. Their money, in the form of public funding, has been used and will likely be used to sustain the chase. What if it’s a vapor they’re chasing? What if only a handful of already-established, bankable commodities (the Wayne Hendersons, if you will) can make a living doing what they love? Perhaps we’ll get that mobile living situation Florida supposes is best for a creative class after all.
Food for thought — and perhaps the best we can hope for is that the food is locally-produced.