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Friends of Southwest Virginia visit Pulaski

By WILLIAM PAINE

william.paine@southwesttimes.com

This week two members of the nonprofit organization known as the Friends of Southwest Virginia visited the historic Pulaski Train Depot.

In 2008, the Virginia General Assembly established the Cultural Heritage Foundation as a means of coordinating cultural heritage tourism and economic development in Southwest Virginia. The Friends of Southwest Virginia was founded shortly thereafter with the mission of growing Southwest Virginia’s creative economy. Much of their efforts are aimed at obtaining grants to make tourist destinations in the region more accessible and attractive to visitors.

“We’ve been around since 2010 and it was really meant to be a community development organization,” said Jenna Wagner, Public Relations and Marketing Director for Friends of Southwest Virginia. “For the past couple of years we’ve evolved more into the tourism market and into being a destination marketing organization.”

The Friends of Southwest Virginia came to Pulaski as part of their program to update all of the 19 counties and four cities within their region about happenings within the organization. Their territory essentially includes all counties and localities west of Roanoke, but also includes Franklin County and Wagner is making a point to visit these locations.

One of the projects currently underway under the guidance of the Friends of Southwest Virginia includes the building of a visitor center at the base of High Knob in the western corner of the state. The group has spearhead an effort to provide parking and other facilities at the increasingly popular “Devils’ Bathtub,” a rock formation in Scott County. The group also obtained a block grant to build a boardwalk along the riverfront and into the town of Haysi.

“Our organization is meant to structure and facilitate conversations around the creative economy, which means building around assets that already exist in this region,” said Wagner.

The Friends of Southwest Virginia is based out of Heartwood in Abingdon, which also serves as a musical venue, visitors center, artisans gallery and restaurant. More than half of the money used to operate Friends of Southwest Virginia comes in the form of grants, with the other significant source of income given by the state of Virginia. The staff of Friends of Southwest Virginia has recently grown from seven to 18 staff members, largely because they operate Heartwood’s visitor center and musical venues.

Melissa Mullins, who was also at the train depot, is the Program Manager for Cultural Heritage for the organization. One of the Cultural Heritage programs established by Friends of Southwest Virginia is Round the Mountain, an artisan network that currently has about 300 members.

We have so many different medias,” Mullins explained. “We have a lot of wood carvers that come from this area. We have glass artists. We have those who work with paper. We have fiber artists (people who work with stuffed animals and toys) and quilters. We have authors in our community as well. We’ve also recently added on some graphic designers to the group.”

“We can help artisans find the necessary training and guidance for marketing or E-Commerce or any other asset,” said Mullins. “We want to help them thrive with their craft.”

Round the Mountain offers opportunities to collaborate with other artisans in the region, as well as offering different venues for these artisans to sell their wares. Individual memberships to Round the Mountain Cost $30 and they are looking to increase their membership.

For more information about the Friends of Southwest Virginia, check out their Facebook page.

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