“When Dillsboro leaders thought they could use assistance because they had really come on hard times,” recalled Dr. Betty Farmer, a communications professor at WCU.
Jean Hartbarger was mayor of Dillsboro at the time the town hooked up with WCU. She describes the university as the “catalyst” that helped spark the current energy that is propelling the town forward.
“They help in so many ways,” Hartbarger said.
Farmer has heard similar sentiments from Dillsboro merchants and residents when working with the town.
“As some of the people said, ‘Western Carolina gave us hope,’” Farmer said.
The university — both faculty and students — has worked with Dillsboro on a variety of levels. WCU has helped the town create maps and brochures. It has assisted in planning and promoting events.
Communication and public relations students have provided social media training sessions for Dillsboro merchants. Teachers in that department helped launch the Dillsboro Dish, the town’s e-newsletter.
For the past three years, the town’s Lights & Luminaries event featured a WCU evening. The event attracted throngs of students and staff from Cullowhee. In 2012, Dillsboro merchants reported that sales doubled from the previous year, in 2013 they reportedly had their biggest day since the financial downturn.
The university also developed an app for the town to help connect customers to the merchants. Students and faculty from the Computer Information Systems program designed it and communication and public relations students helped promote it.
“It seemed like coming up with an app to make it easier for prospective customers to find businesses there was a way to help,” said Dan Clapper, a Computer Information System associate professor. “The Dillsboro merchants have been very excited about it.”
In conjunction with Southwestern Community College’s Small Business Center, WCU’s Small Business and Technology Development Center hosted a business contest this year. Applicants interested in pursuing a business in Dillsboro completed course work at SCC and competed for $5,000 to put toward their endeavors.
The contest winner, Annie Burrell, operates Rabbit Creek Pottery with her sister. She can recall presenting her pitch.
“I didn’t think I was going to win, so I wasn’t that nervous,” Burrell said. “And I took some pottery with me, so it was like having some friends.”
Burrell’s business was already up and running in Dillsboro when she entered the business contest. She said the town appealed to her because of its strong arts scene, and that she’s glad to be around to be part of the energy crackling through town.
“I feel like it’s going to make a comeback,” Burrell said.
Another project stemming from Dillsboro’s partnership with WCU is a new book. A Guide to Historic Dillsboro will be introduced during the town’s Sept. 6 celebration of its 125th anniversary.
The book relays Dillsboro’s history, profiles local artists, features current businesses and details the town’s events. It was produced by public relations and communications students Tyler Cook, Michael Lovett and Susan Shelton, along with Dr. Farmer.
“Everybody that has read it has loved it,” said Cook. “They feel like it is something that will promote Dillsboro for years to come.”
The profits from the book will go to benefit the Appalachian Women’s Museum, which is currently working to restore the Monteith Farmstead in Dillsboro. The historic farmhouse will eventually house the museum celebrating Appalachian women.
“It will tell the story of all the Appalachian women that made this area what is, and that includes Cherokee and African-American women.”
“We said ‘we want to do this for you because you’ll be able to promote the area in the future,” Cook explained of the decision to donate the book proceeds to the museum.
Through all of these projects with WCU, the town is growing stronger. Dillsboro is also learning ways to continue moving forward through such work. That’s the point of the partnership.
“The role of the university is not to come in and do things for the town, but for us to teach the town to do things for themselves,” Farmer said.
The role of the university is not only to assist, but also to inspire. The partnership aims to instill, as Farmer says, hope. Such hope can only be realized through working together with the community over time.
“The coolest piece, I think, is this dynamic that comes in investing time and energy into a community,” said Lane Perry, WCU’s Center for Service Learning director. “You can generate hope, hope they sometimes can’t see themselves.”
In addition to benefitting the town of Dillsboro, the WCU partnership also benefits students. It provides them with valuable experience and allows them to participate in the realization of a town’s aspirations.
“Students get real world experience. Which also translates into portfolio material, and translates into jobs,” said Farmer. “This is a reciprocal relationship.”
WCU releases Dillsboro book
A Guide to Historic Dillsboro will be released at 10 a.m. Sept. 6 during the town’s 125th anniversary celebration. The book is born from Dillsboro’s partnership with Western Carolina University and was written by university students.
Authors Tyler Cook, Michael Lovett and Susan Shelton, who worked with WCU professor Dr. Betty Farmer, will be on hand during the 125th celebration as their work is released.
“We look forward to share our stories with the Dillsboro community,” said Cook.
The book will also be sold in local stores and online. Proceeds go to support the Appalachian Women’s Museum.