Stephanie Porter-Nichols | Smyth County News and Messenger
There’s power in repetition, and three Smyth County women plan to repeat their message over and over until it takes hold.
Their task is demanding. They face generations of beliefs that bigger and better jobs – jobs, lifestyles, hope – can be found elsewhere and, more simply, that there is nothing to do here. .
Sarah Gillespie, Kendra Hayden, and Amanda Livingston passionately disagree with these longstanding assertions. To counter them, the trio gave voice to another idea: Smyth Strong.
They argue that Smyth Strong is more than a feel-good slogan or logo, but can become a community spirit that reinforces the truth that “We are stronger together.”
Such a basic spirit, according to them, will benefit the quality of life of citizens.
As united as they are behind Smyth Strong and working for the county’s growth, the women all work for different entities, undertake different goals and bring different perspectives to the table.
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Born and raised in Smyth County, Gillespie admits that as a young woman she moved in search of better prospects, but eventually discovered she was a “Smyth County girl who wanted to move”. Now executive director of the Smyth County Chamber of Commerce, Gillespie believes she has found the perfect job, one that allows her, as an entrepreneur, to help others who follow or want to follow this path.
When she helps people start new small businesses, Gillespie said, she is as invested in the work as the owners and often becomes their friend. They “cultivate a dream and an idea,” she says, explaining her passion.
Hayden has lived in Smyth County for so long that she is ready to declare native status. “I have always loved Smyth County,” she said, citing the kindness and opportunity she has experienced here. She is the Smyth County Economic Development Project Manager and has worked in the County Economic Development Office since 2015.
Livingston describes himself as the new kid on the block. She moved from Atlanta, Georgia to southwest Virginia in 2012. In January 2021, she assumed the role of Smyth County Tourism Director, working for the tourism association. Her husband opens a small business in downtown Marion. “We are planting roots and invested in the success of the county,” Livingston said.
Seeing Smyth County with fresh eyes gives Livingston an edge, she thinks. “Being just quite a foreigner, I see how wonderful, welcoming and beautiful Smyth County is,” she said, thinking it hurts her to realize that other people may not be able to. see this view.
Those who do not share his point of view can also undermine his work in attracting visitors and potential future residents to the community.
Livingston explained that she can tell travelers and tourists all about the natural treasures, restaurants and other attractions in Smyth County, but that can all be undone if they walk into a local gas station, ask what to do here and get “nothing” as an answer.
“We want people [residents] to see how special this community is,” Livingston said.
Hayden explained that attitudes toward the county can even impact residents’ livelihoods. If residents have a more optimistic view of their community, it affects the quality of life, which is a key draw for new businesses and industries.
For generations, Hayden said, people have projected a negative message about Smyth County, which has been repeated, children have heard it and listened to it and passed it on.
Now, Gillespie said, they will hammer out a new message – a message they hope will be embraced in all parts of the community and help shape the county’s identity.
Smyth Strong’s concept began to take shape in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic when unknowns and fears about the economic future kept business owners up at night. Local officials wanted businesses, especially small businesses, to know they weren’t alone.
“Smyth Strong” was unveiled in the summer of 2020 as the name of a fund created to help local small businesses survive the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The fund was the combined effort of the City of Chilhowie and the Saltville Industrial Development Authority, Smyth County Supervisors and its Economic Development Authority, and the Chamber of Commerce.
Within months, the fund grew from providing loans to offering grants ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 to small businesses in Smyth County.
Over time, Smyth Strong began to take on a larger life – one that could pool resources and complement the work of various agencies and ministries rather than duplicate efforts.
In an earlier chat, Livingston said the trio wanted to “get the most out of every tax dollar.”
She nodded to County Administrator Shawn Utt for helping Smyth Strong get past his early stages.
On Thursday, Utt reflected on the move, saying, “Smyth Strong is an initiative we’re pushing to help bring everyone together to make us all stronger. What started as a program to help strengthen small businesses during the pandemic has grown to help make the whole county a stronger…. We need an initiative that all of us (county, municipalities, businesses and citizens) can rally around. Smyth Strong may be that very initiative. We have to make everyone stronger.
As Smyth Strong grows, Utt said it will offer “additional programs to help encourage businesses to invest in themselves as well as programs that will help market the county in the greater region.”
On Thursday night, the Smyth County Board of Supervisors awarded funding to help Smyth Strong achieve those goals. Following the recommendation of its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) committee, supervisors approved the allocation of $300,000 of its approximately $5.9 million in federal pandemic relief funds for small business support .
Gillespie said, “We want to help businesses that have weathered COVID” to grow.
Last month, supervisors approved $50,000 from that same pool of money for Smyth County Tourism for marketing to people who live outside the county.
Livingston explained that marketing will begin immediately and will specifically target residents of the Tri-Cities, Roanoke and Richmond areas, and North Carolina. As these people begin to plan their summer vacations, the tourism manager said: ‘We hope they will remember Smyth County.’
Tourists, she says, can be a community’s temporary tax payers. They come to visit and leave the tax money behind.
The point of it all, Gillespie said, is economic development.
She underlined: “We do not want to stand still” in the area of growth.
Through Smyth Strong, they wish to support the development of broadband as essential to the growth of existing citizens and businesses and to attract newcomers.
Gillespie noted that they are exploring initiatives to help young people thrive and retain indigenous talent in this community.
One such event will take place in April, when the chamber hosts Student Government Day and the Opportunity Fair at Chilhowie Christian Church. Students will learn about local government and explore educational, career, and even volunteer opportunities available in the area.
To support their message, the three women are also launching a new podcast, Peaks & Valleys, which will be hosted on the chamber’s website which will also feature a Smyth Strong landing page. In the near future, Peaks & Valleys will be available on iTunes and Spotify.
Peaks & Valleys, Gillespie said, will help people learn about those responsible and see the person behind the government title. It’s so easy for people to forget that leaders and officials are human, she said.
Hayden said, “We hope knowledge will be power” and citizens will learn that public servants work for the good of the community.
To help keep Smyth Strong at the forefront, a logo was designed for use at county and city agencies and beyond. This logo will soon appear on pens and a variety of loot.
Last summer, speaking about Smyth Strong, Hayden emphasized that they don’t want to operate in a scarcity mindset.
“Growth happens collectively,” she said, explaining that they want to make new connections that can deliver the “boldest ideas” while strengthening weak spots.