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A Crooked Road to a Creative Economy

Regional Matters
March 5, 2020

Southwest Virginia is home to what is known as the Crooked Road. The Crooked Road originally referred to a stretch of nearly 330 miles of highway that winds through the Appalachians and features stops where visitors can experience and learn about the region’s traditional music. It has come to include other parts of the region that celebrate its rich cultural history. The tourism spurred by this celebration has helped to rebuild a struggling economy.

The economy in southwest Virginia had long been built on coal, tobacco, and manufacturing.  A decline in these industries in the late 20th century led to job loss and weakening local economic conditions. In an effort to revitalize, the region built a creative economy by tapping into cultural assets. A creative economy is one that is built on assets, such as culture, that are unique to a region but are not traditional economic drivers (for example, like coal mining has been in southwest Virginia). The chart below provides one picture of how the makeup of southwest Virginia’s economy has changed over time. Over the past 30 years, the leisure and hospitality industry has come to account for a growing share of private employment. This shift has been larger than for Virginia and the U.S. overall.

The idea for the Crooked Road originated in 2003 when the city of Bristol, considered the birthplace of country music, was featured in the FolkLife Festival, an annual folk music festival hosted by the Smithsonian. This brought national interest to the music of the region, which already featured music venues and festivals that tourists could visit. State and local groups capitalized on the momentum to create the concept of the Crooked Road.

The effort involved public and private cooperation. The Birthplace of Country Music Alliance (BCMA) was interested in making a music trail, and the state of Virginia was interested in boosting economic activity in the region. In 2004, the state designated the Crooked Road as Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail. Along with the state government and BCMA, small towns, the National Park Service, and other nonprofits collaborated on the project. The creation and marketing of one united trail encouraged visitors who may otherwise have only visited one venue to stay in the region longer or to come back to see other sites. It also attracted new tourists to the area. Tourism and state and local funding allowed towns in the area to create or improve attractions. Today, the Crooked Road spans 19 counties and four independent cities in southwest Virginia and features over 60 music venues.

Many of the area’s cities and towns, such as Bristol and Marion, have seen tourism growth and have been able to grow in general as a result. For example, hotels have opened in abandoned buildings, restaurants have more business, and downtowns are livelier, bringing in money and making the region a more attractive place to live. A 2015 study by the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development estimated that the Crooked Road directly brought $6.4 million in tourism spending to the region each year, resulting in a total annual impact of $9.2 million to the region’s economy.

Efforts behind the development of the Crooked Road have helped to preserve culture and heighten cultural pride. One particularly successful program is the Junior Appalachian Music program (JAM), which encourages youth to learn Appalachian music in order to continue the musical culture. In recent years, the creative economy built upon culture in southwest Virginia has expanded beyond music. For example, Round the Mountain is an artisan network that celebrates the region’s traditional arts and crafts. Meanwhile, Southwest Virginia Outdoors promotes natural beauty and outdoor activities. Even traditional culinary culture is being promoted and serves as a draw for visitors.

The Crooked Road has also inspired similar efforts in other locations. Marketing for the Crooked Road is handled by regional tourism as well as Virginia tourism. The drawback to state funding is that it confines the marketed area to the state of Virginia rather than allowing a unified effort across states in the area. However, Tennessee recently adopted a similar initiative known as “Tennessee Music Pathways” to promote regional music. Projects inspired by or modeled after the Crooked Road are a testament to its success as an economic driver.

According to Steve Galyean, former tourism director in Abingdon, Va., and current planning and partnerships director of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, the goals of the Crooked Road were to preserve musical heritage, promote visitation, and aid in community revitalization in southwest Virginia. Says Galyean, “These three goals have been met and continue to be the backbone of the Crooked Road programs.” The Crooked Road offers a model of a successful creative economy built around cultural assets that revitalized a region both economically and culturally, while offering tourists a unique, authentic, and exciting experience.

For more information on tourism in the Fifth District, check out our recent Econ Focus article “In Tourism, Old Stories and New Opportunities.”

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Views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond or the Federal Reserve System.

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