A relatively new group to the area, the Friends of Hillsville (FOH) recognized early on citizen volunteers can “borrow the keys” so to speak and help drive economic success, in spite of the long-held view of leaving that all up to municipal leadership.
“The group was founded in 2014. The initial members were myself, Willis Rotenizer and Jessica Talley. The first meeting was at Teresa Catron’s house until more and more showed up and we felt this was getting serious and we started meeting in the Town Hall,” Mayor (and FOH member) Gregory Crowder said. Catron, who serves as the Town Marketing Coordinator, also is a FOH member.
The next step was FOH’s 501(c)(3) application being approved, spearheaded by FOH member LeAnna Surratt. Crowder estimates the FOH has 30 members with a core group of 10 to 12 especially hard workers. The group still consists completely of volunteers centered around a genuine love of Hillsville.
“There is only so much you can get done through Town Council. It limits you on grants and events we could sponsor,” Crowder said. “It’s been a way to reach people and have events without concerning the Town so much. We have received grants open only to non-profits we normally couldn’t have gotten.”
The two said FOH activities look fun but are about serious economic development to attract more foot traffic to Hillsville. He said he learned about using activities to attract business at a downtown revitalization workshop.
“We found out if a Town of our size puts on 12 good events a year, it would help support specialty, individual, mom and pop stores. The thinking is if you have these big events, one a month, they should have a weekend big enough to pay their expenses and revitalize a downtown. That is why we’ve concentrated so heavily on downtown events. It’s not just for the fun but to generate dollars for downtown businesses,” said Crowder.
Catron said economic trends are like tides. She said business seemed to go from Main Street being big in the 1970s to leaving and going to shopping malls.
“Malls are dying out now and Main Street is coming back. People are still in the mindset of nothing is going on here. The whole point of this is to bring commerce downtown. When downtown is flourishing the whole County can flourish,” said Catron.
Crowder said in 2012 there were 11 downtown storefronts empty. They make the argument each additional business is another attraction towards a critical mass which draws a variety of people regularly downtown.”
The upcoming April 14 “Shred-A-Thon” represents another event combining the talents and resources of citizens. The popular event will again be held in Jailhouse Square from 9 a.m. to noon in Jailhouse Square. It is being held in conjunction with Earth Awareness Month.
“Earth Awareness Month, Team Up To Clean Up and the Shred-A-Thon are all in a big circle to achieve further cleanliness in the Town. And awareness of recycling and other things we can do to reduce the tipping fee in the landfill for the town,” said Crowder. “It (keeping up appearances) is a never-ending battle. That’s why we (the Town) had to start levying hefty fines to people who refused to clean (their property) up.”
Catron said FOH events help instill a sense of ownership in volunteers, giving them a greater sense of ownership in the community. Participation has been increasing for the Summer Nights Concert Series, another cooperative effort between the Town and the FOH.
”Before, the concerts were put on by the Town. When the Friends Of Hillsville came in, that was part of their duties, to take it off the town employees and to cut down on overtime for town employees. It was part of the volunteer group. The Town would get minor sponsorships for the concerts. The FOH have brought sponsorships to a new level,” Crowder said.
He said there has been a surge in support from the Grand Strand area for the beach music featured during the concert series. This is from their ongoing efforts to preserve and pass on the musical traditions of that region. So, Hillsville is being mentioned at Myrtle Beach. The biggest concert so far has been The Embers concert with an estimated 2,000 in attendance.
“Actually, I have become friends with (Carolina Beach Music Enthusiast) Jack Martin, who is one of the Beach Music Gurus from down there at Myrtle Beach. He and his friends advertise what we’re doing to all the Beach Music crowd,” said Crowder. “It’s not just us but everyone who is doing beach music. That helps get our attendance up. We have one of the best lineups this year of anybody.”
Catron said while refreshments aren’t free, the concerts always have free admission. This is so everyone can attend. She explained the FOH core group will have some more people work the concerts, including selling t-shirts in addition to promoting the events on social media. The strategy is to get word out past Hillsville and Carroll County. Catron said she always feel she helps promote Hillsville and Carroll “one picture at a time” with her photography of the events.
“July Fourth is my favorite celebration of the year. We have the parade, which is always a crowd favorite. It’s all free. The parade is always pretty big. Everyone has a great time. We end up at the VFW (Grover King Post 1115) with a hot dog dinner with watermelon, games ,and all that’s free, too. It’s satisfying to see all the people come through to have a really good July 4 celebration at no cost to anyone,” said Crowder. “We finish with fireworks which are paid for part by the County and the Town. We started sharing the cost so to make the fireworks show even bigger. It’s put us to where we feel we have one of the best fireworks shows in the area.”
This is year four of another of the FOH’s list of activities, the Historic Hillsville Chili Shootout. Last year, FOH combined the Shootout with the County’s Harvest Festival.
“Last year was our third year. We added a cornhole tournament which is going to be huge. Because the County partnered with us, we had the Harvest Festival downtown which really helped. It was three events in one,” said Catron.
Plans for the tourney include offering $1,000 in prize money. Hillsville’s longstanding “Safe Halloween” is another example of something which was here before that could be added to with the help of FOH. The group purchased new games, and a haunted house, costume judging, and tractor rides were added. Hillsville’s Christmas Parade, with it’s bonfires and hot chocolate, is another cooperative effort.
“The Christmas Parade was another good thing. We just wanted to add on to it. We’ve started giving presents away (300 stocking), a lot more categories of prizes for floats, Christmas Decoration judging. It upped our participation greatly. We joined forces with the County again in front of the (historic) Courthouse for introductions and music. It’s an hour and a half pre-parade ceremony and tree lighting before the parade,” said Crowder. “Eighty-year old residents who haven’t missed one told me this last parade could have been the biggest we’ve had. The Parade was over an hour last year. I’d like to get it to two.”
The group’s fundraising has helped provide two $500 scholarships to CCHS seniors, police bikes and Automatic Defibrillators. The Scholarship application criteria includes applicants’ leadership and community service. FOH was instrumental in the Town getting two grants from Mohawk Carpet Foundation. FOH matched a grant the first year for AEDs to make sure one went in every Hillsville Police Department car. This was a cause close to Crowder, who had two friends who suffered heart attacks and died in front of police who reached them first but had no AED.
“I wanted to make sure we had defibrillators. I was really hell bent to get that done. Now there is a defibrillator in every police car. Not only that, we have a defibrillator for babies and choking kits. It’s a defibrillator and airway kit both. We got another grant before that for police bikes,” Crowder said.
Another grant sought by FOH is for signage. Catron said originally plans were for a sign near Carter Bank which could be updated of events or emergencies. The County suggested a location with higher Interstate 77 visability for a Hillsville sign with directional arrows. Organizers are looking at prices before a decision is reached. The goal is to get more signage so even more know Hillsville is here. Catron and other FOH members are willing to help businesses plan marketing in sync with the events and the crowds they attract.
The FOH is also working in conjunction with the Town as they continue building up The Hillsville Farmer’s Market. The future home of the Market will be behind the old downtown bank building and Hale-Wilkinson-Carter Home. Plans are being looked at to pave the lot and build a stage.
David Broyles may be reached at 276-779-4013 or on Twitter@CarrollNewsDave.