Erwin Downtown Revitalization and Broadband

Erwin, Tennessee

Erwin is located in Northeast Tennessee between Johnson City, Tennessee and Asheville, North Carolina. For over 100 years, Erwin’s economic engine was a railroad terminal located in the heart of downtown. The decline of the coal industry led to closure of the CSX rail yard and terminal in 2015, and with it, the loss of 300 jobs. In response, Erwin is looking to define its next chapter through investments in tourism assets, access to outdoor recreation, a vibrant downtown, and access to high-speed broadband.

Fiber Broadband Buildout

Erwin is reshaping its future to compete in an information- and technology-based economy by transitioning from 20th century rail to 21st century fiber connectivity. For over 20 years, town and Erwin Utilities leaders have explored ways to create a fiber network for cable and internet, and in 2015, when technology evolved, the utility opened its first phase of gigabit connectivity service. Since that time, five phases of installation have been completed including service to the downtown commercial district. These strategic investments have allowed Unicoi County Joint Economic and Community Development Board (JECDB) leaders to provide users with gigabit connectivity which no other rural community in Upper East Tennessee can offer. Access to high-speed fiber now allows residents to start a small business in their home or in the downtown Central Business Zone (CBZ).

Downtown Revitalization

Erwin’s community leaders have worked successfully to revitalize its CBZ and create a welcoming environment for downtown business development and tourism. In addition to progressive town and utility system leaders, the community is benefitting from local young professionals who are heading the Unicoi JECDB and RISE Erwin downtown revitalization efforts.

The Tennessee Departments of Economic and Community Development (TNECD) and Transportation (TDOT) have assisted in local downtown revitalization efforts. In 2010, Erwin was selected to participate in the TNECD Tennessee Downtowns program.  In 2014, the town invested in downtown master planning that positioned them to receive $1,000,000 in grant funding from TDOT for new sidewalks and streetscape amenities the next year. Participation in Tennessee Downtowns created access to resources including a $100,000 CDBG Façade Improvement Grant (FIG) for improvements to commercial buildings in 2017 and board training through National Main Street Center services in 2018. Building upon this funding and technical assistance, Erwin is following the framework to become an accredited Tennessee Main Street community.

Cool & Connected Downtown Entrepreneur Development

In order to build on the fiber availability and the downtown improvements, in 2017 Erwin took advantage of Cool & Connected technical assistance and funding to create entrepreneurship opportunities downtown. A technical assistance workshop provided through the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), Smart Growth America, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency facilitated the development of new strategies to use broadband to catalyze entrepreneurship and redevelopment. This workshop positioned Erwin to utilize a Cool & Connected ARC grant to launch a co-working space for entrepreneurs.

The Erwin Cool & Connected project mirrored programs in Bristol and Johnson City. Leaders created a business grant competition. Participants completed a nine-week CO.STARTERS course that culminated in the development of business plans for each graduate. Through a pitch presentation by the entrepreneurs, the plans were submitted to a panel of judges who scored the submissions. The most viable business plans were awarded funding that was contingent upon opening a business in Erwin’s CBZ within six months. Pitch competition winners received one year of Erwin Fiber gigabit service valued at $1,000, business support grants ranging from $1,000 to $4,000 for point-of-sale business technology equipment or business support services, and a one year Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce membership.

Community and Economic Impact

By leveraging its fiber assets, Erwin is positioning its downtown as an attractive location for entrepreneurial startups, online retailers, co-working spaces and dining establishments. Planned project outputs include $15,000 of investments in five start-ups or existing businesses and the creation of approximately $250,000 of capital investment through the creation or expansion of businesses in the downtown. Current project results include

Participants 2
Businesses Assisted 2
Number of CO.STARTER Graduates 2
New Erwin Fiber Subscriptions  2
New or Expanded Downtown Businesses 3 (What’s the Scoop? – Food Service, Union Street Gallery – Art Gallery, Joe Bill’s Barbeque – Food Truck)
Total Employees       10 (4 full-time and 6 part-time)
Projected First Year Business Capital Investments  $50,000
Projected First Year Gross Sales  $100,000(For 3 new or expanded businesses) 
ARC Cool & Connected Entrepreneur Development Program Services  $15,000
Appalachian Regional Commission Grant  $15,000
Downtown Development $1,118,100
TNECD Tennessee Downtowns Grant  $15,000
TDOT Enhancement/Multimodal Streetscape Grant  $1,000,000
2017 TNECD Façade Improvement Grant   $100,000
TNECD and National Main Street Center Training  $3,100

Project Funding

APPLACHIAN REGIONAL COMMISSION COOL & CONNECTED GRANT (training, pitch competition, business start up expenses)  $15,000

Project Leaders and Partners

Unicoi County Joint Economic and Community Development Board – Executive Director – Project Contact
Erwin Utilities – General Manager – Project Contact
Town of Erwin
Unicoi County
Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce
RISE Erwin – Community Development and Action Committee
Appalachian Regional Commission
Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development
Tennessee Department of Transportation
Smart Growth America
USDA Rural Development

For project information contact the Unicoi County Joint Economic and Community Development Board

ARC Entrepreneur Development and TNECD Tennessee Downtowns Program

The mission of the Appalachian Regional Commission is to innovate, partner, and invest to build community capacity and strengthen economic growth in Appalachia. ARC supports a variety of activities to promote entrepreneurship and business development in the Appalachian Region. These activities help diversify the Region's economic base, develop and market strategic assets, increase the competitiveness of existing businesses, foster the development and use of innovative technologies, and enhance entrepreneurial activity. Through ARC funding, TNECD is able to award grants each year for economic and community development projects in the 52 counties in middle and east Tennessee served by the ARC.  

Downtown revitalization is a critical component of successful economic and community development. TNECD encourages entrepreneurship development and adaptive reuse of commercial buildings in downtown business districts with the Tennessee Downtowns and Main Street programs that fund activities that put vacant or underutilized buildings into productive service to serve as economic drivers for downtowns and to develop entrepreneurs.

For more information visit TNECD Community and Rural Development.

Smart Growth America and ARC podcast: