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Research study: Leadership, community volunteers, festivals, marketing help to lift distressed Appalachian counties  

By Mark Sarver 


The word “resilient” is among common descriptors of Appalachian people, and Franklin County, Alabama, near the state’s northwest corner, exemplifies this term. In 15 years, the county has moved up the Appalachian Regional Commission’s economic-ranking system from “distressed” to “transitional.” The Alabama county’s story of revival is among others in Appalachia highlighted by a recent research project at Glenville State University in Glenville, West Virginia.

Several drivers of economic development and employment growth have contributed to the improved ARC rankings. Among the positive forces in Franklin County is leadership that has contributed to growth in sustainable tourism through cultural events that promote community engagement. Strong leadership among elected officials, an active and engaged chamber of commerce, and community volunteers have helped Franklin County organize and promote festivals and other cultural events. Consistency in these areas works to increase and celebrate quality-of-life factors to complement other areas of economic growth. 

Silvie Miller, the 2023 Franklin County Watermelon Queen, cuts the first watermelon of the festival during the opening ceremony.(Photo courtesy of Blaze Bishop.)

As the Watermelon Capital of Alabama, Franklin County has attracted thousands to its two-day Watermelon Festival each year since 1981. With four incorporated communities other than the county seat of Russellville, the county hosts multiple festivals and cultural events, including the Phil Campbell Festival, Jam on Sloss Lake, Vina July Fest, Red Bay Founder’s Fest, Spirit of Hodges Festival, Spruce Pine Day and Franklin County Latino Heritage Festival. (Hispanic or Latino is the second largest ethnic classification in the county at 18.4%).  

“Attended by tens of thousands from neighboring counties and states, the third weekend in August is set aside for the Franklin County Watermelon Festival. What began as a political rally with farmers sharing their watermelon harvest in 1981 has grown into the largest festival in the county,” Cassie Medley, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, said. “The forward thinking and financial commitments of local businesses, industries, and individuals continues to positively affect tourism’s economic impact on our rural area.” 


Medley said business and industry contributions, combined with volunteers who help organize and work the festivals, allow them to be sustainable, free events. The county is fortunate, she said, to be able to host festivals that celebrate all of the people and communities. 

A crowd settles in to enjoy nightly entertainment during the 2023 Franklin County Watermelon Festival in Russellville, Alabama. (Photo courtesy of Blaze Bishop.)

Festivals are our way of gathering friends and family to enjoy each other’s company,” she said, “while feasting on food, live entertainment, car and truck shows, and participating in contests.”  

Such cultural events help to enhance and complement the quality of life for the people who live and work in Franklin County. With a population of about 32,000 people and a civilian workforce of 13,481, according to statistics compiled in 2022 by the North Alabama Industrial Development Association, the county’s largest employment sector is manufacturing. Major employers include an RV maker, a poultry processing plant, and a pet food and pet products manufacturer. 

Watermelon Contest participants watch as entries are weighted in the Largest Weighing Watermelon category during the 2023 Franklin County Watermelon Festival in Russellville, Alabama. (Photo courtesy of Blaze Bishop.)

According to data gathered through a partnership between the U.S. Census Bureau and the Alabama Department of Labor, manufacturing jobs comprised 44.4% of the labor force in Franklin County in 2021. The next three largest employers were educational services (9.7%), retail trade (9.2%), and health care and social assistance (9.1%). Those figures were compiled a year before the county registered a record low unemployment rate of 1.7% in April 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Among the county’s civilian workforce of nearly 14,000, about half work outside the county with county residents accounting for about 5,200 jobs inside the county. About 5,700 jobs inside Franklin County are worked by residents who live outside the county. The county's unemployment rate as of November 2023 was 2.2%. Its highest-ever unemployment rate of 18.1% was recorded in 1990.

Franklin County is just one of the corners of the Appalachian region where the hills are echoing with tales of resilience to overcome challenges. The research endeavor at Glenville State University has shed light on the remarkable turnaround experienced by 13 rural Appalachian counties formerly ranked as “distressed.”  

Counties included in the study, by state, include: Alabama: Franklin and Pickens; Kentucky: Cumberland, Monroe, and Russell; Mississippi: Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Webster; Ohio: Pike and Vinton; Tennessee: Johnson and Pickett; and Mason County in West Virginia. Each of the counties have shaken the “distressed classification,” and the study found that several common traits shared by the counties could have contributed to their improved status.  

How counties are ranked 

The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) ranks the nation’s counties with a national index value ranking that utilizes three criteria: three-year average unemployment rate, per capita market income, and poverty rate. Once the counties are ranked using this criterion, they are sorted by economic status into five categories:  

  • Attainment (best 10%). 

  • Competitive (best 10+ to 25%). 

  • Transitional (middle counties). 

  • At-risk (worst 10+ to 25%). 

  • Distressed (Worst 10%). 

The ARC then publishes the rankings for the 423 counties within the Appalachian region. The map below shows the 2024 economic status of the ARC counties. Only four counties in the region have reached attainment status compared to 82 that are distressed.  

Graphic courtesy of the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Amid the rugged landscapes and close-knit communities, strong leadership emerged from the GSU study as a beacon of hope. The research findings underscored the pivotal role played by visionary leaders who steered their counties toward prosperity. In small, distressed rural counties in Appalachia, leaders often are elected officials at the county administration level without the support of a full-time county administrator. Depending on the state, administrators might be elected or appointed by elected officials. Part-time, elected officials often struggle to effectively operate their counties with a strategic vision for the community and adequate time for administration needs.  

In addition to strong visionary leadership, there must be a catalyst to propel the communities forward. The research encountered three types of catalysts: elected officials and administrators; volunteer organizations, such as chambers of commerce; and local individuals. In counties where all three came together, the community had strong motivation and a strategy for moving the county out of distressed status.   

Festival strategy 

With strong leadership, a vision and a catalyst, communities such as the one in Franklin County, Alabama, commonly used festivals as a strategy to help improve their economic status. Festivals, often celebrated as cultural events, took on a new significance in these distressed Appalachian counties. They became more than just gatherings, and evolved into platforms for community engagement and economic stimulation. Local festivals provided a stage for artisans, farmers, and entrepreneurs to showcase their talents and products, fostering a sense of pride and unity among residents. The festive atmosphere also attracted visitors, injecting much-needed revenue into the local economy. Most of the communities researched employ a hotel or tourism tax to create revenue from tourists visiting the area. These funds are typically used to fund the chambers of commerce or local tourism authorities. Chandler Grooms, tourism development director for the Pike County (Ohio) Chamber of Commerce, said that tourism is a key component of their economic-development strategy. 

In Pike County, we believe tourism is a catalyst for economic and community development,” Grooms said. “Most folks may view the job of tourism development as bringing in visitors to our community, but our focus is much bigger than that.” In Pike County’s most recent economic-impact report, tourism dollars accounted for an estimated annual impact of $32.4 million in direct visitor spending and income for tourism-related jobs. 

It’s not just big fun,” Grooms said, “it’s big business. When you look at Appalachia as a whole, that impact is in the billions of dollars. Tourism plays a large role in improving the quality of life for our communities. Things like charming community festivals, unique local attractions, and a vibrant cultural heritage are great reasons to visit a community, but they also play a role in attracting people to live, work, and retire there.” 

Marketing power 

The impact of tourism development efforts can be limited without sophisticated marketing. The research findings highlighted the transformative influence of well-crafted marketing strategies that showcased the unique strengths and offerings of each county. From highlighting natural beauty to promoting local products, sophisticated marketing positioned these areas as desirable destinations for both residents and tourists. 

Jennifer Chandler, administrator for the Village of Piketon, Ohio, serves at the county level and is also a local entrepreneur. She is passionate that marketing and branding must be used to promote a community.  

“From my experience in Pike County, I’ve learned that it’s important to start with a vision that is rooted in improving what you have rather than trying to create a new identity,” Chandler said. “Then build on that momentum by creating a high-quality brand that is applied consistently to everything you do. Because big changes start small and take time, the community champions must not be worn down by critics and naysayers. Stay the course!” 

Chandler said a mindset against investing in initiatives aimed at promoting a community can have a tremendous stronghold and span generations. “Data proves that improved community conditions raise socioeconomic and health care outcomes, and that is the responsibility of the local governments,” she said. “In Piketon, we are committed to doing that, and as a result we’ve been able to attract the right kind of private investment.” 

Posted on the Village of Piketon website is a strategic plan titled the Big Picture Project: Building Infrastructure for Growth. It provides a comprehensive plan for how the community will reach its goals and fulfil the plan’s mission and vision.  

Located in the northeastern corner of Tennessee, Johnson County has created one of the more sophisticated marketing programs among the counties studied. Shelia Caldwell, the administrative assistant to the county mayor, is a self-taught marketing professional. In addition to creating videos and web content, she utilizes geofencing to target potential tourists in Asheville and Charlotte with digital advertising.

During an effort to establish a new festival for Mountain City, the county seat, volunteers came together and decided to highlight sunflowers. Although the plants are not part of the community culture, the volunteers determined that sunflowers grow fast and would probably mature in time for the festival. They were correct and the Mountain City Sunflower Festival won Northeast Tennessee Tourism’s 2023 Pinnacle Award for Festival of the Year. The event has grown to over 70 vendors. 

A community group in Grantsville, West Virginia, is planning to rennovate the Calhoun County High School building as a multi-purpose community center. (Photo courtesy of the 1982 Foundation.)

The rural county of Calhoun in central West Virginia is ranked as “distressed” and is not among the 13 counties studied. The county is noteworthy, however, as an example of a distressed county where residents are coming together to improve their community. Calhoun County has been labeled distressed since the ARC began its ranking system. The population has dropped by over 20% in the last 15 years. The county’s median income is just above $39,000, and only 8% of the population holds a bachelor’s degree or higher. As rural populations drop in many areas, schools are often consolidated. This happened with Calhoun County High School in Grantsville, West Virginia, in 1998. The glorious old building that once served as the centerpiece for the community stood in disrepair and served as a visual reminder that the county was dying.  

In 2021, the Calhoun County High School class of 1982 founded the 1982 Foundation and has purchased the school for use as a community center. Plans for the center include a child care center (there is no commercial child care in Calhoun County), apartments to help address a housing shortage, a business incubator, Airbnb units, commercial kitchens for farm-to-table entrepreneurship, and an upscale restaurant called the Varsity. The efforts are spearheaded by Crystal Mersh, a member of the 1982 graduating class and a CEO in the pharmaceutical industry. She credits much of her success to the strong work ethic and passion for chemistry that she learned inside of the walls of the school building she is working to save.   

The foundation, along with the community, has cleaned up the Little Kanawha River, is holding festivals, events featuring food from across the world as part of a “Taste of” series, and recently competed the construction of a community pool that will open in the spring. The grassroots program offered by the foundation has painted buildings in downtown, created an addiction treatment program and coordinated a “Hallmark Christmas” event. In August, Mersh posted a picture on Facebook of snow-covered streetlamps and simply asked if people could imagine streetlamps at Christmas for the parade and festivities. The streetlamps would cost approximately $1,000 each and she thought they would need 40. The local community, businesses, former residents and other concerned citizens stepped up and purchased 71 lamps.  

The efforts of the 1982 Foundation are changing the community and not every change is supported across the board. As this article is being written, the Town of Grantsville, the county seat of Calhoun County, is fighting the installation of those streetlamps. Despite such challenges, however, the foundation continues to provide vision and action. Volunteerism is high and the county was recently recognized as having more business start-ups per capita than any other county in West Virginia. 

The 1982 Foundation, a community group in Grantsville, West Virginia, wants to install new streetlamps in the town. (Photo courtesy of the 1982 Foundation.)

Those efforts from community groups and volunteers are welcomed by Shelia Burch, Executive Director of the Little Kanawha Area Development Corporation in Calhoun County. “We are pleased to partner with the incredible organizations and individuals from every community throughout Calhoun County to bring improvements to our region,” she said. “The unprecedented excitement and collection of individuals willing to become involved in multiple projects throughout the county has shown that every individual has a role to play in improving the place we call home. We truly are better together.” 

Inspiring hope 

As a result of these combined efforts, the distressed rural Appalachian counties experienced a notable upswing. Economic indicators improved, unemployment rates declined, and a palpable sense of optimism arose. The synergy between strong leadership, a catalytic push, vibrant festivals, and sophisticated marketing proved to be a winning formula for revitalization. 

The success of these counties can serve as inspiration for other communities facing similar challenges. As the sun rises over the Appalachian hills, it illuminates not only the natural beauty of the landscape but also the resilience and triumph of communities that refuse to be defined by their struggles. 

In Franklin County, Alabama, the community has continued to not only move out of distressed status during the last 15 years, but it began 2024 classified by the ARC as a transitional county. Barry Moore, the county’s judge of probate, sums it up best: 

“The biggest impact as elected officials is to work for the common good,” he said. “For a better place to live, work and retire. We work hard to foster relationships with our regional communities, chambers of commerce and other elected officials to make Franklin County a better place. Our community events are growing and community volunteers are stepping up to support these events and the community as a whole.” 


Mark Sarver is an associate professor of business at Glenville State University, and a workforce learning experience manager. His research study, Emerging from distressed and staying out: A study of the ARC counties that have emerged from distressed and remain out of the category during the last 15 years, was conducted during 2023.


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