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Meet the Mayor Who Used Millennials to Revive Her Small Town

Erwin, Tenn., was struggling. Then its mayor did something many public officials usually don't: She listened to young people.

Main Street in Erwin, Tennessee
(Brian Stansberry via Wikimedia Commons)
For more than a century, the small town of Erwin, Tenn., has had a strange and rather morbid claim to fame: In 1916, a five-ton circus elephant named Mary was publicly executed there after killing her trainer during a parade. Thousands of people gathered to watch as Mary was brutally hanged from one of the huge derricks used to move equipment near the railroad.

“That event has been a stigma on this county for more than 100 years,” says Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley. “[But] the young people living here decided it was time to change our image.” 

Last year, a board made up of millennial residents inspired the town to host its first annual Elephant Revival Festival to honor Mary and provide donations to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee. The event, they hoped, would move Erwin past this historical stain and make the town seem more inviting to people on the outside, says Hensley.

The elephant festival is one of several changes the city has made since 2015, when Hensley formed an informal working group of local millennials to help make Erwin a place young people want to live.

Since then, the town has launched an annual outdoors festival and installed a weekly farmers market. Restaurants have attained permission to sell liquor by the drink, and the once-dry county has seen its first liquor stores start popping up. Zoning ordinances were updated, allowing developers to build housing above downtown retail shops.

As a result, condos have started springing up where dilapidated buildings used to be, and Hensley estimates that nine new businesses have opened. What was once a dead downtown with little to do has become, by Erwin’s standards, bustling.

Governing recently spoke with Mayor Hensley to discuss the heavy influence of millennials in her city’s revival and what she expects from the future. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What made you want to begin this outreach effort to millennials in Erwin? What made it seem important to you?

Well, in 2015, we had the closure of the CSX railroad, and we lost 360-odd jobs. We also had another industry see substantial layoffs of about 180 more. We're only a small city of about 6,000, so that put us in a state of devastation. After we went through the mourning stage for three or four days, we decided we are going to have to do something or we will lose our town.

After that, the first thing we did was sit down with the business owners in our downtown. We talked about what we could do to start bringing folks there. I reached out to the manufacturers and some of their younger employees. Most of their employees live outside Unicoi County and Erwin, so we were asking them, 'Why aren’t you living here? What kinds of things would you like to see from our town?' We started with about five or six in that group of young people, and the group has now grown to about 40.

That group has really taken the reins of the town. Of course, they bring everything to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to get it approved, and from there we've just turned them loose.

When you first started meeting with this group of millennials, what were their concerns about the town? What were some things they wanted changed?

Their concern was that there was no activity in town where they could get out after work and relax and do things. We have [hiking] trails, but a lot of them wanted to come to town and have a nice beer or sit-down meal someplace. Now restaurants are able to sell liquor drinks, and you don’t have to go to a neighboring county for alcohol.

They also wanted mixed-use zoning downtown and a place where they could play or listen to music. They mentioned jazz bars. Mostly what they want is restaurants, breweries and entertainment to keep them occupied as well as bring in those from outside. They wanted for us to be recognized as a destination.

Are there plans to follow through with some of those desires?

We are recruiting every day. We actually hired the president of the millennial working group to be our communications director, and she's doing an outstanding job.

I met with developers this morning who are interested in putting a brewery in town. I met with some property owners willing to donate some property to bring in some development. And then our board is looking at incentives to draw the attention of some developers. We have developers that are taking some of the historical buildings. There was an elementary school that was in shambles. We have a developer that's renovating that and turning it into high-tech condos. We have a building downtown that used to be a hotel, and a developer is going to turn that into a multiuse facility, such as a restaurant, a learning center and condos.

What changes have you noticed in your town since this group of millennials started meeting and throwing events?

Before, we were a closed town, a little bowl around the mountains, and nobody really knew we were here. But with all these festivals that are taking place, it's bringing more people in. We're getting more visibility, and once they get here, they see what a neat little town we have, the pride that we have and the friendliness of the people here. It actually entices them to be part of the growing community. And we’ve seen more pride in our residents.

What are your hopes for Erwin’s future?

We are all the time looking for new industry. Fifty-one percent of Unicoi County is owned by the state and federal government, so we’re kind of limited in the amount of developable property for manufacturing. But we would love to have something come in here and provide 400 jobs for our residents, even 150 jobs. We would like to see retail and tourism grow as well. I have a feeling tourism is where we’re going to see a return on our investments.

Natalie previously covered immigrant communities and environmental justice as a bilingual reporter at CityLab and CityLab Latino. She hails from the Los Angeles area and graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in English literature.
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