Under Hensley’s leadership Erwin finds a new niche

By KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist

After moving to Erwin at the age of five, Mayor Doris Hensley has spent nearly all of her life in the town nestled among the natural beauty of the Cherokee National Forest and Appalachian Mountains.
In addition to living in Erwin for most of her life, Hensley has spent a great deal of time working for the municipality as well. She spent 30 years as an administrative assistant and town recorder with Erwin before her initial retirement, then taking up jobs as a part-time consultant for UT-MTAS and as executive director of the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce.
In 2015, Hensley was drawn into a different area of public service when she ran and was elected mayor of her hometown. That same year, Erwin faced one of its biggest challenges when the closure of the CSX Railyard and another major company in the town led to the loss of nearly 550 jobs in the community of only around 6,000 residents.
Erwin’s response to the crisis under Hensley’s leadership has resulted in a revitalization of the community, allowing Erwin to highlight its history in a positive light and find new ways of branding itself through outdoors tourism, festivals, farmers markets, and downtown renovation and rejuvenation.
The town has seen the development of new downtown businesses and residences, the redevelopment of historical buildings into homes and multi-use facilities, the location of a new 40,000-square-foot county hospital facility, improvements to the local industrial park, and the opening of new outdoor tourism-based businesses like kayak manufacturer Pyranha.
Erwin’s rise has even caught national attention with the town’s success stories being profiled by Governing magazine and National Public Radio.

TT&C: You have held various positions with the town of Erwin in the past. What first brought you work for the city?
Doris Hensley: I grew up here in Erwin and have lived here for the last 65 years. I was actually born across the mountain in North Carolina, and we came to Tennessee when I was five. I went to school in Erwin and graduated college from ETSU. I started my career in banking. After two years working in banking, I was hired by the town of Erwin as an administrative assistant. The mayor at the time came into the local bank where I was working and said they were looking for an administrative assistant to do bookkeeping. At the time, I was doing bookkeeping at the bank. On a whim, I put in an application and two days later I was given the call that I had been selected for the position.
I came to the town of Erwin and I loved it. It’s just one big happy family. I knew most of the people in town from working with them at the bank, but after working with them as a town employee, they became like family to me.
I served as the administrative assistant for 19 years. I was then promoted to city recorder and served in that position for 11 years. I retired after 30 years. After my retirement, I did some part-time consulting work for MTAS and did some part-time economic development recruitment for Unicoi County.

TT&C: What made you decide to run for mayor? Was there a particular issue or concern that prompted you to run?
D.H.: During my stint with MTAS, I was able to go to other towns, to see what was working in those towns and what problems they were having. I was then able to bring that back to the town of Erwin. That and my 30 years’ experience with the town made me feel I was better suited as the mayor of the town. Hopefully as mayor I have been able to improve the quality of life that our citizens in Erwin now enjoy.
I think having worked for the town gave me an advantage. I was the first person taxpayers saw when they came into the office. I got to communicate with them, to spend some time with them. I knew what they wanted and I felt I knew what they deserved. With that, I came in as mayor and was able to incorporate what I wanted to see for the town and what I felt the people would like to see for the town.

TT&C: The closing of CSX in 2015 and the ripple effect it had on the community could have easily led to major economic and community issues for Erwin, but instead it seems to have brought the community closer together. How did Erwin’s response to these events strengthen the community?
D.H.: The railroad was such a big part of our town and really the region. We lost about 400 jobs in Erwin. With the help of the state and the region, everybody pulled together. They saw we were in dire straits. I always say we like to whine for a couple days and then we got down to business and decided we had to help ourselves.
The state was great in stepping up. They were in the office the next morning wanting to know how they could help. With everyone working together, the town pulling together we were able to survive. We are also in the middle of renovating our downtown. The streets were torn up and the businesses were already hurting. With the help of the chamber of commerce and the downtown merchants association, we made a plan to get people downtown. We did TV ads and specials. We did a contest to get people to the downtown area.

TT&C: How did RISE Erwin come about? What have been the results of this initiative?
D.H.: During all of this, we reached out to a group of young professionals. We sat down with them and discussed what they would like to see Erwin become, what direction they wanted Erwin to go in so that they could stay here, raise their families, and work and play here. With their guidance, their advice, their planning, and their energy, we were able to set their vision of what they wanted Erwin to become in motion. We are still working on that plan and working to reach those goals.
One of the recommendations of the RISE group was some changes to downtown. We learned most of the Millennials today don’t want houses with big yards. They would rather have condos or apartments downtown that are close to the schools, the businesses, their places of work, and churches. We changed our ordinances to allow residential use in our downtown district. We have living space available upstairs in many of our downtown businesses.
They also said they liked a quality of life where after they came home from work they could enjoy a craft beer or just relax with friends, so we passed an ordinance that allowed package stores. That had to go through a referendum, and that passed with about 72 percent of the votes. It was obvious people were ready for the liquor-by-the-drink.
Six years ago you could come downtown and you might see two or three cars at the post office or the courthouse. You come downtown now and the streets are lined with cars at any time. You come downtown and drive along Main Street, you see people walking on the sidewalks and people in the stores. Some of them are living upstairs and others are doing business downstairs. It’s very refreshing to see so much happening in our downtown.

TT&C: What advice would you give to other city leaders who want to get younger members of the community involved in government and leadership? What can officials do to better cultivate young leaders?
D.H.: One thing that I have done is meet with the high school student council at least twice a year. I tell them what is going on in the community. I ask their advice and ask them what they would like to see happen in Erwin. As long as you do one thing or help them reach one of the goals they suggest, it helps them feel that their city leaders do listen and makes them more interested in what we are doing.
We unfortunately had two vacancies on our board of mayor and aldermen. When there are vacancies, I am allowed to appoint someone to fill the remainder of the term. I decided to appoint some younger folks to those positions. We have a 26-year-old and a 30-year-old on the board who are both entrepreneurs in the downtown. We have been getting young people involved by asking their advice, putting them on committees, letting them help promote our town, and let them do some of our projects. Most of the projects we have done have been with volunteers, and we use all the volunteers we can get.

TT&C: How has this revitalization helped Erwin find its identity as a community?
D.H.: We are still in the process of doing that. Every discussion that we have, every inventory we have taken of our strengths comes back to our natural beauty. We are heading more toward tourism, but we want some substantial and sustainable tourism. We are working toward more downtown businesses and restaurants. Instead of getting the big box businesses, we want to keep our downtown unique to Erwin. We want to grow, but we don’t want to lose our down home flavor. We want to keep our character.
We are beginning to tell our stories, and we have some very interesting stories to tell. One of those is the Erwin Nine. We had nine high school classmates that went off to World War II in different military sections. They all ended up at the same time in the same prison camp in Germany. All nine of them were able to return home to Erwin after the war. The Erwin Nine, just like so many things about Erwin and Unicoi County, we have just kept a secret among us. Now we are trying to get that story out.

TT&C: City officials have been willing to partner with groups ranging from concerned citizens to USDA and TVA on various projects. How have these partnerships benefited the town?
D.H.: USDA was so helpful to our revitalization through grants and low-interest loans. We’ve also partnered with our local banks to offer low-interest loans to businesses downtown who want to expand or do some renovations to the business. The [First Tennessee] Development District with their revolving loan fund has helped some of our businesses grow and expand. The state has taken us from a Tier 3 to a Tier 4, which has decreased the matching portion of our grants. That has helped tremendously. We have been working with a regional economic development project. Johnson City, Washington County, Sullivan County, and Carter County have come together to help us in our recruitment efforts. Everyone from the local to the regional to the state level has been a tremendous help in our success.

TT&C: Erwin has undergone a project to expand fiber optic Internet service in the area. How will this benefit the community moving forward?
D.H.: We already have free wifi in town. Anyone can come into town and get free wifi whether they are sitting in a café or the taproom or on a park bench. There are only a few areas of the county that don’t have the service. We have just gotten a grant to extend it into the north end and French Broad is working to install it in the south end. By the end of the year, we will have wifi and fiber optic Internet service all throughout Unicoi County. We think this is going to be a good tool for recruiting industry.

TT&C: Erwin is surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest. While this land is a natural asset, what challenges does it present to growth and development for the town? How are those challenges managed?
D.H.: As far as the big industries, we don’t have that much property. We can’t put together a 200-acre industrial site. About the biggest one we have is an 18-acre site we are getting pad ready. Hopefully that will be finished by the end of this month. We are doing serious recruitment for an industry, so if we can get that one industry with 100 or 200 employees, we will be very happy. We are also focused on building on our retail base and or tourism base.

TT&C: Is there anything you learned about Erwin in this process that you didn’t know before?
D.H.: I have learned that people are eager to help; you just have to ask them. They like to be involved, and when they are involved, you are more united as a community. Listening to folks, just listening, is important. A lot of people say all you hear at city hall are complaints. I find that 99 percent of the complaints are just someone who wants to be listened to. If you can help them it’s great; if you can’t help them and explain the reason to them, they will understand. It helps everyone get along better.
The best part of my job is when I get to help people. I hear people all the time say ‘oh I couldn’t be a politician.’ Well, I don’t think of myself as a politician. I think of myself as a public servant. I am here to serve the people. One of the things that I say to myself every morning is that if I can make one person happy, I have been a success during that day. Whether it’s giving somebody a hug or saying hello or making them smile, I think it improves someone’s day and that is my goal.
I think the people in Erwin are proud of their town and their properties. They keep their properties neat and clean. I think we’re one of the neatest towns in Tennessee. You drive through town and just see how much pride people take in the area.

TT&C: What are Erwin’s next steps forward as a community? What are your hopes for Erwin’s future?
D.H.: We still have a lot more renovations to do. We want to extend them to the north and south ends of our town. Right now the renovations have been limited to the downtown area. We have some sidewalks we want to improve. We are always recruiting businesses. We would like to see some hotels and more restaurants.
I want Erwin to be a place where young people come back, where they return to their hometown to raise a family. I want good-paying jobs so our young people won’t have to leave to find a job and instead will stay here to raise their families.