by Joan Tupponce
Authentic, distinctive, alive. That’s the branding message Todd Christensen hopes a new cultural center — Heartwood, the Southwest Virginia Artisan Gateway — will help reinforce when it holds a grand opening in Abingdon in early July.
The aim of the $16.5 million center is to further Southwest Virginia’s economic restructuring as a creative economy. “That’s our mission,” says Christensen, executive director of the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Commission. “That is the real message of Heartwood. We want to attract high-tech businesses and a new economy. We are marketing quality of life.”
Heartwood is expected to attract more than 270,000 visitors and generate $2.2 million in revenue during the next three years. “The commission’s goal is to bring in 300 businesses during that same period,” Christensen says.
The 29,000-square-foot center, representing 19 counties and four cities in Southwest Virginia, will house a variety of artisan galleries and exhibits showcasing the culture, history and music of the region. Retail areas, as well as a coffee and wine bar and a restaurant, will be managed by Guest Services Inc. of Fairfax.
Heartwood will be different from other mountain-area tourist centers, such as Branson, Mo., or Gatlinburg, Tenn., Christensen says. “Our approach is natural. It’s culture based. We are striving for a connection between the artist, the object and the place in which it was made. We have the real thing here.”
More than 200 juried artisans currently are eligible to show their work at the center. “That includes our signature craft, luthiery” — the making of stringed musical instruments, says Christensen. “Some of the most skilled instrument makers are located here.”
Heartwood also will tout the area’s natural assets. It will feature outdoor recreation activities such as kayaking, mountain bicycling, hiking, fishing and horseback riding.
All of the merchandise and food at Heartwood will originate in Southwest Virginia. “We have eight regional wineries that will supply wine and we have regional coffee roasters,” Christensen says. “Additionally, we will have cider from Carroll County.”
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