Rural Generation: A conversation with Cheryal Lee Hills and Ryan Taylor


3496square - Copy (3)Cheryal Lee Hills is the Executive Director of the Region Five Development Commission in Staples, Minnesota. Cheryal provides program development, program implementation, organizational planning, financial planning/oversight and manages all contractual agreements for R5DC. Prior to her role with the Commission, Cheryal worked in healthcare, real estate, and as an Educational Coordinator for both the Minnesota Department of Commerce and Department of Labor. R5DC recently launched a private-public creative placemaking partnership in Little Falls, Minnesota and opened Sprout Growers and Makers Marketplace.


ND_StateDirectorTaylorRyan Taylor recently completed his term as the North Dakota State Director for USDA Rural Development. As State Director, Ryan managed three federal agencies in North Dakota. Ryan studied Agricultural Economics and Mass Communications at North Dakota State University, and was formerly the minority leader for the North Dakota Senate. You may also know him as the writer of “Cowboy Logic,” a column that was published in major agricultural newspapers nationally.

What are the major challenges facing your rural communities that are related to rural challenges nationally?
Ryan: Cultivating leadership for projects that make rural places special. I think this is probably a common challenge for lots of places—and maybe not just rural.  USDA Rural Development may be able to fund a project, but if you don’t have a local champion there to own it, promote it or continue it, the money doesn’t really do any good. Maybe it is particularly acute in rural places because there are fewer of us trying to do more things. You end up on every board and every committee. How do you maintain that energy? You’ve got to have a project that is really exciting and generates a lot of enthusiasm to keep people going.

Cheryal: Our issues are broad in nature in rural Minnesota, but they are very general to the rest of the nation: access to broadband to the last mile, affordable housing, the race for talent and a quality and trained workforce, and recruitment. All of those issues have come down to the pivotal point of quality of life, and how we define and fund quality of life in rural places. The needs in rural places are very similar to what we see in inner cities, like access to healthy food and an effective public transit system to move our cars and our goods. The challenges are very similar, but how we address them is where we differ.

12923343_1066193530090607_449726739930077311_nCheryal Lee Hills and Arlene Jones speak at the Marketplace Grand Opening, April 2016.

What are the opportunities for rural communities? Can you share new work from the last year or a project that is on the horizon?

Ryan: How we perceive ourselves: those of us who live in rural areas often think about those who have left, but the data will actually show that there are a lot of people coming back. We lose a lot of our young people from the ages of 20 to 29 to cities where they are looking for bright lights and excitement. Maybe around the time when they have decided to start a family or further their careers, when they are 30 to 35 years old, they are looking for quality of life. They find that in rural places. For those of us in rural places: how do we make sure that they realize what we have, so when they are at that stage in life they are ready to come back? I think that’s an opportunity for us. So, we save that cool building in town and it can be become the opera house and the coffee shop and the library and a place for people to gather and to appreciate who they are and where they are. I see that as an opportunity.

There is lots of activity in local foods, and North Dakota is on the frontier. We’re seeing that coming to the forefront, and it helps to define your place in a healthy way. I see those as the opportunities that are on the horizon.

Cheryal: The emerging opportunity that I see is how we define success. We are thinking about success in a way that honors all of the assets that we are trying to build in rural places. I work with my federal, state, and local foundations on this quite a bit. I say that I can define in the box you want me to (in terms of jobs created, new markets that are expanded, or miles of roads) but those are the quantitative measures that we typically use to justify appropriations. The qualitative measures that we don’t pay enough attention to or aren’t being asked to be report on are the cultural, social, other types of quality impacts that are happening in rural America. Yes, while our kids are moving out, what is the rest of the story? In some places there is out migration, but what is the rest of the story? That is a piece I think is emerging: where we start thinking about multiple forms of assets.

The second thing has been to stop thinking about rural America from a deficit model and starting to shift to asset-based community development. That asset-based model has let us build on the capacity that we have. Most importantly, as a tribal leader so eloquently explained to me, it stopped us from telling our people that we are in a place of degradation, negativity, and extraction. We started to think about the “cool” factor of rural and how that can be built upon. While we have our challenges, there has been a shift in community and economic development thinking about assets and forms of success. We wouldn’t be thinking about creative placemaking if we hadn’t been thinking about multiple forms of success. Arts and culture and next generation involvement haven’t been huge priorities because you did what was measured, and that was never measured before.

IMG_0128Ryan Taylor greets a U.S. Army veteran and flag bearer at the grand entry of the United Tribes Pow Wow near Bismarck, N.D.

Cheryal, you brought up the importance of broad-based partnerships. Do you have strategies for these broad-based partnerships that work?

Cheryal: I had a conversation about this with an artist yesterday afternoon, a young woman who was lamenting how difficult it was to work in creative placemaking and “to be all things to all people.” It frightens her and it distracts her from her creativity. I thought that was quite interesting because we can have long conversations about partnerships, but to move forward with the placemaking efforts we have to develop broad-based partnerships.

That conversation was really enlightening. I’ve watched national movements, like how renewable energy has been seen as more acceptable in the last decade. Maybe that’s because the industry stopped preaching to their own choirs and started to get advocates outside their typical silos. Or consider food policy: once Health and Human Services stopped being the only spokesperson, pretty soon agriculture was speaking about the value of local foods and health care practitioners speaking about the value of eating healthy food. The list broadened and it became systemic cultural change to think about these issues broadly and with multiple partners that share mutual benefits.

Reflecting on that conversation, I find that while I want to retain the autonomy of artists, I don’t think that we are going to get anywhere with creative placemaking efforts without having people outside of our community understanding the value and starting to think about how we add benefit. It’s not about why it is good for the artists or the art community. It has to be why it is important to the transportation, healthcare, and housing communities. Going where we have a lot of different types of champions in a room and saying “we all have a role in this issue. How do we collectively address and move the dial?” has served us well in this region in the past.

Ryan: Just this week we kicked off a new Promise Zone in North Dakota. There are eight of them throughout the country in high poverty areas. Our Promise Zone encompasses two tribal nations. The idea around a Promise Zone is broad-based federal, state and private partnerships that allow you to take an issue like poverty and break it down.

Let’s take someone like the artist Cheryal was talking with, or a community member, advocate, or someone who is “on the ground.” They may have an issue that a lot of people could help them with, but they don’t know who these people are. Those of us who are helpers, we all know each other. Why don’t we take a little bit of this off their shoulders? We all know each other and if they sit down to the table, we can bring people to them, whether it is HUD, Transportation, National Endowment of the Arts, Bank of North Dakota or someone else. We can come in and share that responsibility and take that off of their shoulders.

We need to lose our pride of ownership. I think there is willingness to look at things differently to make progress. We see this happening all the time – I guess because we have fewer resources to work with. If it’s remodeling a hospital in remote North Dakota, we know there is a Bank of North Dakota program that we have or we have a private foundation grant available. We should be willing to take more of that work on instead of expecting the people who need that help to make those phone calls.

12316524_692241344210422_4209352059508564515_nOpen Marketplace event at the Sprout Growers and Makers Marketplace, Spring 2016.

Can you talk about ways to prepare ourselves as rural practitioners for the long haul?

Cheryal: In Minnesota, practitioners are humble enough to know that “we know we don’t know.” In whatever field we are in, we seek a lot of help from partners to learn from others from throughout the nation. Recently, I went to a well-known foundation in Minnesota, who does leadership training throughout the state, and I asked that same question:

“For those who are standing in the front of the room, who are facilitating conversations in these spaces, who are bringing in community members, and who are honoring needs to bring in diversity in the community—as part of decision making, how do we make sure that they have the skills that they need?”

There are so many flavors of the week when it comes to the skills of community and economic development that it’s a little mind numbing. Practitioners are pulled from from lots and lots of sides. You get hit by: “all of you have to learn about creative placemaking and how it plays into community development, and the importance of these other elements of measuring success, energy, broadband, et cetera.” There are a lot of areas for a community developer to be pulled.

I give my colleagues the analogy that it is a lot like the race for ninth graders right now in industry. They all want to get their hands on that eighth and ninth grader in junior high to convince them that manufacturing, art, health care or whatever is the most important field to get into so they can recruit a talented workforce.

I feel like that’s the same tension for community developers right now. They are being pulled in a lot of different directions. I think it is important to give them the skills and tools they need so that as they deal with that tension, they know which tool to pull out of their toolkit.

As we learn about what works and how we measure success in rural, or in creative placemaking, or in theory of change, or lots of different models to deliver community and economic development, practitioners need ongoing professional development. In some parts of the nation they have done an amazing job with funding through the Economic Development Administration. Whether it is taking practitioners to USDA community development practitioners, or regional economic development commissions, or foundation community development practitioners; taking all those types of folks and delivering professional development through partners gives practitioners the tools they need to help communities make really good decisions.

For example, the conversations that we are having in Minnesota about the tension of refugees coming to communities in the state—if you are in the front of the room, you better have skills to facilitate these conversations or they can go really wrong really fast, and have skills to open the space for all opinions so that the conversation doesn’t close people down – that is a trained talent.

It goes back to the professional development of practitioners. We may never get to have deep conversations about policy change because we don’t have anyone in the front of that room in that community that knows how to do that. It really comes down to investment in professional development to give these folks tools.

Ryan: As you prepare for the long haul, education is key. Maybe in this case, you do have to be a “jack-of-all-trades.” I think that some of that comes formally, but a lot of that comes through relationships. I served in our state senate for ten years, and I’m not an attorney and I don’t have a Masters of Public Administration. But, you can learn from every committee that you serve on and from every lawmaker that you serve with. They have areas of expertise that you can glean from a little bit at a time. That ability to come together is an expense. It comes back to the resources and it is sometimes hard to justify why we are going to a convening, but we have to get together with other people who are doing the same things that we do. I believe this for a couple of reasons: One is to learn and to be exposed to their areas of expertise. Two is also to recharge yourself. If you are going to be in it for the long haul, we have to recharge our batteries and remember why we are doing what we are doing.

I have young children and I think about the children’s book “Fill your Bucket”. If you find yourself in a situation where people are asking you to empty your bucket, how do you fill your bucket? You have to find folks who are willing to put drops back in. That’s why we come together. Beyond that, if you are trying to be in it for the long haul, sometimes you need to be by yourself. If you are out there fighting for rural America, sometimes you need to reconnect with rural America in a personal way that allows you to reflect and remember why you do this. If that means sitting on rock in Gorman Township, make some time to do that.

Cheryal Hills, Colleen Landkamer, John Davis and Bob Reeder are greeted at the Next Generation Rural Creative Placemaking Summit by leadership from the Rural Policy Research Institute. Photo credit Pioneer Collective.

You both work in economic development, policy, and government. What are you looking to learn from artists?

Ryan: My mother was an artist, and I think maybe we all practice art in some way along with our other professions. I just love being around the energy. The things I want to learn from artists are: what drives them and what motivates them? Why are they creative in this certain way and not that certain way? How do they recharge? What do they get from sharing it? How does that energy get created and how does that benefit them? It is this sharing that is going to build our communities.

Cheryal: I am looking for that unique way of thinking. Like when the door is closed, how do they find the windows? Their creativity allows me to problem solve in different ways. I have a daughter and mother-in-law who are artists, and I often say that I don’t have an ounce of artistic ability. However, every time I put a grant proposal together, I do think we have it. It just comes out in different forms.

When I am surrounded by creative placemakers, what I look for are different perspectives and different worldviews. How did you get to that point? That helps me understand a little more about human nature and different ways of thinking. So, when I am in the middle of a project, I can reflect and think about the project in different ways. For instance: what would an artist who is a millennial think about this subject versus an artist who is 70? That worldview is important.

I don’t single out artists as an industry – I single out people. When you ask the question, I’m stumped because I don’t think “oh my gosh there’s an artist” and then go rub their forehead. I think “that that is a person and I need to know about how they think because they have a view that can help us get to a solution.”

What is your personal goal for the Next Generation Rural Creative Placemaking Summit?

Ryan: To meet a lot of the other people in this field and learn what makes them tick and how I can be helpful as I bring this back to a place like North Dakota, which is chocked full of rural places that have a lot to offer. Getting across the border to see how other people are making their places special and how we can lend a hand.

14680591_1159677267431242_8949567536773021695_nRyan Taylor joins colleagues at the Next Generation Rural Creative Placemaking Summit social dance. Photo credit Pioneer Collective.

What would you like to see as an outcome as the summit itself?

Ryan: Forming relationships that can be drawn upon in the future as resources. Also, learning best practices of what has worked and what hasn’t worked that can be brought back to our individual states and communities, and learning our common challenges and solutions. The outcomes may be hard to define on a line-item basis. Sometimes, we come to a convening like this and we don’t realize the value for a day, week or month. Then it pops in your head and you go, “I really gained some value there.”

Cheryal: I agree with Ryan. Every time I get in a room with creative thinkers of all ages, I walk away feeling pretty blessed. Sometimes I walk away thinking “I’m not sure what just happened to me.” I do think it takes a couple of days to understand where I can apply what I learned. That doesn’t happen in all of the events that I go to, but that always happens when there is a specific focus on creative thinking and the inclusion of the next generation of community leaders.

Cheryal, you mentioned a current project you are very excited about.

The Sprout Growers and Makers Marketplace is a food processing facility and demonstration kitchen. It is a food hub and a 24,000 square foot facility, the first of its kind in central Minnesota. Supported by the USDA and foundations, the facility also serves as an indoor winter farmers’ market. We had our grand opening last April, and have had several marketplaces.

Barn 1
The Barn at the Farm on St. Mathias, Fall 2015.

There is an effort underway to make it a cultural destination. We are thinking about food and art as a conduit for social cohesion issues with refugee and immigrant populations in Central Minnesota. We are trying to use best practices and storytelling to show how people and cultures are integrating in positive ways.

Anything else to add to the conversation?

Ryan: I’m looking forward to getting in the room and being really aware. Maybe this is because I used to be a writer who had a deadline every week, but I have learned that stories can be instructive to us. If we don’t have our eyes and ears open or if we are consumed by our phones buzzing, we will miss it. I look forward to being around everyone and having my awareness antenna up.

Cheryal: I’m appreciative of Iowa, RUPRI, and everyone for putting this together. I’m look at this as an opportunity to fill that bucket for us and to put a few more drops in as we return to our community.

This interview was conducted by Pilar McKay on behalf of Next Generation. Pilar also is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Shake on the Lake and Rural Arts Weekly, and is a Communications professor at SUNY Brockport. She spoke with Ryan and Cheryal ahead of the 2016 Next Generation Rural Creative Placemaking Summit.

Jump on Board with Public Transformation!

Ashley Hanson interviews Dylan Locke at The Floyd Country Store in Flyd, VA (pop. 432) after participating in a Bluegrass Jam Session, which happens at the store every Sunday afternoon.
Photo credit: Ellie Moore

Public Transformation is a documentary art project led by Minnesota artist, Ashley Hanson, highlighting artists working in rural communities across the country

On January 4th, Ashley took off from the West Coast in a little yellow school bus, along with her Golden Retriever Bodie, on a five-week cross country road-trip conducting interviews, creating art, and documenting the journey with audio, video, and photos. Along with partners, Springboard for the Arts, Creative Exchange, and Art of the Rural, Ashley hopes to shed light on the incredible work rural-based artists, cultural leaders, and arts organizations are doing at the intersection of art and community development. So far, she has visited artists in Del Rey, CA; Ajo, AZ; Show Low, AZ; Zuni Pueblo, NM; Santa Ana Pueblo, NM; Albany, TX; Edom, TX; Fayetteville, TX; Arnaudville, LA; Summit, MS; Newbern, AL; Denmark, SC; Lake City, LC; Flyd, VA; Whitesburg, KY  – all communities with populations under 10,000 – the majority of theses communities with a population under 2,500.

Ashley by Ellie MooreAshley Hanson takes tours Pine Mountain Settlement School with Geoff Marietta and Megan Epperson in Big Laurel, KY. She also visited Appalshop and Higher Ground  in Eastern Kentucky.
Photo credit Ellie Moore.

Public Transformation is a cross-country documentary art project highlighting the work rural artists and arts organizations are doing to make their communities a more vibrant, healthy, connected place to live. After the election, which brought to light major divides in our country between urban and rural areas, Minnesota artist Ashley Hanson, purchased a little yellow school bus and began planning a trip from West to East, North to South to document and share stories of the work being done in rural communities with a national audience and to further connect rural practitioners across the country to each other.

In addition to being a documentary art project, Public Transformation is also a mobile artist residency. During the five-week journey, artists will join Ashley to create work about their experiences in these communities. Upon completion of the trip on February 6, all of the stories and works of art will be compiled into a multi-media exhibition that will be showcased at the Rural Arts & Culture Summit in Morris, MN June 6-8, 2017 and at Art of the Rural’s headquarters the Outpost in Winona, MN in July. The exhibition will be designed to facilitate conversation about the role of arts in rural community development and will seek to be useful for artists, organizers, planners, or anyone living in and working with rural communities.

The Mobile Artists in Residence for the Public Transformation journey are:

  • Photographer / Videographer Ali Rogers of PranaLens(Minneapolis) (Jan 5-6)
  • Writer / Photographer / Fashionista Randi Carlson (Los Angeles) (Jan 8-21)
  • Photographer / Writer / Musician Ellie Moore (San Francisco) (Jan 21-26)
  • Theater Artist Hannah Holman (Minneapolis) (Jan 31-Feb 6)

Additional artists will contribute to the project remotely and in collaboration with Ashley following the road-trip. These artists include citizen artist Mary Rothlisberger (Washington), writers Michele Anderson (Fergus Falls, MN) and Matthew Fluharty (Winona, MN), musician Brian Laidlaw (Denver, CO), and playwright Jessica Huang (Minneapolis).

Ashley Hanson taking points toward her next destination as she drives her Public Transformation bus through the desert of Arizona on her way to meet with artists who live in the border community of Ajo, AZ (pop. 3,705). Photo credit: Ali Rogers

Public Transformation invites you to follow the journey. Visit to see updates from the road and become a member of the Department of Public Transformation. You can also follow Public Transformation on social media @publictransformation, #publictransformation.

To donate to Public Transformation, visit their Indigogo Campaign at:

Public Transformation is supported by Springboard for the Arts, Creative Exchange, Art of the Rural and many generous individual donors.



About Public Transformation 

Public Transformation is a cross-country documentary art project highlighting the work rural-based artists and arts organizations are doing to make their communities a more vibrant, healthy, connected place to live. Ashley Hanson’s little yellow school bus will act as a mobile artist residency to document and share stories of the great work being done in rural communities with a national audience and to further connect rural practitioners across the country to each other.


About Springboard for the Arts

Springboard for the Arts is an economic and community development organization for artists and by artists based in Saint Paul and Fergus Falls, MN. Springboard’s work is about building stronger communities, neighborhoods, and economics, and we believe that artists are an important leverage point in that work. Springboard for the Arts’ mission is to cultivate vibrant communities by connecting artists with the skills, information, and services they need to make a living and a life. Our programming focuses on supporting the wok of artists through professional development, health, and legal resources, and creating systems and programs for communities to connect to the creative power of their artists. We share this work nationally via our Creative Exchange platform ( and by freely sharing our work and creating connections among artists and communities, we work to make substantial, system-wide change.

About Creative Exchange

Dedicated to helping communities mobilize the powerful, creative force of artists to solve local challenges, Creative Exchange is a national hub where community leaders and artists share proven ideas and success stories for building stronger communities. Recognizing that many local governments, community organizations, nonprofits, and arts groups lack the resources to develop innovative programs from scratch, Creative Exchange offers free toolkits, consultations, and networking to help communities collaborate with artists in replicating successful programs that creatively address economic, social and cultural issues. Based in Saint Paul, MN, Creative Exchange is a national initiative of Springboard for the Arts.

About Art of the Rural

Art of the Rural is a collaborative organization that cultivates new ideas, media projects, and exchanges to connect rural and urban communities and cultures. Its national headquarters is located at the Outpost collaborative space in Winona, MN.

Rural-Urban Exchange Spotlight: Brandon Coan and the Daniel Boone Hotel

The Daniel Boone Hotel as it stands on Main Street in Whitesburg, Kentucky.
Photo by M. Tyler McDaniel, copyright 2015.

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More than 130 Kentuckians from 24 counties have been collaborating for Kentucky’s future. Since 2014, the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange has brought people together to integrate the arts, agriculture, health and small business in partnership strategies to build new models, share resources, and improve quality of life for Kentuckians. Each summer, the RUX is hosted in three regions of the state and is designed to help participants understand and value the culture, landscape, context, and people of each place.

The RUX is a partnership of The Art Of The Rural & Appalshop, supported by the Rural Policy Research Institute and has partnered with 52 organizations around the Commonwealth. RUX has been hosted in Whitesburg, Louisville, Paducah, Harlan, and Lexington so far, bringing dozens of people to these regions for the first time. From an Eastern Kentucky hotel development to integrated learning across our community college system, a dozen collaborations have developed. To learn more, visit:

Brandon Coan is a founding member of the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange, representing the RUX 2014/2015 cohorts.  His RUX project work has focused on the revitalization of the historic Daniel Boone Hotel in downtown Whitesburg. An active member of the Louisville philanthropic community, Brandon has also turned his attention to ensuring the sustainability of the RUX program.

Brandon is a Louisville native, local lawyer and active community member. In 2016, Brandon was elected to a four-year term representing the people of Louisville’s Highlands area (District 8) on the Louisville Metro Council. He has served as a director on the boards of Louisville Public Media, the Kentucky College of Art and Design at Spalding University and Louisville Grows, among other Louisville nonprofit organizations. Brandon serves on Kentucky’s Working Group for Next Generation: The Future of Arts & Culture Placemaking in Rural America.  Brandon’s wife Summer Auerbach is the Second Generation Owner of Rainbow Blossom Natural Food Markets.  Brandon is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the University of Kentucky College of Law.

How do you tell your story of Kentucky?

I was born and raised in Louisville, and lived here until I went away to college at the University of Michigan. When you’re a kid you don’t think about how your experience of place is different from other places. Going away to college in a diverse, liberal Midwestern town in Michigan was the first time I experienced any negative connotations to Kentucky. When classmates asked me where I was from, I explained that I was from Kentucky, but I was from “Louisville, Kentucky.” I realized then that being from “both” was hard to grasp – for others, and for me.

I come from an upper middle class family in the city, so I don’t have the same kind of identity as Kentuckians that grew up on a farm or in a hollow. I’m from a city that happens to be in Kentucky. I have always loved the city of Louisville. I loved the people, the laid back culture, the beautiful woods and creeks, the Derby, BBQ, college basketball. My Kentucky identity is tied up in the culture of the city I’m from, and the physical and historical characteristics of the state. That was my view of who I was and where I was from up until I went to law school at the University of Kentucky at age 25. I was right on the heels of having worked on John Kerry’s presidential campaign for a year. When he lost his campaign, I went to the University of Kentucky.

15356482_10154813731519464_3220252537897364792_nBrandon Coan is sworn in as a Louisville Metro Councilman representing Louisville’s Highlands area (District 8).
Photo by Summer Auerbach, 2016.

When you go to medical school, no matter where you go, you’re studying the same human body. Going to law school at University of Kentucky was very interesting because the story of law in Kentucky is specific to the politics of Kentucky. I found that I didn’t agree with the majority of my classmates (who were from all over rural Kentucky) on just about anything. Their life was not like mine, we didn’t have the same experiences, I hadn’t been to their towns. On issue after issue and class after class I was the ideological minority, which was a new experience for me. University of Michigan and University of Kentucky were opposites. It put the contrast between Louisville and the rest of the state in much sharper focus.

In fact, I felt alienated by – and even in opposition to – Kentucky. I graduated from law school in 2008, moved back to Louisville and continued to concentrate more on the city and less on the state. I got even more deeply ingrained in my community and was inspired to build my life here.

CON_0324Brandon collaborated with the Transit Authority of River City and Olmstead Parks Conservancy to arrange a bus tour of the Olmstead Parks System for the Rural-Urban Exchange in 2014.
Photo credit Aron Conaway.

How has RUX made you feel more at home in the state of Kentucky?

When I learned about the RUX in 2014, what really excited me was the opportunity to visit Appalshop and experience Whitesburg. In Law School I had found friends from other parts of Kentucky who also really liked the outdoors, and my belonging in the same Kentucky they did had become about outdoor recreation. I had heard about Appalshop from them. I’d heard about Summit City through the Louisville music scene, so I was thrilled to start our weekend there.

I knew that there were smart and thoughtful people all over Kentucky, but I wasn’t connected to them. I was intrigued by this place in Eastern Kentucky that was a center of activism in what I had perceived to be a desert of progressives, so I got in the carpool with my wife and other Louisvillians and drove into the Appalachian Mountains to Whitesburg. I felt like I got a feel for the place, but the most satisfying part of the experience was meeting these people that really excited me.

12191362_10153652058027567_5384129901286152020_oRUX meeting in Paducah’s Freight House, 2015.
Photo credit Aron Conaway.

When I had moved back to Louisville, the only thing about rural Kentucky that I ever thought about was mountaintop removal. Even though I thought I cared about the people affected by Mountaintop Removal, I had only cared about them in the abstract. When I went there and got to know people, I came to really care about the people and the place. I found these little things that made felt deeply connected to my own experiences. I came to care about the Whitesburg Main Street in the way that I cared about community development projects in Louisville. I came to realize that meeting other people in Kentucky in the places where they live, in re-meeting Kentucky, helped me to overcome the perspectives I’d developed in law school and fall back in love with the state of Kentucky.

RUX helped me to realize that a constitutional law class wasn’t the best place for me to base my ideas on what other people in Kentucky were like. I hadn’t been to their towns, experienced their cultures, or understood their backgrounds. Those people weren’t at home either. It was a divisive environment; we didn’t get to know each other as people. In class, you get to see how other people lean on issues but you don’t understand why. The beauty of RUX is that it gave me context.

I had a great time and found a project I wanted to get involved in, so then I jumped at the opportunity to go to the first RUX weekend in Paducah. Paducah had always been on my list from an urban policy perspective. I also loved the sophistication and charm of that place. Now I’m sure there are other places in Kentucky that I’ll fall in love with too. It only took knowing a few of these magical places before the whole state became a magical place again.

What have you gained from your RUX experience that you have taken back to your community?

How do you make people from totally different backgrounds and experiences and places realize that they have something in common? It feels impossible.

That’s why I think the RUX is so important. RUX works because it shows that connecting with seemingly different people is actually really easy, it’s just a matter of seeking out other people’s experiences and then inviting them to share yours.  It’s a two way street, I go to your place, you come to mine. I give you something, you give me something. When you go to someone’s home, when you meet their family and go to their workplace, you’re able to put yourself in their shoes and they become real to you. You begin to understand and care about them.

IMG_3262Brandon and Summer in Whitesburg with her 2014 RUX matches, Dave and Kay Fisher, former owners of The Mercantile.

I’ve been so inspired by the exchange! Once you realize the benefit of this kind of exchange, you start to want to apply it to other parts of your life. I want to bring a lot of these RUX lessons home to Louisville to begin to bridge some of the divides in the city. Every city and state in the country could benefit from this kind of exchange.

That’s also why I think our RUX project on the Daniel Boone Hotel is so important. Not only is it an incredible economic development opportunity, but it can help to make the Eastern Kentucky region more accessible to people from outside the region. It continues to facilitate the value of this exchange to more people.

Describe your RUX project. How did your project begin and how has the idea changed over time?

During the first RUX weekend in Whitesburg, I was talking to local entrepreneur Joel Beverly, and he pointed out the old Daniel Boone Hotel building and said “wouldn’t it be great if 21c [Museum Hotels] opened a hotel right there?” I knew the leadership at 21C, so I told him that I would talk to them about what it would take to bring the historic hotel back to life. This conversation was happening right ahead of the centennial anniversary of the 1915 opening of the Daniel Boone Hotel, which made the idea even more exciting.

Coan UofL meeting

University of Louisville School of Business meeting about the initial stages of the hotel project.
Photo by M. Tyler McDaniel, copyright 2015.

I went back to Louisville and talked with 21c President Craig Greenberg and told him about the people in Whitesburg and their vision for reopening the Daniel Boone. Craig then connected me with Rob Hunden, one of the nation’s top hotel industry consultants, and Rob and I talked about doing a feasibility study. Rob ultimately decided that he would take a risk on this small town hotel project, but we still had to raise $39,000 to fund the study. The city owned the hotel, but neither the city nor the RUX program had the capital to invest in the study. We did some research and went with RUX staff to meet with the Kentucky office of the USDA Rural Development. While there, we learned about the Rural Business Development grants.

We decided to apply for the USDA opportunity and recruited students and faculty from the University of Louisville School of Business to help conduct a community survey as part of our application. We brought two Louisville students and the RUX videographer back and forth to Whitesburg. Nearly 600 residents responded, which was amazing for a town with a population of 1200. This data really helped to support our grant application. So, too, did my fellow RUXer – and Eastern Kentucky native and consultant – Mark Kidd, who helped administer the application on the ground in Whitesburg.

We won the grant(!), which was really exciting because it was the first grant awarded to the city of Whitesburg in more than a decade. When the Hunden consultants came to town it was a very meaningful event for the city and business community.

Coan Hotel tourBrandon explores the Daniel Boone Hotel with Chicago feasibility consultant Rob Hunden during the feasibility study.
Photo by M. Tyler McDaniel, copyright 2015.

Fast forward to 2016, and the study came back giving us reason to be optimistic about the project. The study confirmed market demand for the hotel (although public dollars would be needed to fund the development gap), and the original architect for the Appalshop building came on as part of the project team.

As serendipity would have it, just as I was gearing back up for another round of fundraising to support a national developer search, an interested investor – Louisville-based at that! – caught wind of the project and stepped forward to undertake it.  Project planning continues to this day and all signs point to a future completed project.

What have you learned from working on this project?

In many ways, this project started as an impossible dream, and the hands-on learning it took to get it this far has been one of the best educational experiences of my life.  From working around the administrative challenges facing small town economic development, to winning my first federal grant, to selling a vision for Whitesburg and the region’s tourism future to anybody who would listen to me, I learned to believe that a bright Appalachian future is possible if we work together across Kentucky, the economic sectors and levels of government to invest in it.

Coan Whitesburg CityBrandon presenting the Hunden study and hotel project to the Whitesburg city council.
Photo by M. Tyler McDaniel, copyright 2015.

What’s next for your project?

The Daniel Boone Hotel Project has a long way to go before opening its doors to visitors again but the wheels of business are in motion.  In fact, the developer is already thinking about the potential of a number of other hospitality projects in Eastern Kentucky, and I plan to do whatever I can to help bring them to fruition, including strengthening the connection between Louisville, the Bluegrass and Appalachia.

Back of DBH
Back side of the Daniel Boone Hotel in Whitesburg, Kentucky.
Photo by M. Tyler McDaniel, copyright 2015.

This interview was conducted by Savannah Barrett, co-founder and facilitator of the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange and Director of Programs for Art of the Rural.