Bluegrass and mountain music. Native American culture. Incomparable natural beauty. The most visited national park in the United States. The tallest mountain, deepest gorge, and tallest waterfall in the eastern United States, as well as the oldest river in North America. Unique art created by talented artists. History of Appalachia dating back to before the American Revolution.
All of these are found in abundance in western North Carolina, from Murphy to Mount Airy. Yet until the turn of the 21st century, our region lacked a unifying entity to pull together the diverse aspects of our people and our culture into a compelling narrative. Enter the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area (BRNHA).
Established in 2003 by an act of Congress, BRNHA is the custodian of the living traditions of western North Carolina, charged with preserving and promoting its music, crafts, natural and agricultural heritage, and Cherokee culture. Based in Asheville, BRHNA encompasses 25 western North Carolina counties and promotes all that makes our region special. The BRNHA operates as a public-private partnership through the National Park Service, which provides federal matching funds, technical assistance, support, and oversight. This partnership must be renewed by Congress to open the door to local matching funds; with congressional action, this valuable partnership can continue for decades.
According to a recent study, visitor spending at BRNHA partner sites accounted for nearly $2.4 billion in annual economic impact, as well as more than 30,000 jobs. This activity also generated $1.765 million in state and local taxes. Additionally, since its inception, BRNHA has awarded 188 grants totaling $2.5 million, with matching contributions generating an additional $5.9 million. These grants went to deserving educational, environmental, cultural and historical organizations in the 25 counties of the heritage area.
The organization has amassed a plethora of community, state and national partners and is known as a regional convener and resource. With the North Carolina Arts Council, BRNHA created the Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina featuring more than 150 sites across the region where locals and visitors can hear traditional mountain music almost every day of the year. week. And the organization has helped serve more than 1.4 million visitors as a partner of the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center in Asheville.
The impact of BRNHA’s work goes beyond simple numbers. In March 2022, BRNHA announced the completion of Blue Ridge Craft Trails, which is a curated list of 325 destinations in the BRNHA area, including artist studios, galleries, and arts organizations. On the Craft Trails website, visitors can find destination information as well as directions and videos.
The BRNHA success story is just one of 55 found in other National Heritage Areas located in 34 states covering nearly 600 counties across the United States. President Ronald Reagan created the program in 1984, calling it “a new kind of national park.” Unlike an enclosed park with defined boundaries, NHAs are inhabited areas and celebrate all aspects of American culture, history, landscape and economy. In total, NHAs have an annual economic impact of nearly $13 billion and support 150,000 jobs nationwide.
A National Heritage Area is usually created by an act of Congress with the strong, bipartisan support of its home state’s delegation members. This was certainly the case for BRNHA, which enjoyed the bipartisan support of the North Carolina congressional delegation for its creation. When an NHA’s authorization nears expiration, its home state’s delegation often leads the renewal effort, ensuring that the NHA can continue to provide benefits to its communities. Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis and Rep. Patrick McHenry have championed the work of BRNHA, including the introduction of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Reauthorization Act last year.
Despite the growth and expansion of NHLs, the system for creating new NHLs and relicensing existing NHLs can be improved. Instead of a piecemeal reauthorization process that places the fate of each NHA in the hands of a busy congressional schedule, many NHAs support legislation that would streamline reauthorization for the 55 National Heritage Areas, granting authorization to 15 years for each. We are proud to join them in calling on Congress to pass the National Heritage Area Act (HR 1316 and S.1492).
We have much to celebrate in western North Carolina, and as long as Congress continues to provide the necessary basic funding and authorization, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area will be key to leading the celebration for decades. coming.
Wit Tuttell is Vice President of Tourism and Marketing for the North Carolina Economic Development Partnership. Reid Wilson is secretary of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.