The PA Wilds Center is off to a roaring 2017, rebooting regional marketing, expanding our gift shops, bringing more creative entrepreneurs into our ranks, pushing for mini grants for our communities and businesses.
But before we get into all that, we wanted to give 2016 its due. It was, after all, an amazing year, too!
A few highlights:
Last month we finalized an integration that brought the three main pieces of the Wilds work – planning, marketing and business development – under one organizational roof. May not sound like the sexiest of developments, but the Wilds is generational work, and now we have a single 501c3 framework around it to allow it to be managed for the long haul (something investors do find attractive). Kudos go to leadership at the PA Wilds Planning Team, PA Wilds Marketing Corp and PA Wilds Center for doing what needed done; to our skilled facilitator, Lisa Olszak, for helping us find an appropriate organizational model to fit this big, beautiful landscape work we all care so deeply about; and finally to the PA Dept. of Conservation & Natural Resources (DCNR), who helped fund our strategic planning process. Check out our new org chart (yes, finally, an org chart!) and PA Wilds Center informational pamphlet.
2016 also goes down as the year we rebranded, expanded and transformed the PA Wilds Artisan Trail into The Wilds Cooperative of PA, paving the way for more kinds of creative entrepreneurs and craftspeople to benefit from this program, which focuses on growing and connecting the kinds of unique businesses central to place-based tourism development. We couldn’t have accomplished this without financial support from the Appalachian Regional Commission and PA Dept. of Community & Economic Development; customer service support from the staff at ECCOTA, our communications/operations hub for the program; or the support of the close to 150 entrepreneurs and craftspeople in the program.
Our work on The Wilds Cooperative led to an exciting new public-private partnership with DCNR, which allowed us to open our first PA Wilds Conservation Shop in 2016 at the new visitor center at Kinzua Bridge State Park (KBSP). The store sells handcrafted and PA Wilds-branded products made or supplied by local entrepreneurs in The Wilds Cooperative of PA. Many individuals and organizations helped us get the store off the ground in record time (thank you!), but special recognition goes to the PA Wilds Center board for seeing the vision and taking the leap; to our creative firm Swell for its inspired design work; to Stackpole-Hall Foundation and West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund, who each invested in our nonprofit at a critical moment, tipping momentum in the direction we needed it to go; to the leadership and staff at DCNR including folks at State Parks Region 1 and KBSP, who have been great to collaborate with; and finally to my Managing Director, Abbi Peters, who decided if General Kane could build the tallest bridge in the world in 94 days, she could get an entire store set up and operating in just less than 90, (read more about it here) all while revamping the internal systems for the Wilds Cooperative, and holding down the rest of the fort as the boss left on maternity leave.
In its first three months, the gift shop did $75,000 in gross sales and we reinvested more than $50,000 back into local businesses through inventory purchases. Already, after three months, we are seeing micro producers in our supply chain grow. We can’t wait to fan those flames even more. Abbi has a list of things we couldn’t get to in Season 1, and has already stated, “We’re going to crush it in Season 2.” Consider this an open invite to all of the producers and retailers out there to join us at our Buyers Market debuting April 1 at Clarion University. We’re presenting this event with the help of the Clarion University Small Business Development Center and we’re excited to connect wholesale buyers with the amazing products that are being crafted throughout the region. And our purchasers will be there looking to place the orders that will stock our shelves! Learn more and register for the event here.
Finally, last Spring, we were invited to present about The Wilds Cooperative at a meeting of the Governor’s Green Ribbon Task Force on Forest Products, Conservation & Jobs. The Pennsylvania Wilds is home to one of the largest blocks of green between New York City and Chicago, and as you might expect, our woods have inspired all manner of artisan products, from hand carved bowls to wooden turkey calls to woodland scenes captured in stained glass, watercolors, ceramics, fiber – you name it. So when the invite came in, we leapt (not really… I was six months pregnant) at the chance to show how these skilled artisans are part of PA’s wood products entrepreneurial ecosystem, and to raise awareness more generally on how we were working to expand and grow such local producers and tie them to the regional brand and visitor experience. After we finished, the executive director of Northcentral Regional Planning & Development Commission, Eric Bridges, followed us into the hallway and said we should look seriously at a new federal grant aimed at diversifying economies in coal-impacted communities. He forwarded me a press release about the ‘Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or ‘POWER’ Initiative and kept after us about applying (which is good because 85-degree heat in the third trimester with no office AC has a way of un-motivating even the most motivated grant writer.). By keep after, I mean a few weeks later he invited us to present about The Wilds Cooperative to a group of our business development partners in the region, and share how we were going to turn our plans into a POWER grant application. Of course after you tell a room full of people you have to see again something like that, you actually have to do it (thank you, Mr. Bridges!). Three months (and a lot of data crunching, strategic planning, match dollars, support letters and one beautiful baby boy) later, we became one of the first organizations in PA to secure a federal POWER grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.
All sorts of incredibly innovative, community-driven projects are happening across Appalachia as its people work to transition the region’s economy. ARC invests in many of them. The POWER Initiative let ARC do what it is good at in an even more powerful way. We’re grateful for their support and proud to be part of this #ARCinnovator community, which is helping rewrite the narrative for our region.
We are also incredibly proud of the regional partnerships we have here in the Wilds, and the regional strategies and investments that have grown out of the fact that 13 years ago, a lot of people from different sectors decided to get around a table and work together – and then they stayed around the table, through good times and bad, and kept pushing things forward. The nature tourism investments our region has seen on the public and private-sector side, and certainly this POWER investment, would not have been possible without this vision and stick-to-it-ness by so many. So a big thank you to our county governments, visitor bureaus, Heritage Areas, Local Development Districts, educators, nonprofits, public lands managers, economic developers, conservation groups, state partners, federal partners, businesses, artists and everyone else who is around our table. These robust regional partnerships that align shared goals with strategic and coordinated investments in the PA Wilds are part of DCNR’s largest Conservation Landscape Initiative, and we are honored to lead the Wilds work as part of that effort.
Our POWER grant, which began Jan. 1, will allow us expand The Wilds Cooperative, particularly in our seven coal-impacted counties, as well as start to expand our gift shops to create more work and wealth generation opportunities for micro producers in the region. It will also help us reboot regional marketing and create a sustainable framework around it so it never goes away again – a longtime challenge to the Wilds effort that we are now on our way to solving.
Bring on 2017!
PA Wilds Center Executive Director and Founder