Chimney Rock - Homegrown Tools

Chimney Rock, NC

Updated: 2022

A downtown makeover and the construction of a river walk, joining Chimney Rock’s business district to the Rocky Broad River, spurs the creation of new businesses.

Median Household Income2020$56,250
Poverty Rate 20209.8%
Proximity to Urban Center 96 miles to Charlotte, N.C.
Proximity to Interstate Highway 20 miles
Case Study Time Frame 1996-2007
Data Source: US Census, American Community Survey
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With a population of 175, Chimney Rock is a tiny village in the mountains of North Carolina that figured out a way to capture tourists who were flowing into a nearby park. For more than a century, Chimney Rock has relied on tourism from nearby Chimney Rock Park to sustain its economy. During the 1980s and 90s, the town struggled to move its economy beyond novelty souvenir stores. Frustrated by a lack of success, the all-volunteer government approached HandMade in America, a regional nonprofit, about a partnership to revitalize the downtown and create a more vibrant tourism base. (1) The town’s strategy involved constructing a river walk through the downtown, updating business facades and building local capacity to sustain future efforts at diversification and development. These efforts created 104 jobs in 17 new businesses. More importantly, visitors to Chimney Rock now have a reason to spend time in the village — as well as in the park.


What are the lessons learned from this story?


Define economic development assets broadly. The park outside of Chimney Rock was, until the mid-1990s, an underestimated asset for economic development. Chimney Rock’s economy was stagnant during the 1980s and ‘90s, in large part because the village failed to give tourists a reason to come to town besides visiting the park. In this way, Chimney Rock was reactive in its economic development approach, relying on its base of souvenir shops to bring tourists to town. After partnering with Handmade in America, Chimney Rock saw that it needed to rethink how it attracted tourists and designed the river walk to enhance revitalization efforts downtown. In this way, Chimney Rock created a sort of synergy by pairing its development strategy — one based on natural resources — with the park to realize greater economic development gains.


Build institutional capacity. In the process of assessing its assets and opportunities, Chimney Rock recognized that, with an all-volunteer local government, the town’s capacity was limited. By creating a community development association, the town created an institution that could partner with the local government and bring additional attention to development projects.


Look to local service and resource providers. In this case, local leaders looked beyond traditional public sector sources of assistance to local service providers. Handmade in America was a regional entity with experience and expertise in helping communities to build capacity.