Nicholas School Internship Blogs

Tales From The Campaign Trail
by -- July 8th, 2011

The GNSA Campaign hits the road in the small mountain communities where the campaign began in 2006.

Blowing Rock

Blowing Rock

The towns of Blowing Rock, Boone, Banner Elk, Valle Crucis, and other small local communities have an economy based almost entirely on tourism. The last leg of the nearly 2.5 hour drive here from Asheville winds through dramatic countryside, trees lining the road breaking to reveal sweeping panoramic vistas of rolling green mountains that fade into the distance, idyllic farmhouses and small country inns, and an increasing number of outdoor adventure outfitters, rafting companies, sizable vacation homes along mountain ridges, roadside produce stands, and curiosity shops.

The GNSA Campaign (that’s Grandfather National Scenic Area, for those of you who are just joining me) had initially built relations with more than 100 businesses in these communities and nationally, but the original campaign coordinator left over a year and a half ago. In that time, the campaign fell into a lull. Our mission? To locate local business sign-ons and re-establish communication and their support.

Canvassing: Not For the Faint of Heart

GNSA Campaign

GNSA Campaign

Have you even been approached by canvassers?

You know, those people who go door-to-door assessing your support for a certain campaign or trying to get you to buy on to something or some idea. You can usually sniff out canvassers a mile away: They nearly always carry clipboards, usually have a box of other handout materials, walk up to you with a purposeful but pleasant expression, and, if you’re at a business, ask to speak to the manager or owner.

If you’re like me, the words “Oh no, not these people” or something similar flash through your mind as soon as you’re on their radar, along with a “Not interested,” a quick, “I actually don’t live in this county,” “I don’t have any money on me, sorry,” or, at the worst, a swift about-face and walk in the opposite direction. (Potential canvassers in my area: Take note.)

Today, however, I was the one holding the clipboard, the one who was hopeful that the people I spoke to would be supportive of, or at least receptive to, the information I had brought along with me.

Even more unfamiliar was being on the receiving end of the classic canvasser reaction. Having to actively work to convince a plethora of skeptical people in two minutes or less that I was a trustworthy source and had a legitimate message worthy of their business’s endorsement was a completely new experience for me.

But today, I was lucky: We were only visiting businesses that had supported us in the past. Translation: we were (almost) guaranteed an (eventual) relatively warm reception.

When Livelihoods Are In Question, Unanimity Answers

A restaurant in Blowing Rock overlooking the GNSA.

A restaurant in Blowing Rock overlooking the GNSA.

I could not have asked for a better first experience to this highly interactive method of community outreach. Once business owners learned that we didn’t want their money and were in fact trying to bring them more money (economists estimate a GNSA will bring an additional $38.4 million to the region), we were met with unanimous support. Every business we entered either signed our letter of support to Congress immediately or passed it on to higher management, who they felt confident would sign on as well.

Surprisingly, about a third, whether through new management or otherwise, didn’t recall signing on to the campaign four years earlier. This alone reaffirmed the importance of renewing our relationship with the community at large rather than simply key stakeholders – one, to ensure that our business contacts still approved our use of their previous endorsement, and two, to allow us to regenerate some awareness and enthusiasm about the GNSA.

What amazed me was that, despite the wide variety of business interests and socio-economic backgrounds of the people we encountered, everyone wholeheartedly agreed that creating a GNSA was vitally important to the local community, from the co-owner of a BBQ joint with dancing pig statues and pig stained glass windows to the manager of a whimsical new age bookstore and a random street drifter smoking a cigar outside a tie-dyed t-shirt shop.

“Yep. Y’all need to be here,” the latter said with a decisive nod once he heard that the forests comprising the viewsheds near the city had been logged before and could be logged again, offering to take a GNSA flier and business endorsement letter inside the nearest shop for management to sign it.

What leveled the playing field? The local economy. Each individual clearly understood the paramount role that maintaining pristine scenic places plays in bringing the tourists who drive the financial resources of their towns, their businesses, and their existence.

Worth the Walk, and the Talk

Going to 20-30 business across four towns at a time can be tiring, certainly. But I can think of few better ways than face-to-face interaction to get to know the values and priorities of the community we are serving… and to inspire people to take action themselves.

At a roadside fresh produce shop, “Maw” told us about her favorite places to hike around the GNSA. The bookstore manager showed us the best places to leave extra GNSA fliers in her store, and offered other prime locations to hang the information around town. When I asked the owner of a t-shirt print shop about his Yosemite t-shirt, he told us the story of his adventurous marriage in the national park only a year earlier.

He offered to give Wild South a significant discount if we ever needed any printed memorabilia. “I fully support anyone who comes into my town, where I took a pay cut to live and work, and wants to do something good for it!” he said as we left.

His was the second store we visited. Needless to say, his words gave us some solid encouragement for the rest of the trip!

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