PRESS RELEASE: Friends of Southwest Virginia and the SWVA Cultural Heritage Foundation Release 2018-2019 Annual Report

June 10, 2019


Contact: Jenna Wagner
PR & Marketing Director
Friends of Southwest Virginia
Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation
(276) 492-2400 ext. 2422


ABINGDON, VA – The Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation and the Friends of Southwest Virginia have released their 2018-2019 Annual Report which outlines the regional economic impact of the tourism economy and spotlights economic, community and tourism development initiatives, regional marketing and branding and updates to the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace.

Southwest Virginia includes 19 counties, four independent cities and 53 towns located on the southern and western border of Virginia. Its 8,600 square miles – more than a fifth of Virginia’s total – is located along mountain ridges and in fertile valleys with two national parks, eleven state parks and over a thousand square miles of national and state forests. The region is filled with innovators, artists and musicians.

The Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation was established in 2008 by the Virginia General Assembly to serve as the lead in developing a creative economy in Southwest Virginia through cultural and natural assets. Through a supporting non-profit, the Friends of Southwest Virginia, the regional team works as one organization to help localities, non-profits and entrepreneurs mobilize and succeed throughout the region. Partner organizations include The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Music Heritage Trail and ‘Round the Mountain Artisan Network along with support from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. The complex nature of this model of public / private partnership is reflective of the complex economic issues in Southwest Virginia that the organization tackles on a daily basis.

The creative economy movement is defined by innovative business development techniques finding success without reliance on the limited resources of land, labor and capital. From the arts and music of the region to the natural assets capitalized through tourism, the joint work of the Foundation and the non-profit is revolutionizing the rural economic development system of Southwest Virginia and providing thousands of new jobs through small business to the people of this region.

The organization reports that a study from the U.S. Travel Association and Virginia Tourism Corporation shows that tourism spending in the region has grown by $394 million from 2004 to 2017, with travelers spending a total of $1.04 billion in 2017. In this thirteen-year period, travel expenditures have increased by 67%.

Additionally, local tax revenues have increased by 49% and state tax revenues by 44% in the same time period. The upward trend in these travel related tax revenues has an impact at the local level through increasing meals and lodging tax revenues in the region’s towns. Overall employment in SWVA has dropped since 2001, but employment in the leisure and hospitality industry sector has increased by 14%.

“Southwest Virginia has had an incredible year and the Foundation and Friends could not accomplish this amazing work without the collaborative spirit and leadership of our counties, cities and towns. Southwest Virginia has grown a lot over the past ten years through the creative economy and we’re excited to see what we can do over the next year,” said Chris Cannon, Executive Director of the Foundation and Friends of Southwest Virginia.

In addition to the significant increase in overall tourism impact, the report details current developments underway to increase future economic impact.

“Over the past year, we’ve been able to build on the groundbreaking work that visionaries across Southwest Virginia detailed. The potential for the creative economy and development of our assets continues to grow and is unrivaled anywhere in the world,” said Cannon.

Since 2014, the SWVA Outdoors initiative has recruited millions in grant funding to develop tourism around 8 anchor areas: Mount Rogers, Appalachian Trail, Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail, Clinch River, New River, Blue Ridge Parkway, Breaks and High Knob.

The outdoor recreation industry has grown vastly across the United States, with an estimated $887 billion of annual consumer spending across the nation and 7.6 million jobs. Southwest Virginia’s numbers alone are impressive with 14 outdoor companies calling the region home. Furthermore, Southwest Virginians spend an estimated $1.4 billion on outdoor recreation each year.

Friends of Southwest Virginia serves as a regional collaborative tool for communities to unite individual projects into large scale regional initiatives. This unification into multi-jurisdiction projects provides strength in seeking federal and state resources for community, economic and tourism development. The following projects are underway across Southwest Virginia and administered by Friends of Southwest Virginia as part of large, scale regional collaboratives: Appalachian Trail Center in Damascus, Breaks to Haysi Trail, Devils Bathtub, Haysi Boardwalk, High Knob Destination Center, High Knob Lake Restoration, High Knob Master Plan, Lee and Wise County Outdoor Recreation Access, New River Boat launches, New River Center, Spearhead Trails Technicians. More information about each of these projects can be found in the full report here »

Funding partners in these 16 development projects touching all of Southwest Virginia include the Commonwealth of Virginia, Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, Appalachian Regional Commission, U.S. Economic Development Administration, Virginia Tourism Corporation and several private foundations.

In addition to the development initiatives, the organization serves as an official Destination Marketing Organization for the region. The SWVA brand introduced in 2016 has grown and developed over the past two years through aggressive marketing initiatives.

“Over the past year, the interest in Southwest Virginia has grown through our social media and digital platform. The world is curious about the stories of Southwest Virginia and it is our privilege to compile and tell those stories,“ said Jenna Wagner, Public Relations & Marketing Director.

On July 1, 2018, Friends of Southwest Virginia formally assumed management of the programs of ‘Round the Mountain. The staff at Friends of SWVA now oversee development of the artisan trails throughout SWVA, artisan membership sales and member development, marketing of RTM and regional arts initiatives and, most importantly, partnership development among the arts community, individual artisans, other regional co-ops, galleries and arts stakeholders in this region. Friends of Southwest Virginia and ‘Round the Mountain have worked together for years within the arts community, but this exciting new partnership is taking the relationship between the two organizations to a new level for the benefit of all of Southwest Virginia.

‘Round the Mountain: Southwest Virginia’s Artisan Network is a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote sustainable economic development of the region’s communities by assisting local artisans with marketing, educational, and entrepreneurial opportunities. We have roughly 300 participating members as of December 2018.

The organization fully operates and manages the newly reopened Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace located just off I-81 in Abingdon. The facility reopened in March of 2019 with refreshed look and renewed focus on telling the culturally authentic story of Southwest Virginia to residents and visitors alike. Formerly Heartwood, the facility opened in 2011 as the gateway for the creative economy in Southwest Virginia. The Cultural Center was conceived to showcase and sell the work of regional artisans and musicians and to interpret Southwest Virginia’s history, heritage, outdoor recreation and scenic beauty via stories and first-person narratives to inspire travel to other parts of the region.

“We’ve known for a long time that no group took ownership of Heartwood – the artists, the musicians, community leaders – no one called it home,” said Chris Cannon, Executive Director of Friends of Southwest Virginia, the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation and Round the Mountain, the three organizations that jointly operate the Center. “These changes have created a feeling of comfort reflective of the authentic spirit of our region, and we already see the artisans, musicians and regional partners feeling more at home here.”

Through the renewed image, programming and brand, the marketing strategy for the Center will be more aligned with the overall Southwest Virginia branding, storytelling and marketing efforts. This will allow the facility to be positioned as the starting point to a trip to experience Southwest Virginia.

The data released is compiled from Virginia Tourism Corporation, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Outdoor Industry Association, CHMURA Economics and Analytics and the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts.

To access the full Annual Report and learn more about the work of Friends of Southwest Virginia, visit:

For more information on the SWVA Cultural Heritage Foundation and Friends of Southwest Virginia, visit


For more information, please contact Jenna Wagner with Friends of Southwest Virginia (276-492-2400 ext. 2422). For more information and to stay up-to-date, subscribe to the Friends of Southwest Virginia Partner Newsletter and “Like” Friends of Southwest Virginia on Facebook.

About Southwest Virginia:
Tucked in the mountains of Southwest Virginia is a vibrant culture of music, craft and stunning natural beauty. It’s a region of spectacular views and rich natural resources. Time spent in the region adds up to something much more than a simple getaway. A different side of Virginia. And a great place to visit for a week’s vacation – or to make a home for a lifetime. Authentic. Distinctive. Alive.

About the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation and Friends of Southwest Virginia:
The Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation is the coordinating body for cultural heritage tourism and economic development efforts fostering Southwest Virginia’s creative economy. Through a supporting non-profit, the Friends of Southwest Virginia, the combined entities help localities, businesses, individuals, artists, nonprofits and entrepreneurs mobilize and succeed.

A multifaceted plan identifies the cultural and natural assets of the region; coordinates initiatives, organizations and venues engaged in cultural and natural heritage toward more efficient operations for all partner organizations; and develops a comprehensive strategy and capital improvements plan to maximize the impact of state investments in this significant restructuring effort.

Key initiatives include:

  • Branding and marketing Southwest Virginia to the world as a distinct culture and destination
  • Developing and sustaining the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace
  • Expanding outdoor recreation development initiatives and marketing throughout the region
  • Planning and implementation of downtown revitalization throughout the region to instill a high quality of life within our communities and promote them to the world for a broad spectrum of economic development opportunities

Learn More About the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation and Friends of Southwest Virginia

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