Leaders of the town of Dillsboro and members of Western Carolina University’s faculty unveiled the framework for an ongoing partnership that will help Dillsboro build a business identity.
Discussions between former mayor Jean Hartbarger and WCU Chancellor John Bardo last year led to interest in a partnership that would turn Dillsboro into a learning lab for WCU’s College of Business while providing the town with much-needed resources at a difficult moment in its history.
Reeling from the loss of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, the force behind Dillsboro’s tourist-driven retail economy, and from the highly publicized and protracted struggle over its dam, the town is looking ahead at an uncertain future.
Last week, WCU public relations professor, Dr. Betty Farmer, and Dillsboro Mayor Mike Fitzgerald announced to members of the public at the Applegate Inn the outline for the partnership. Nearly 20 members of WCU’s teaching faculty were present at the event, and they took turns explaining how they would use their students to accomplish tasks that would benefit the town over the course of the next year.
Building from a consulting project the town undertook on its own, WCU’s business college plans to start by targeting “low-hanging fruit.” By increasing the town’s Web presence, creating a town newsletter, developing a schedule of common business hours, and strengthening the ties between the campus community and the town, the project would move towards creating a distinct marketing strategy for Dillsboro by the end of the year.
“We want you to know that this is the starting place and not the be all and end all,” Farmer said.
Farmer explained that the town has to have a strong voice in the partnership and that none of the solutions identified by classes would be imposed on merchants or the town leadership.
In keeping with that principle, one of the primary functions of the business college will be to conduct surveys of the town’s vendors and customers to develop a statistical framework for marketing decisions.
Brenda Anders, a town merchant who runs Dogwood Crafters, was pleased by what she saw.
“I was impressed by everyone’s excitement and I’m really surprised by WCU’s level of involvement,” Anders said. “It’s been like that at every meeting.”
Students in WCU’s public relations program, Garrett Richardson and Lauren Gray, showed their enthusiasm for the project by explaining how they could help create a vibrant e-newsletter linked to social networking sites.
“In two or three sentences, can you differentiate between Facebook and Twitter?” one resident asked.
The success of the partnership will likely rely more on the strength of the relationship forged between the community and the students and faculty at WCU than on their abililty to harness social media sites.