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Back in the saddle: Once given up for dead, Hazelwood is beating the odds one small business at a time

coverIt was barely 11 a.m. and Hazelwood was hopping. The scent of freshly roasted coffee beans spilled out of Smoky Mountain Coffee Roasters. Two doors down, a pair of workmen on ladders balanced a sign for a new artist studio. Across the street, a pack of women with shopping bags on their elbows strolled out of Hazelwood Soap Company.

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The group of sisters was in town for a girls’ weekend — a pilgrimage they make every couple of years back to the place they grew up. They’ve seen the evolution of Hazelwood play out in broad strokes, like the uncle who shows up for Thanksgiving every three years and can’t believe how much his nephews have grown.

“It was just a little dumpy country crossroads for so long,” said Chris Vinh, who lives in Arlington, Virginia, now. “It’s nice to see it become a destination. As we came across the railroad tracks this time it was like ‘Oh my gosh, look!’ There’s more new shops every time we come back.”

Hazelwood has been surprising people with its by-the-bootstraps success story for years. Most had written Hazelwood off as a has-been, a fading relic of small-town America killed off by the rise of big-box stores.

“Thirty years ago, I thought Hazelwood would be leveled and this is where Walmart would be,” said Pam Allen, who runs Nettie’s Bakery in Hazelwood with her daughter. 

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But Hazelwood refused to accept that fate. 

“Hazelwood has really gone through a transformation,” said Kevin Duckett, owner of Smoky Mountain Coffee Roasters.

The storyline of Hazelwood’s revitalization has been playing out for over a decade now. Each wave of merchants to light up new shop windows and nail up new signs is a testament that Hazelwood’s rebound is not a passing fad, but here to stay.

The troupe of visiting sisters paused to off-load their parcels in a car trunk before continuing their morning shopping down the street at Robin Blu. En route, they passed an old-timer clad in overalls, working his way down the sidewalk with a parcel of his own — a prescription bag he’d just picked up from Waynesville Pharmacy.

It captured the classic blend of locals and tourists that co-exists on the streets of Hazelwood.

“You can get a gun, your prescription, coffee, soap, baked goods … and something monogrammed,” said Diane Laursen, the owner of Hazelwood Soap Company. “Whether it’s moms jetting in for a quick gift, or guys from the gun store, it’s every demographic.”

Diana’s husband John was behind the counter checking out customers.

“How many six-foot-seven guys do you know who can do this?” John said, plucking a piece of tissue paper, whipping it through the air with a flourish and artfully nesting it in a gift bag.

“It’s all about the flick of the wrist,” he said, demonstrating again in slow motion.

Meanwhile, a young couple in jogging clothes passed slices of hand-crafted soap back and forth, smelling the signature scents. Andrew Rutledge, 27, brought his fiance up for a weekend visit to his family’s mountain house. He’d been coming here his whole life, but had never strolled around Hazelwood before.

“It was always a drive-though to get to Waynesville,” Rutledge said.

It wasn’t always that way of course.

Bo Prevost remembers Hazelwood’s heyday, ticking of the gone-but-not-forgotten haunts of Mrs. Little’s Variety Shop, Mr. Claudel’s furniture store, Ralph’s Cash Grocery and Mr. Bolin’s shoe shop.

“Hazelwood was bustling way back them,” said Prevost. Half a dozen factories hummed in Hazelwood in those golden decades of industry following World War II, when the whole town woke each morning to the sound of the factory whistle.

Prevost’s grandfather owned one of Hazelwood’s stalwart plants — Unagusta furniture factory — and her dad and three uncles helped run it. 

The town was built on the backs of its blue-collar workers. But as the factories that defined Hazelwood closed one after the other, the hat shops, shoe shops, grocers and lunch counters closed, too. The bustling factory town devolved into a mostly deserted streetscape.

Hazelwood wasn’t alone. Corporate chains like Walmart were a death knell for main streets and small towns everywhere.

But somehow Hazelwood has beat the odds.

“To see Hazelwood thrive again is so important to me,” said Prevost.

By Prevost’s estimation, the new Hazelwood has kept one of its most important qualities: “It’s friendly, like it used to be,” she said. 

For Diana Laursen, it’s the authenticity that sets Hazelwood apart.

“What you see is what you get,” Diana said.

“It’s real,” John Laursen added. 

 

All in the family

When Hazelwood started down the long road of revitalization, competing for tourist traffic with the likes of downtown Waynesville seemed like a long shot.

Not any more. Hazelwood’s no longer a place just for locals in the know. As word spreads about Hazelwood’s authentic, well-worn charm, tourists are finding their way there in larger numbers. 

“Believe it or not we get a lot of tourists in. A lot more now than we used to, probably in the past three to four years,” said Cecil Brown, owner of Hazelwood Gun and Tactical.

Ask Hazelwood’s merchants who the biggest drawing card is on the street and you won’t get a straight answer.

“Who is the anchor? Everyone probably thinks somebody different is the anchor,” said John Burgin, the largest building owner in Hazelwood. “That’s a good thing. The problem with a single anchor is when an anchor leaves everything dries up.”

The symbiotic relationship of Hazelwood merchants is part of the secret to their success.

“We are piggy backing off each other,” said Kevin Duckett, owner of Smoky Mountain Coffee Roasters.

Some people stop to pick up custom embroidery and grab coffee to-go next door. Others come to get a prescription filled and browse at the REACH thrift store while they’re waiting.

“We all send customers to each other. It is how small business works. Through common geography, we all work together,” Diana Laursen said.

Robanne Morris, the owner of Robin Blu, said the foot traffic sent her way from fellow Hazelwood merchants helped her get established.

“They were great about telling people to come down and see me. We do the same,” Morris said.

Morris often sees couples split up on the sidewalk in front of her shop, the women coming her way and the men disappearing inside Hazelwood Gun and Tactical.

“The wives go to Robin Blu across the street to shop and the men folks come here,” said Cecil Brown, 59, owner of Hazelwood Gun and Tactical.

The number of shops has finally reached a critical mass to put Hazelwood on the map as a destination — a turning point Katie Seymour has witnessed in the five years since opening her family-run monogram, embroidery and gift shop Lily Belles.

“People used to come to one place for one thing, and now people are coming and staying longer,” Seymour said.

 

Finding a niche

Hazelwood has a long history of boutique stores embedded in its DNA, and that’s made it a hot spot for entrepreneurs — so much so that storefronts are getting hard to come by.

When the mother-daughter team of Pam and Kristen Allen started looking for the right location to open a boutique bakery two years ago, they knew Hazelwood was the place.

“This was the only location we wanted,” said Pam of Nettie’s Bakery.

Down the street, Hazelwood Soap Company is hip enough and chic enough to make it on the streets of Soho. But the Laursens are married to Hazelwood.

“It’s our namesake,” Diana Laursen said.

The soap company was one of Hazelwood’s early pioneers 10 years ago, and the two are now like childhood friends who’ve grown up together.

But the Laursens faced a hard reality a couple years ago: space constraints they’d worked around for years as a mere nuisance were hampering business operations.

“We were a part of Hazelwood, a part of the neighborhood, but we were cinched,” Diana said.

They needed more finished inventory to keep pace with demand, but that meant keeping more empty bottles on hand, and they had no space to store more bottles. They wanted to expand without leaving Hazelwood, but real estate wasn’t exactly plentiful in the one-block downtown.

“We made do until one day we thought, ‘I wonder what they are doing over there across the street?’” Diana said.

The building was gutted by a fire, a total loss. But any footprint in the heart of Hazelwood, even a burned out shell, was a limited commodity.

A couple days later — “true to Hazelwood form,” Diana said — they ran into the building’s owner, Chris Forga, at Hazelwood’s signature restaurant, Bourbon Barrel Beef and Ale, and struck a deal.

They weren’t the only ones in Hazelwood facing a space crunch. This month, Smoky Mountain Coffee Roasters expanded its seating to accommodate its growing crowds.

“I had people walk out because there was no place to sit,” Duckett said.

For 20 years, Duckett has had a booming wholesale business, supplying dozens of restaurants, other cafes and specialty grocers with his branded locally roasted coffee. Now for the first time, the retail business Duckett does out of his own Hazelwood storefront is bringing in as much revenue as his wholesale line. 

Hazelwood’s latest arrival, Studio G, just pulled the brown paper off the windows last week, revealing a new textile art studio and gallery.

“This is probably more space than I need for myself, but I couldn’t pass it up — it is just too great a space,” said Suzanne Gernandt, fiddling with a display of hand-dyed scarves.

Gernandt formerly ran Textures Gallery on Main Street in downtown Waynesville, but closed down in 2011 and relocated to the River Arts District in Asheville. 

“More and more I just wanted to come back to Waynesville. I wanted to be a part of my own community again,” she said. She wanted to be in Hazelwood, but it seemed full.

She was getting coffee at Smoky Mountain Roasters one day when she ran into Duckett and learned Hazelwood Soap Company was moving into bigger digs across the street, and their old space would be up for grabs. Gernandt snatched it.

It’s this sort of quick turnover that proves Hazelwood has hit its stride.

Serendipity is a common theme in Hazelwood. It was for Jack Morris, who bought one of Hazelwood’s last rundown buildings in 2010. It was in need of massive renovation, and there were times he wasn’t sure his investment had been a wise one. But then nature gave him a nudge.

A terrible windstorm hit Waynesville and blew the already tattered roof off into the middle of Hazelwood Avenue. Unfortunately, he was on a family cruise at the time, oblivious to the disaster back home until the ship docked and he found his voicemail flooded with messages from Waynesville Police officers who’d spent a morning dragging pieces of the roof out of the road.

It must have been fate, because Morris’ wife, Robanne, decided the time was right for her to have that shop she always wanted.

“He wasn’t sure when he was going to renovate it until I said I wanted a shop. I always had that in my mind, that I’d like to have a shop one day,” said Robanne, who has a natural flair for design.

Robin Blu was born, a shop known for its vintage home décor and eclectic gifts, and has proved a major drawing card for Hazelwood — not to mention filling in one of the last gaps in the streetscape.

 

Keeping it real

Hazelwood doesn’t have the bells and whistles of Main Street. They don’t have a formal merchant’s group to put on events or host ribbon cuttings. They don’t collect dues to pay for seasonal street decor or do collective marketing. And there’s no newsletter to keep merchants informed of happenings up and down the street.

Merchants rely on word of mouth to stay abreast of Hazelwood news, and they like it that way.

But the informality isn’t always perfect. Word can travel slowly, especially to merchants at the far ends of the street. Two weeks after brown paper came off the windows of the new Studio G art gallery, some merchants were still in the dark about who had moved into their ‘hood.

There’s other trade-offs to not having a formal dues-paying merchants association.

Downtown Waynesville has brighter holiday lights and garland-wrapped lampposts — paid for thanks to a special tax levied downtown to support the work of the Downtown Waynesville Association. Hazelwood, meanwhile, is making do with retro tinsel-tufted bell shapes mounted to telephone poles, inherited after downtown had no use for them anymore.

Some Hazelwood merchants may see it as a slight to get downtown Waynesville’s rejects, but honestly, the hand-me-down decorations are perfect for Hazelwood, Laursen said.

“They’re vintage. I like them. New ones wouldn’t look right,” Laursen said.

 

A team effort

Restoring Hazelwood’s streetscape has filled a nagging void and restored a missing sense of community for the townspeople of Hazelwood. Hanging onto their identity was hard enough after being absorbed by neighboring Waynesville in the 1990s. The vacant business district was a daily reminder of what they used to be.

Still, the vast majority that lay eyes on Hazelwood every day do so through a car windshield, en route from one side of town to the other.

Only those who stop to smell the coffee roasting or steak grilling or soap mixing or cakes baking can truly understand the rhythm that’s returned to Hazelwood’s main street.

“We all feel like a family,” said Pam Allen from Nettie’s Bakery.

Merchants credit shoppers in large part for bringing Hazelwood back from the brink.

“A lot of people who come here want to shop local,” said Robanne Morris of Robin Blu.

Hazelwood’s revitalization might not have been possible without the shop local movement and a conscious intent to support small businesses. 

“I’ve head people come to Hazelwood and say ‘I am buying all my Christmas presents here.’ That is a huge gift — to have a community that is so committed to seeing our little area thrive,” said Katie Seymour of Lily Belles.

To Seymour, bringing Hazelwood’s streetscape back to life has been a team effort between the merchants and loyal customers.

“People want to make a difference, and I think that overall people are seeing that. They are the first step to making a difference. It starts small but together it makes a difference,” Seymour said.

Seymour opened her family-run monogram and embroidery gift shop in Hazelwood five years ago and is widely sought out for quality custom embroidery of bags, boutique clothing, uniforms and more.

“We have people tell us all the time you could be on Main Street, but this is where we want to be,” said Seymour.  “I love that it is a little off the beaten path. Buildings have stories, and I think people feel that when they come into Hazelwood. It offers a sense of community that you want to feel a part of.”

Today’s merchants relish that past, but few know of it firsthand. Cecil Brown, owner of Hazelwood Gun and Tactical, is an exception. He grew up just two blocks away.

“Back when I was a boy all the buildings were full,” Brown recalled. And for the first time in a long time, that’s true again.

 

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