Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

When the Cowee School Heritage Center was first proposed to the county, its purpose was outlined as a way to preserve one of the county’s oldest, most historic buildings, while promoting the community’s culture and arts.

“We really had no idea that it would become an economic development resource for entrepreneurs,” Stacy Guffey, the center’s director said of the center’s function doubling as an entrepreneurial incubator. “It just kind of happened and it couldn’t be a better fit.”

On Tuesday morning, four small businesses were working out of spaces in Cowee School’s main building. The businesses, which all foster the entrepreneurial spirit, are not just ordinary small businesses; they each fit the center’s intent of preserving the history and culture of Macon County. The center is home to two visual artists, who utilize the center as both a workshop and gallery, a weaver, and the pottery school. According to Bob McCollum, the center is also soon to be home to a woodworker. Each of the center’s small businesses are unique in the fact that they fall in line with the mission of the center, while providing space and affordable rent for businesses to operate and thrive in the community.

“As part of the businesses renting space, it’s also a requirement that they hold classes on their products or craft,” said McCollum. “So their businesses double as educational opportunities at the center.”

The average cost to rent space at the heritage center is a little more than $100 a month, which provides the center with funding for operations, and allows businesses an affordable space to work.

In addition to the four businesses renting spaces in the center’s main building, three additional businesses rent space at a cost of $10 an hour in the center’s commercially certified kitchen. Happy-Go-Lucky foods is the kitchen’s most consistent tenant, using the heritage center’s kitchen about four days a week to produce its granola-based products, which can be purchased locally as well. A pie-baker who has a product demand too great to operate out of his home, but not quite large enough to pay for a commercial kitchen himself, also regularly utilizes the facility. An artisan bread maker also uses the kitchen as production and demand for his products increases.

McCollum said the economic opportunities in the kitchen usage has potential for growth, as scheduling can be established to accommodate additional tenants and according to Guffey, in the main building, additional space for small businesses can be arranged to help continue serving the community as an economic development center of sorts.

“With a commercial-kitchen and available workspace, the Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center provides local entrepreneurs the opportunity to grow their business, especially small food product producers and artists specializing in cultural items unique to our region,” said Tommy Jenkins, Economic Development Director for Macon County.

Jenkins was on the board that helped to start the heritage center, but according to McCollum and Guffey, as the heritage center started to grow and flourish, Jenkins’ role was less involved in the center.

When the center was first founded, it was budgeted under a line item in the county’s economic development budget, but beyond that, despite serving as an mini-economic development center, the county’s Economic Development Commission (EDC) not Jenkins, is involved in the oversight of the project.

The Macon County Board of Commissioners has recently been in debate regarding continued funding of the heritage center. While commissioners fully support the heritage center’s mission, part of the original agreement of the center was for it to become self-sufficient, something that is still a ways off.

The center’s funding is divided into two pots: funding for the center’s nonprofit, and funding for the county’s operational portion of the center. On the nonprofit side, Cowee School is primarily funded through grants and private donors, both of which are vigorously pursued by Guffey and the center’s board on a regular basis. The individual private donations have continued to increase, showing a continued and growing interest in the school.

On the county’s end, the largest amount of expenses covered by the annual contribution of the board are for contracted services, which includes a contract of $3,000 a month for Guffey to serve as the center’s director, and maintenance, which is ongoing due to the age of the building.

With the county’s desire to continue decreasing the county’s funding portion to the heritage center with the intention of the center to be self-sufficient, and the center’s largest county funded expense being $36,000 for Guffey, when asked if partnering the management of the center with the county’s economic development director as a means to save some funds, county manager Derek Roland said pursuing a partnership may be something to potentially consider in the future.

“If the Cowee Heritage Center continues to build itself as a mini-economic development center for small businesses, seeing what role our economic development director and that commission can play in that portion of the heritage center, and seeing if sharing some of the best business practices from our county’s existing economic development center, may be something worth considering,” said Roland.

Jenkins is contracted to serve as the Economic Development Director for Macon County at a rate of $5,000 a month or $60,000 a year. Since assuming his position, Jenkins has helped bring Franklin Tubular Products to Franklin in 2013, helped expand and relocate Brasstown Beef in 2015 and most recently helped facilitate a matching county loan for TekTone to relocate and expand in the industrial park. Jenkins also oversees the county’s business development center, which like Cowee School, rents space to entrepreneurs and small businesses at an affordable rate to help foster growth.

McCollum and Guffey said that Jenkins is aware of the day to day operations of the center and is supportive of the overall goals and has been an integral part in getting it up and going. When applying for funds through grants, being able to show a partnership with the county helps to show a community investment, which increases the chances of grant funds to continue operating the center.

In addition to serving as a center for the small businesses, the heritage center’s gym is frequently used by members of the community for concerts, craft shows, and even badminton, which looked to be getting competitive on Tuesday morning. Visitors to the center pay $2 per day for such games, another source of revenue.

Cowee Center is also scheduling school visits for fourth graders to help facilitate the educational aspect of the center, since fourth grade is when students learn North Carolina and Native American history.

Not only an economic development center for small businesses, the heritage center also serves as smaller satellite locations for area museums, increasing their exposure.  The Historical Society, the Genealogical Society, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians all rent space at the heritage center and hosts demonstrations and events related to their organizations.

The center is still a relatively new concept, something commissioners recognize.  Each year more and more interest and exposure through things such as the center’s annual summer concert series, for which Cowee School just secured a grant to construct an outdoor stage, will only increase traffic.