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As a young girl, Joanne Butts often found herself quite at home with a pocket knife. She would pass the time carving whistles and working bows and arrows, and she said she was pretty good at it. As the years went by, she taught herself how to make more intricate things and got serious about being a folk artist. The one drawback, she said, is finding a place to sell her creations.
Butts is from Elliott County, and she’s a cousin of nationally known folk artist Minnie Adkins. Adkins helped her cousin hone her skills and develop a passion to have her own home business. Now a push by the Elliott County Cooperative Extension Service and the Elliott County Tourism Council to open a local products outlet in Ellliott County could help Butts and many other local artists have a place to not only display their art, but also a place for locals and tourists to buy it.
University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Agent for Family and Consumer Sciences in Elliott County Gwenda Adkins has been writing news articles for the local paper for years, encouraging residents to “buy local.”
“But where do you do that?” she asked. “If we can put all this together and have a collective place for artists and producers in the county to display their products, we’d have somewhere to direct people to go to actually take that buy local advice.”
Adkins said Elliott County has many artisans and small-scale food producers who could benefit from a central sales location. With that in mind, she began brainstorming with friend and Director of the Elliott County Tourism Council Gayle Clevenger about what they could do to make it happen. They applied for and received a Flex-E Grant from the Brushy Fork Institute in Berea and the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Still, they had no location in mind, but in recent developments, the Elliott County Tourism Council entered into a partnership with the Elliott County Fiscal Court to provide a prime location.
“The Laurel Gorge Cultural Heritage Center has been closed due to cuts in budgets, the down economy – various reasons,” Adkins said. “Now, with this grant and a lot of volunteerism, we’ll be able to get it back open and see it serve a dual purpose of preserving the county’s cultural heritage and as a hub for local artisans’ products. It’s a perfect location, and it’s already in such a beautiful area.”
Clevenger was thrilled with the new partnership and said it will make things in this endeavor much easier and beneficial.
“I think it will really help local artisans think of what they do as a business, rather than just something they do,” she said. “We have a lot of tourism in our county because we have a beautiful county. This facility will just enhance our appeal. It’s also hard for artists to market the way they might like to individually, but as a collective group, we can do a lot more.”
Butts is excited to see the project get off the ground.
“This will help a lot of people,” she said. “There are a lot of people in the county that can do something – the talent is already in them; maybe this place can help them see it now.”
Adkins said the facility will likely not open until summer because they want to have everything planned out to a T before opening to the public. For now, artisans will participate in workshops to help them be successful artists and entrepreneurs including classes in marketing, product photography and finances. They also recently visited the Kentucky Artisan Center in Berea to learn how the center markets and displays items from many different artisans. Other fact finding missions will include the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks in Ohio and a product outlet in Hindman, similar to the plans for Elliott County.
“We really want this to be something that builds capacity and community in Elliott County,” Adkins said. “I think the community is really ready for this.”