Social Apartheid at the Heartwood Artisan Center

compiled by Lewis Loflin

A note to the reader: nothing illegal has occurred here. This is simply the latest example of how things work here to lock average people out of the system.

The Heartwood Artisan Center in Abingdon, Virginia ( was a scam cooked up by State Senator William Wampler and State Delegate Jerry Kilgore. Both have seats on the Virginia Tobacco Commission where they diverted over $17 million in funds that were supposed to go for economic development, education, and healthcare for citizens of this region to fund this project.

A recent audit of the Commission revealed 89% of these projects have had no measurable impact or positive outcome for the citizens of Southwest and Southside Virginia. By design the benefits were to be kept away from the white trash of the region and go into the pockets of those with political connections. A lot of powerful people in Abingdon, the wealthiest town in the region were behind this effort and now we know why.

Not a single paying job will go to the unemployed or those displaced by the demise of the tobacco industry, just to already highly paid government hacks that already enjoy state jobs. This promotes what they call the "creative economy" when in fact it's the politically connected economy. This is a socialist' planned economy for the rich.

This has been confirmed by the Bristol Herald Courier July 12, 2011 that Myra Cook has now joined the staff of Heartwood leaving her job as director of tourism in Abingdon. Now she's the tourism coordinator of Heartwood. Her old job will not go to local people either as Kevin Costello is moving here from Botetourt County will fill the old position. He isn't from the region or Botetourt either, but is from New York before he got his old job. He ran their failed tourism program. (Let's see a list of those jobs Kevin.)

He is a friend of Cook who says of Costello, "a very good guy" who she's worked with before on Virginia tourism projects. He got his new job because he knew Cook in my opinion. Sorry, locals need not apply if you want to get paid. As they gear up for a grand shindig, an excited Myra Cook is looking for "volunteers" to work for nothing "to help man the lobby of the facility to help and guide visitors." It's who you know again.

More outrageous is the local taxpayers are expected to fund their salaries. This center is headed by Todd Christensen who also isn't from here either, but is a life-long (25 years) state hack. His bio lists a number of costly taxpayer funded initiatives that as of yet have produced nothing for the average citizen and merely feeds the local grant farming industry for the "creative class" with political connections. They include:

"He worked with a number of localities on community telecommunications plans in developing "last mile" broadband capacity in rural Virginia." So far they have nothing to show for it other than $8 an hour call center jobs they got before they spent almost $100 million installing computer centers in cow pasters.

"He played a founding role in the initiation and development of 'The Crooked Road, Virginia's Heritage Music Trail'" which I have written four times trying to get information on where the money is going. They occupy a taxpayer subsidized building in Abingdon.

"He was a key player in the development of Round the Mountain: Southwest Virginia's Artisan Network which involves a number of artisans and craft organizations and venues." Still no jobs they will name and no measurable economic impact. But quoting the Bristol Herald Courier in regards to Todd Christensen, executive director, Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Commission:

He believes the Heartwood and other projects that promote growth in the region will have a major impact and create new economic development. Heartwood is expected to generate more than $28 million in revenue for the region and help to create 1,000 jobs and attract 300 new businesses within the next three years.

But we've heard that since 2001 with his other goofy projects that haven't worked out. But I'm not the only one critical here. Others note that:

Heartwood - the multi-million dollar, self-proclaimed "artisan center" in Abingdon - opened this week but there's a lot of trouble brewing behind the fancy building that sits just off Interstate 81.

Funded with taxpayer-supported grants and tobacco-settlement funds, Heartwood is the showcase project of Southwest Virginia, a new area promotion organization headed by a former state government official. It promises to be an artisan center that serves Southwestern Virginia and boosts the creative economy of the region...Few of the musicians, artists and creative types who practice their craft support themselves through those efforts. Most have day jobs to pay the bills.

Heartwood has also stumbled - spending 175 grand on a web site that still doesn't work the way the organization wants and contracting with a national food service company to run the restaurant rather than hiring local chefs.

Over the last several years, Southwestern Virginia has spawned a glut of groups who promise to deliver a pot of gold to the locals. The mountains and valleys are littered with organizations that want to save, define, redefine, promote, market, and/or exploit what the area has to offer. There are a lot of type-A personalities trying to reshape the region into their idea of what it should be.

OUR VIEW: "At the heart of Heartwood's trouble." These are extracts of an editorial from Southwest Virginia Today ( another Media General newspaper, which also owns the Bristol herald Courier. Among the problems they note are previous failures of these kind of central planning projects:

Heartwood, if the folks who draw a check promoting such things can be believed, is going to save us all. Milk and honey will soon flow out of these mountain hollers. Well, first will come the music, then the quilts, wooden bowls, clay goblets and leather chaps...The idea of a creative economy is more than a decade old now, and it's every bit as tantalizing as it was back in 2001, especially since all the other economies it promises to replace tanked in spectacular fashion between NAFTA's 1990s and TARP's 2007...The creative economy, as opposed to the information economy, the industrial economy and the hunter-gatherer economy, is somehow supposed to be more sustainable, if you like your bywords, and moral, if you like your judgments..

Consider the fact that one of the deepest creative economy thinkers, Richard Florida, admits that tremendous inequality necessarily comes with a move toward the creative economy. For the vast unwashed, the creative economy equals low-wage service sector employment...Which leads us to one of our biggest troubles with the whole creative economy concept as it pertains to Southwest's almost a sure bet that the most middle-brow, least authentic artisans will be the ones who make it big...

It's also interesting to note that this whole sea-change in what the future will look like comes even as public dollars are still being poured into the economy the creative class laughs at. If you'll remember just a few years ago, then Gov. Tim Kaine went gaga over the then latest plan to re-energize, revitalize and reinvent Southwest Virginia.

Every person losing a job, looking for a job or thinking about maybe working somewhere was being told that by right about now manufacturers would need approximately 700 million new workers, or something like that. Promises were made, and again this is the egregious part, that if only the public tax dime would couple with laid off workers' tuition fees, everyone could learn a trade at one of the community colleges and life would be good again. Now it seems we're telling those same people they'd best learn to knit.

But while you're learning to crochet things, you can pay a handsome fee to WCC or VHCC (two local community colleges)and learn to be a linesman for the power company - a job we would have thought the power company would have provided training for - a truck driver or a nurse. Nursing, that was the other field that everyone had to enter. They don't lay off nurses. They don't offshore health care. Job security spelled with a capital S.

Tell that to the people on the Smyth County Community Hospital maternity ward... (That closed down in 2010.)

One can find out more on Richard Florida at Wikipedia, but this should also be noted and fits this place to a tee:

Florida is best known for his concept of the creative class and its implications for urban regeneration. This idea was expressed in Florida's best-selling books The Rise of the Creative Class, Cities and the Creative Class, and The Flight of the Creative Class. A book focusing on the issues surrounding urban renewal and talent migration, titled Who's Your City?, was recently published.

Florida's theory asserts that metropolitan regions with high concentrations of technology workers, artists, musicians, lesbians and gay men, and a group he describes as "high bohemians", exhibit a higher level of economic development. Florida refers to these groups collectively as the "creative class." He posits that the creative class fosters an open, dynamic, personal and professional urban environment. This environment, in turn, attracts more creative people, as well as businesses and capital.

He suggests that attracting and retaining high-quality talent versus a singular focus on projects such as sports stadiums, iconic buildings, and shopping centers, would be a better primary use of a city's regeneration of resources for long-term prosperity. He has devised his own ranking systems that rate cities by a "Bohemian index," a "Gay index," a "diversity index" and similar criteria.

Florida's ideas have been criticized from a variety of political perspectives and by both academics and journalists. His theories have been criticized as being elitist, and his data have been questioned...

And they should be. In research I've done based on Kiplinger's Best Cities Southwest Virginia already has a "creative class" equal to or larger than any other locality in Tennessee and most of Virginia. But that has done nothing to revive the economy and most economic efforts only creates opportunity for this very class of tax dollar parasites. The only thing they are creative at is assuring their own jobs.

More Heartwood Artisan Center Scandal

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