Gold Hill banking on Rowan Tourism to draw crowds
By Emily Ford
GOLD HILL - Business owners in the Historic Village of Gold Hill off of U.S. 52 have quaint shops, quality merchandise and unbridled enthusiasm for their unique retail community.
What they don't have is customers.
"It's a struggle," said Sandy Hickman, a retired teacher who bought a gift shop and house in the village in 2010. "You want to have nice things for people, but you gotta have people to buy them."
Major events like the Lighting of the Fall Fires and Founder's Day draw hundreds of people to the remote village a few times a year.
But on a recent Friday, only a handful of visitors strolled on wooden boardwalks that connect the shops, one of many folksy details that help make Gold Hill feel like a real village.
The village has struggled to prosper since visionary Darius Hedrick and others created the community in the late 1980s and 1990s by moving and restoring many of the historic buildings that make up the cluster of about 20 businesses.
Gold Hill offers an authentic experience that's hard to find outside the North Carolina mountains, said James Meacham, executive director for the Rowan County Tourism Development Authority.
"On a Saturday, it should be hopping," Meacham said.
Now, with every building open and occupied and a new partnership with Rowan Tourism ready to launch, the Historic Village of Gold Hill may finally become the day-trip destination supporters have envisioned for years.
Open for business
For the first time since the File Store was relocated to Gold Hill in 2000, the wooden structure built in 1906 is open for business.
Raleigh residents Jennifer and Wayne Moore began looking for a historic home when their son Brad went to college at N.C. State University.
Still searching four years later, Jennifer Moore found a house on St. Stephen's Church Road advertised for sale on the internet. One step inside the home and she said she knew the search was over.
The house is located in the village, and the couple became enchanted with the location. They decided to buy not only the house but also the File Store, which was for sale by the same owner.
"It was like stepping back in time," Jennifer Moore said.
Moore, who had worked as a dental hygienist for 21 years, had never owned a business. She actually wanted to buy the File Store, which originally stood in the Craven community on Bringle Ferry Road, as storage for her large antiques collection.
It didn't take long for antiques storage to become antiques shop.
Moore has joined several other new merchants in the village who are filled with ideas and passion and enjoy brainstorming ways to draw more customers to their unusual retail setting.
Lennie and Anne Cooper in March moved their jewelry and pottery shop River Pines from Salisbury to Gold Hill. They're closer to their home on Tuckertown Lake, and they love the atmosphere in Gold Hill.
"It's a perfect fit," said Anne Cooper, who works for the Salisbury Police Department and creates jewelry from metal, glass and other materials.
Lennie Cooper, a division chief for Rowan County EMS, has been a potter and sculptor since 2007.
The Coopers had had their eye on a little log cabin in the village for years. They were preparing to move their gallery to Albemarle when they ran into Nancy and Vernon Brewer of Concord, who had purchased that cabin plus another last year during an "impulse buy," Nancy Brewer said.
The Coopers lease the smaller cabin for River Pines, and the Brewers use the larger cabin as a weekend retreat.
An author and Civil War re-enactor, Nancy Brewer said spending time in Gold Hill helps her get into character and write her books - so accurate one is used as a textbook - with more authenticity.
"There is a down-home, earthy feel here," Brewer said. "This is the way life ought to be. It's a damn shame it ain't like that everywhere."
Three groups - the merchants association, historic society and owners of Gold Hill park, which is privately owned - have come up with a variety of events to attract shoppers and tourists, including Civil War battles, holiday celebrations, ghost walks, home tours and more.
But their biggest boost may come from the new partnership with Rowan Tourism.
'Our towns' pilot project
Gold Hill is the pilot case in Rowan Tourism's new "our towns" initiative, part of the recently unveiled Tourism Master Plan.
Meacham and his staff at the Salisbury-Rowan Visitors Center, working in conjunction with Gold Hill, will develop a marketing strategy for the village that includes regional advertising, social media, a new website and, most importantly according to Meacham, a clear and consistent message.
That message hasn't been honed yet, as staff gauge input from shop owners and other Gold Hill leaders to determine what type of visitor they are trying to reach.
Gold Hill will have a microsite hosted on tourism's main website, www.visitsalisburync.com, which serves 150,000 visitors per year.
That could grow to a half-million viewers annually once Rowan joins the state Division of Tourism with a new cooperative marketing effort, Meacham said.
Meacham said he expects Gold Hill's new brand and microsite to launch this winter. Tourism is working on a proposed 2013 marketing plan to present to Gold Hill, including events and activities.
"We want the shop owners to market themselves, but they need a bigger message," Meacham said.
This partnership comes at no cost to Gold Hill, which is unincorporated and has no mayor or town board.
The Salisbury-Rowan tourism joint marketing committee will include a line item in the 2013 budget for Gold Hill, which could be up to $10,000, Meacham said.
Tourism's entire marketing budget for next year is expected to grow to $225,000, up from $195,000 in 2012, with the addition of the Courtyard Marriott, which should open this winter.
The tourism development authorities - one for Salisbury and one for Rowan County - are each funded by a three percent hotel room tax.
Gold Hill marketing will include advertising and some directional information.
While being off the beaten path gives the village a rustic, peaceful feel, it also means visitors don't just stumble upon it.
"The infrastructure needs to support getting visitors there," Meacham said. "There needs to be marketing in terms of general awareness."
Finding better ways to link Gold Hill on Google Maps and including the village on tourism's new mobile phone application will help people find their way to the out-of-the-way spot, Meacham said.
Meacham also wants to tie Gold Hill to nearby attractions, many just a few minutes' drive from the village, including High Rock Lake, Eagle Point, Tuckertown Lake and Morgan Ridge Vineyards. A stop in the village for shopping, lunch or gold rush lore can easily be a part of a light adventure or agritourism day trip, he said.
"The option for success is high because it's different, it's authentic," Meacham said.Jane Jarrett owns Jane's Thangs, which offers custom quilts, vintage linens and handmade jewelry, among other items.
Before she and husband Rick Jarrett moved to Gold Hill in 2011, she had lived in Charlotte for 30 years. "We just fell in love with the place," she said.
Rick Jarrett has written a new book titled "The Village of Gold Hill, NC: The Rebirth of a Historic Gold Mining Community" that details the community's history, including the 500-foot-deep gold mine shaft dug in 1842 by George Barnhardt, which started the Carolina gold rush.
Lindsay Pless opened Bakery Baskets and Gifts a year and a half ago in a building that was originally an old miner's cabin, relocated to the village and restored.
"This is a hidden jewel in Rowan County," Pless said.
Merchants want to share their hidden jewel with the public.
Hickman, the retired teacher, named her gift shop "Back Home" because she grew up in Mount Pleasant and moved to Gold Hill from Tennessee and the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
She described the decision to open a retail business in the village as a leap of faith.
"I felt like a magnet was pulling me back," Hickman said.
Now, she hopes the leap will pay off.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.
12th annual Lighting of the Fall Fires
Christmas in the Village
Christmas Home Tour
Every Friday night at 7 p.m.
Live bluegrass music at the Montgomery General Store
How to get there
From Salisbury, Granite Quarry and Rockwell:
Take U.S. 52 South
Turn right onto Doby Drive (across from the Gold Hill Post Office at the caution light)
Turn left onto Old Highway 80
Turn right onto St. Stephen's Church Road
The Historic Village of Gold Hill
Metal Worker's Shop metal animals
Nancy B. Brewer, author
File Antique Store
Indigo Tea Market tea house, meeting space
Indigo Trading Co. gifts
E.H. Montgomery General Store souvenirs, ice cream sodas, art
G.H. Methodist Church
Mauney's Store antiques, glassware, home decor
Gold Miner's Daughter
Stamp Mill Cafe lunch and dinner
Bakery Baskets and Gifts
Jane's Thangs quilts, vintage linens Back Home gifts, art, home decor
The Arbor picnic and public rest rooms
J.J.'s Produce Market
River Pines art, jewelry, pottery
Primitive Souls handmade furniture, folk art, country decor