The Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt Heritage Association has been chosen to participate in a three year national initiative focused on creating new opportunities for rural business owners and communities. The Regional Flavor Learning Cluster is a project of the Association for Enterprise Opportunity (AEO), located in Arlington, Virginia. AEO’s mission is to support the development of strong and effective U.S. microenterprise programs to assist under served entrepreneurs in starting, stabilizing, and expanding businesses. The W. K. Kellogg Foundation is funding the project.
In addition to the Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt Heritage Association, five other regional networks, located in Arkansas, Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska and Ohio will receive technical assistance in developing their region’s ‘flavor’. According to Natalie Woodroofe, AEO’s Manager of Rural Initiatives, “We have selected six regions that not only have enormous potential to revitalize their own economies, but will also provide new strategies and models that can be utilized in many rural communities across the country.”
The Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt Heritage Association, Inc. now has over 150 members and will hold its 2nd Annual Meeting at Mercyhurst College in North East, PA on November 17. President Helen Baran said, “We are an organization of dedicated and enthusiastic grape growers, farm wineries, processors, and other grape and tourist industry people working for economic development in the Chautauqua County, NY, and Erie County, PA areas. We have had considerable success to date and this program will give us national connections.”
Duncan Hilchey, with the Cornell University Community, Food, and Agriculture Program, serves as an advisor to the organization and assisted in the grant application. “I see significant opportunities for the Concord Grape Belt to develop a greater regional identity, regional branding of grape products, and to receive national recognition as a destination for visitors to experience the heritage of the region. Heritage tourism is on the rise; people want to experience and learn about real places, not just fancy malls.”
Andrew Dufresne, the Association’s Treasurer and Heritage Committee Chair, said that with the designation of the Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt corridor as New York’s first agricultural Heritage Area and now as a national AEO Regional Flavors Cluster “this should help bring identity and recognition to the area and increase tourism and sales of Concord grape product. We have to keep working for the economic development of our communities. As a region, we have unique attributes and a heritage relating to 150 years of grape growing that can be distinctive and appealing to outsiders. ” Dufresne now serves as a representative to the national Association for Enterprise Opportunities for the organization.
Earlier this year, AEO published a how-to manual on ‘Regional Flavor’ as an emerging rural economic development strategy that ties together a region’s geographic, cultural, historic, agricultural, and human assets. By defining and building a regional identity, new and expanded opportunities for a variety of small business owners are created. The Cluster will allow AEO to further explore this approach as it supports the six regions in pursuing their marketing plans.
Over the course of the project, participants will visit each other’s regions and have the opportunity to see the various Regional Flavor projects in action. Cluster members will receive training and technical assistance on a variety of rural market development and tourism topics. Woodroofe notes, “Each of the selected groups offers a unique opportunity to deepen our work in this new rural economic development strategy. Some are focusing on their cultural heritage and linking with local artists and artisans. Others are pursuing niche agricultural products. All of the projects are developing a regional brand that can serve as a marketing umbrella for a variety of businesses.” The Cluster will ultimately share their successes and projects with microenterprise and rural economic development organizations around the country.
Helen Baran, Duncan Hilchey and Andrew Dufresne hope to participate in the Association for Enterprise Opportunities’ “Regional Flavors” conference to be held in North Carolina this winter.
For more information about the Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt Heritage Association and its Regional Flavor efforts, visit the website at www.concordgrapebelt.org or send an e-mail to email@example.com.