The natural beauty of each season in the High Country attracts thousands of native and visiting admirers each year. As numbers increase and more businesses emerge, local Chambers of Commerce continue to find ways to promote and support member businesses as well as their individual communities. Both Avery and Ashe counties make best use of their local commerce organizations to benefit tourists and their year-round population.
Representing the Banner Elk Chamber of Commerce, Jo-Ann McMurray began her work as a board member with the chamber in 2013. She describes her work “with various businesses, schools, churches, town officials and members of the community to help make Banner Elk a great place to live” as a rewarding and exciting contribution to her community.
Born and raised in a small town in central New Jersey, Jo-Ann grew up in a town “very much like Banner Elk.” With her father as her role model, Jo-Ann learned early on how to organize events and work in ways that benefited her community. A town councilman, fire chief and president of the volunteer first aid and rescue squad, Jo-Ann’s father’s love for his town was a torch he passed onto his daughter.
Likewise, both Jo-Ann’s work as a nurse and a business owner have “provided (her) with firsthand insight into the struggles that people and small businesses deal with every day,” she says. Pairing her love for community with skills acquired and lessons learned created a broad range of resources to undergird her eventual role as president of the Banner Elk Chamber of Commerce.
As the chamber is an all volunteer organization, the president as well as other officers and board members are required to chair a committee and participate in events. Moreover, Jo-Ann also oversees different committees, brainstorms event ideas to bring visitors to Banner Elk, supports business membership and recruits new members.
In addition to her work with the chamber, Jo-Ann is also the co-executive director of Feeding Avery Families. A food pantry housed in Newland, the FAF provides food to the residents of Avery County who are dealing with food insecurity. Working alongside Dick Larson and a “great pool of dedicated volunteers” the FAF supplies food to participating residents every Friday of the month. The FAF also coordinates the school backpack program, which distributes food for students in need at all Avery County schools.
“Food pantries are located at six of our schools and the YMCA and are available to anyone in need 24 hours a day, no questions asked,” Jo-Ann explains.
In looking to the future for Banner Elk, Jo-Ann would like to see “additional retail shopping, additional parking and more community-based activities.”
In extension, she encourages everyone to participate in creating the bonds that strengthen a community.
“Communities need to grow or they wither and die. In order for them to grow in the right direction requires planning. Planning provides the groundwork for future projects. This process cannot be accomplished by just one or two people. It takes many individuals working together to decide what is best for their community,” Jo-Ann says.
Sharing many of these sentiments and passions, Kitty Honeycutt represents Ashe County as the executive director of its Chamber of Commerce. As such, her responsibilities include supporting and encouraging chamber membership, facilitating various committees and representing the chamber in several community organizations.
She further explains, “In essence, I do what I can to promote Ashe County to a very wide audience in a positive way.”
Growing up in Avery County as the daughter of an educator and entrepreneur, Kitty quickly gained a love for the mountain region as well as a great appreciation for mountain heritage and its arts. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Kitty’s studies in Radio, Television and Motion Pictures has furthered her abilities in radio and video promotion. Additionally, her husband’s work as a Christmas tree farmer enhanced her recognition of agriculture as “a key piece of the puzzle for this region.”
A resident of Ashe County for 25 years, Kitty has often been involved in some aspect of community “through work, church, teaching dance or as an involved parent of a child in the local school system.” Her chamber work began 10 years ago in serving on a committee and later on the Board of Directors.
The Ashe County Chamber of Commerce differs from others of its kind in that it serves a dual purpose as the Chamber of Commerce and host of the Ashe County Visitor Center.
“We work to put the pieces of our members, education, industry and tourism to work together for the common good of Ashe County,” Kitty says, “With the Visitor Center, we are often the first point of contact for many visitors coming to the area. We showcase our natural assets, encourage business support and help people plan their activities during their stay.”
Kitty considers some of her most important contributions to her community as establishing a Board of Directors that represents a variety of sectors in her community.
She says, “I have a great Board of Directors that I respect very much, and they are all completely passionate about making Ashe County the best it can be.”
As a chamber, they have had the opportunity to provide “The Venue” — an affordable, flexible meeting and event space for businesses and residents — at their place of business. They have also established the “Pay it Forward” grant program for small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Further, Kitty takes pride in the reimplementation of “Leadership Ashe” in partnership with Wilkes Community College as well as the “Ashe Bash,” a free concert “to celebrate the resilience of local residents and to treat visitors to the area to a fantastic free music experience,” she says.
As part of her vision for Ashe County’s future, Kitty would like to see “more affordable housing, solutions to the childcare crisis and additional developed outdoor recreation offerings.” To those who are interested in serving their community, Kitty says, “It is important to be involved in the community in order to always try to leave it better than we found it. We need to leave the community better off for our children and grandchildren, and we need to preserve the beauty of the area … We need new, fresh ideas and for the next generation to jump in. Everyone has something to offer to help keep our community unique and maintain the values that we view as important.”
Both Jo-Ann and Kitty’s work to enhance and nurture their communities is an extension of their love for the High Country and its people. Their efforts and dedication continue to transform the welcome readily felt in the region. These women take community and make it home.