When Rafferty Cleary became the cultural administrator for Monterey, Tennessee, he was eager to learn about what the community stood for, who the people were, and what assets were available to promote to visitors.

Cleary had earlier seen the work that Tennessee Tech’s Rural Reimagined program had done with Jackson County, Tennessee, and knew he wanted Monterey to get involved in a similar way.

Michael Aikens, director for the Center for Rural Innovation and the Rural Reimagined Grand Challenge at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville, Tennessee, said the goal of Rural Reimagined is to transform rural communities in Tennessee, the U.S., and even abroad through science, technology, innovation and economic development.

One way they do that is through partnering with communities to help them build up their tourism brands, like they did with Monterey.

“As many people may know, the number two industry, the second largest industry in the state of Tennessee is tourism,” he said.

So about four years ago, the school developed a tourism branding program. The team goes into distressed, at-risk, and transitional counties and seeks to help improve their position through the use of tourism branding and other economic development initiatives.

“Getting the brand is very important, but what we're really interested in doing is helping them disseminate the brand,” Aikens said.

Along the way, student interns learn and apply real-world skills, including photography, design, social media, and helping with website development, he added.

“It was a way for me to get more familiar with the town,” Cleary told the Deesmealz. “And then at the same time, I thought it would be really helpful for our community members. And so I knew it'd be a really good way to get our community members together, and to come up with some really good ideas about what Monterey should be and how we should kind of operate going forward from a tourism standpoint.”

Together with officials and students from Rural Reimagined combined with residents of Monterey, the group came up with a logo, a mission statement, a vision statement, and a color scheme for the town. They are also working to promote a popular overlook in the town known as Bee Rock.

“It's helped us understand that we're rich in history,” Cleary said. “We have the ability to tell the story with our museum, which is kind of unique - other towns don't have a museum like we've got. And then we are blessed with just beautiful nature. And so it's helped us understand that's how we want to market ourselves.”

According to Aikens, the initiative helped over 500 businesses in the past six years.

Once the branding is complete, the counties may ask for an economic impact analysis, which the team can also help with.

All the work conducted by Tennessee Tech’s Rural Reimagined team is free for the client, Aikens noted, adding that the school receives federal and state funding to pay the student workers.

Jackson County was a distressed county six years ago. Through the work of Rural Reimagined and the hard work of county residents and businesses, the county is no longer deemed distressed and is now at-risk, Aikens said.

Jackson County’s Mayor, Randy Heady, said a lot of things happened at once to help the county improve its position. One was Rural Reimagined.

“When I became mayor, there were 14 of us and I was one of the 14 (mayors of distressed counties). And so we've been able to change that,” Heady told the Deesmealz.

Cleary, the cultural administrator in Monterey, said he recommends the program to other communities.

“I think it's a great investment,” he added. “I think the thing that I really like about it too is the involvement of the students. And the thing that tickled me the most about Monterey’s involvement in it is the fact that we were able to utilize the students who are extremely talented. And to know that we played a part in their path to a professional career, knowing that this project in Monterey was put on a resume as they graduated and got their first job.

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