Saturday, June 24, 2017

Improving Community Spirit

Covington is the third-least populous city in Virginia, and its population has been declining gradually since 1960 when it was more than 11,000. Because it’s now fewer than 6,000, any festival helps to improve community spirit.

Cooking teams set up on West Main Street in downtown Covington.

The economy of Covington is overwhelmingly dominated by one employer, WestRock, a corrugated packaging company. The second largest U.S. packaging company, WestRock employs about 1,300 workers. It traces its roots in Covington to 1890, when a predecessor company began operating in the city and Covington was enjoying a huge economic boom.

The large parking area behind West Main Street businesses was the scene of most festival activities.

Although the boom days are over, Covington still retains the charm of a small city in what once was the vast Appalachian wilderness that started changing in 1745 when the first settlers arrived and began claiming land. The downtown area, which includes several locally owned small businesses, was built decades ago in its prime. It looks like a movie set from the 1940s and is a historic district recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, which also lists three properties in the city as historic.

Judging took place in the council chambers of City Hall.

To draw attention to downtown businesses, the city has been sponsoring a barbecue cookoff sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society since 2014. The city’s director of finance and human resources is the event’s primary organizer and each year attracts more cooking teams and boosts interest in the event. This year, 32 teams competed for a total of $8,000 in prize money.

Billy Jim's BBQ, the team that finished the cookoff with the lowest point total, nevertheless had the most distinctive cooker.

Known as the Covington Cork & Pork Festival, the event combines a growing interest in wine tasting with the long-standing popularity of barbecue. Craft beer and wine vendors provide the “cork” component of the festival. In addition to the barbecue competition, the festival includes music performances, dance programs, children activities, and other entertainment.

Some teams set up in the parking area adjacent to City Hall.

In recognition of its dominant role in the community, WestRock is the primary supporter of the festival, and other businesses contribute as sponsors. Proceeds from the festival benefit the work of Olde Town Covington and are invested locally to support tourism and non-profit programs.

David Bryant, contest organizer and city finance director, speaks to the judges at their meeting.

With the Covington Cork & Pork Festival, city leaders have found an excellent way to continue the renovation, revitalization and improvement of their downtown area. Enjoyment of barbecue is promoting community spirit here as it does elsewhere.

Judges take the oath, administered before every contest, to be fair and impartial.

Primary streets in downtown Covington are closed for the festival.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Revitalizing a Small Downtown

A small city sometimes needs a boost to maintain its downtown business district. In the “Upstate” area of South Carolina, the city of Woodruff is striving to maintain a healthy local economy. Because it’s in the shadows of the larger cities of Spartanburg and Greenville, Woodruff’s leaders look for new ways to attract customers to its businesses.

Cooking teams begin to set up in the park behind the former high school building.
Since 2015, each spring the city has conducted a barbecue cookoff known as Piggin’ in the Park to bring visitors – cooking teams, judges, family friends, and others – to the downtown area. Organized by Alyson Leslie, Woodruff’s community and economic development director, the event is one of several new city programs to help support local business owners.

McKinney Park is almost filled by cooking teams, vendors, and festival activities.

Sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the cookoff has continued to grow each year. This year the number of cooking teams more than doubled to 44 from the 20 that competed last year. Organizers hope the event grows eventually to 55 teams, the size that McKinney Park, where the event is held, can accommodate.

Smoking Butt Heads placed in the top 10 in the ribs category.

Only a block from Main Street that bisects the business district, the park is the perfect venue for a festival and has ample space for cooking teams, children activities, food vendors, entertainment, and other activities. It was created recently out of the athletic fields of the city’s adjacent historic high school, built in 1925 and on the National Register of Historic Places, that now serves as City Hall.

Judges check in before the competition begins.

Piggin’ in the Park is one of six events of the Palmetto BBQ Series in South Carolina that offers additional prizes and results in crowning a state champion -- the team with the highest score in four of six events. Although several teams competing in the cookoff were from out of state, many were from South Carolina with the goal of gaining points to win the state championship.

New owners are moving into vacant buildings, such as this one that once was a service station and later a florist.

Leslie estimates that at least 16,000 cars come daily through the city on Main Street. Because Woodruff’s population is just slightly over 4,000, that’s a lot of potential customers for the city’s businesses. With events like Piggin’ in the Park bringing visitors into the area, the city – whose motto is “Where Time Is Well Spent” – should continue to be successful in revitalizing its downtown.

Business owners on Main Street in Woodruff are renovating and recruiting new business.

Theo's Snack Shack, which sells snow cones on Main Street, hopes for more visitors to Woodruff.