REDI was probably the best program I’ve ever been in. -Kathryn Jenkins
Nearly a decade after Kathryn Jenkins moved to Murphy, North Carolina, from Georgia, she began to think of how she could give back to her community, strengthen its economy, and build upon the town’s vibrancy.
Jenkins relocated to Murphy full-time in 2007 to run a downtown outfitter store with her husband. Eventually, her background in sales and marketing led her to a new role as the director of Tri-County Community College’s Small Business Center. “I provide resources and support to people who want to start a small business,” she explains. She primarily works with startups in Cherokee, Clay, and Graham counties.
Through her role at the community college, Jenkins was already familiar with the NC Rural Center because of ongoing partnerships to provide microenterprise loans and other support for small businesses, and when she heard about the Rural Economic Development Institute (REDI), she felt compelled to apply. REDI is a 30-year old leadership development program that to date has nearly 1,200 alumni located throughout the state. REDI offers participants the opportunity to learn collaborative leadership skills and rural development strategies to help them return home and make a meaningful difference in their rural communities.
“I heard so many wonderful things,” she recalls. “But the biggest thing that drew me to it was hearing from other people I respect and admire about how much REDI did for them with respect to leadership and learning economic development in the state of North Carolina.”
Jenkins attended REDI in 2016; finding tremendous value in the time she was able to devote to conversations with leaders from across the state. “Oftentimes we get so busy in the day-to-day operations of our work life that we don’t have time to go sit with our town clerk or town manager,” she says. REDI enabled her to have those conversations. “It was just unbelievable how much I learned.”
The following year, a similar desire to learn and grow led Megan Reyes to REDI.
“I’m all about leadership. I teach it, learn it, swim in it. I can’t get enough,” Reyes says. “I don’t get apprehensive about opportunities to learn.”
Reyes moved to Cherokee County in 2015 from Colorado where she worked in both the public and private sectors, including in workforce and economic development. She established her own consultancy focused on those issues. “I knew a gap I wanted to fill and that was training for employees,” she explains. “Throughout my career, I’ve recognized over and over and over again that employers don’t provide the kind of training and resources necessary for the success of their employees.”
After falling in love with Western North Carolina, she decided to move there and quickly connected with business leaders in the area. Reyes began teaching classes at Tri-County Community College and leading workshops and seminars in the area. When she saw information about REDI in the local Chamber of Commerce’s newsletter, she was intrigued. “It was something I didn’t know. I know urban, suburban. But I wanted to be an effective member of my community.”
But after she applied to the program, Reyes felt hesitant. “I reached out and then I thought, ‘I haven’t even been here a year. Who am I to think I could jump into this world when I haven’t been here long enough? Wow, that seems arrogant.’”
With encouragement of the REDI staff, Reyes went on to attend the program. “The benefit for me, if I had to say one huge takeaway, was the power of partnership,” she says. Luckily, she had a partner—and a fellow REDI alum—waiting for her out west.
Talking with Jenkins and Reyes, it’s easy for one to see the natural connection that drew them to form a partnership.
“Megan had so much to offer. It was not even a question about whether I would want to work with her; it was more a question of how,” Jenkins says.
“Kathryn is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever worked with,” Reyes says, “and I truly mean that.” They collaborated on soft skills training for business owners and on summits about marketing and leadership. Reyes brought her experience in workforce development to bear. “REDI underscored the importance and the need to employ an entrepreneurial approach,” she says. “You have to bring to the table new strategies, new outlooks, a new mindset if you want things to change.”
Among the projects the women decided to tackle together was one of Jenkins’ longstanding priorities—one she identified while attending REDI—the establishment of a downtown business association.
“We brainstorm well together and that kind of naturally led us to kick start the idea of an association,” Jenkins says. The purpose of a business association is to facilitate economic development through events and other activities that draw people into downtown Murphy. The idea, which Jenkins had chipped away at for a few years, was met with enthusiasm by a crop of downtown business owners.
“They were like, ‘Yes, let’s do this, but we need some help getting it off the ground,’” she recalls.
That’s where the dynamic duo leveraged their REDI experiences to facilitate change. “Here more than ever, it’s so clear to me what my role is,” Reyes says. “I’ve done a lot of things and worn a lot of hats. If I can share those as an advisor in the back of the house, I’ve come to think that’s kind of my role here.”
After weeks of meeting with Jenkins and Reyes, the business owners began to formalize their work and the Murphy Business Association (MBA) was born. In 2018, it hosted the first Murphy Spring Festival, complete with live music and a beer garden in downtown. This season it held the inaugural Very Murphy Christmas celebration, with a nighttime parade and town Christmas tree lighting. Nearly one thousand locals and tourists attended the event.
“They were able to pull off things that have never been possible before,” Jenkins says. “It was unheard of. It was a dream that I had that I felt passionate about, but it was truly a team effort, and I’m so delighted that it got off the ground.”