ERWIN, Tenn. (WJHL)- When CSX pulled out of Erwin for the final time in October of 2015, more than 300 people in the town of about 6,000 were left without a job, forcing town leaders to scramble to fill the void and find a new identity.

“That was one of our leading industries- if not the leading industry in Erwin, actually the reason Erwin was Erwin… It was formed by the railroad,” said former Erwin mayor, Doris Hensley.

Hensley was the mayor when CSX decided to close the rail yard

“By 9:15, we got a call that CSX, the same day that we were having the ribbon cutting on the overpass of the railroad. So it was a shock, not just for City Hall but for the entire region really,” Hensley recalled. “We brought in everybody from workforce development, alliance for business, and training and we lead them through all the stages of what it took to start a business or a service in the town.”

While the town worked to get railroad employees hired, a group of young professionals, formed RISE Erwin to help revitalize downtown.

“Our town was sort of in crisis mode and so we all just felt very passionate about stepping up and strapping on our boots and figuring out how we’re going to move forward,” said Jamie Rice, the first President of the organization. “Our focus was really on creating events and special reasons for people to come downtown and bring foot traffic and help the existing merchants.”

Within the next two years, a dozen new businesses opened downtown.

“We kind of changed our attitude that we were a manufacturing or a railroad town to look at other areas such as tourism,” said Hensley. “It really didn’t hurt us as bad as we thought it was going to and I think it was mostly because of the new businesses that got started.”

Since the inception of RISE Erwin, Rice says the downtown’s vacancy rate has decreased by 40%.

“There were a lot of vacant stores but knowing that ahead of time, we thought we would be trailblazers,” said Jan Bowden, the owner of Union Street Gallery.

Jan Bowden opened her storefront in October 2018. That same weekend, Michael Baker started pouring beer across the street at Union Street Taproom.

“The response to our business has been phenomenal. When we first opened we had people coming from all over the region just to check us out because we were one of the first craft beer taprooms in Northeast Tennessee and we were the first in Unicoi County,” said Baker who owns the taproom. “We’ve seen a lot of growth and we’re doing very well. People are supporting us- not only the locals but tourists. When they come to Erwin we are open. We’re open later than most other businesses.

Erwin Outdoor Supply opened shortly after and Union Street started buzzing again, especially on the first Friday of each Month.

“It’s a way for the community to come out, see what you sell if they’ve never been in here before. It’s kind of a night out. We have food trucks, we now close down the road,” explained Bowden who started First Fridays. “The taproom has live music, the library is now involved with storytelling, the pottery right next door to me now stays open and the outdoor store now stays open.”

While growth in Erwin continues, Bowden and Baker hope others join them.

“People want to be in downtown Erwin. We’re lucky to be here and we look forward to other growth with other businesses to continue this draw to downtown Erwin,” said Baker. Businesses can open but if people are not living here then it’s kind of hard to keep the businesses open so further housing development and further commercial development- the community has spoken and we all want a restaurant and so hopefully getting a restaurant or a couple of them within the downtown would be huge not only for my business but all businesses.”

When you look around- remnants of the railroad are all over the town.

“We miss the railroad, there’s no doubt about that. We really miss the railroad because they were such good corporate citizens throughout the town of Erwin, a lot of the buildings here, and a lot of the ballfields, especially for the young people, were constructed by the railroad,” Hensley said. “They put a lot of money into developing the town and helping out the schools and the young people so we will forever be grateful to the railroad.”

Leaders say they want to keep this rich history, while hopefully turning some of the buildings and pieces, like the former CSX headquarters, into new development.