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Gathering Place – Sisters envision old store as start to revitalize Lee County community | Company

EWING — Jan Brown and Melissa Hubbard may be retired, but they’re not the type to retire when it comes to community involvement.

The sisters returned to near their family home in the Hensley Settlement area a few years ago and realized that the community lacked a focal point for residents to gather after a combination of events: the completion of the four-lane section of Route 58 and the possible bypass or closure of businesses like the old Wheeler store that stood empty along the highway.

Hubbard returned to Lee County after her husband’s death, started a sheep farm, and soon began working with the Lincoln Memorial University Veterinary School, which used it as a training site for students. Over time, she realized there were two communities in the area: generations who grew up in what Hubbard calls “the lower end of Lee County,” and students and faculty from LMU.

Real estate and rental values ​​in the Ewing area had risen in part due to housing demand from people associated with school staff and student demand for rental housing, Hubbard said.

“When you could rent a house for maybe $350 a month, that’s a thing of the past,” she said.

In 2019, Hubbard and Brown discovered that the Wheeler store and a nearby house and barn were for sale.

“Melissa called me and we immediately made a deal,” Brown said. “An hour after the property closed, the estate agent said he received 10 more calls from interested people.”

The pandemic has slowed their plans, but Hubbard and Brown are now working with an architect on plans to turn the Wheeler Building into the Whistle Pig Country Store and Farmers Market. With a trailhead to Cumberland Gap State Park a few hundred yards behind the store and Wilderness Road State Park trails a few miles along Highway 58, Woods and Hubbard said the Whistle Pig is well placed to serve hikers and tourists.

Woods dismantled the barn for tin and planks, which would become rustic interior panels for the Wheeler building. The house will also be torn down and replaced with what Hubbard sees as a combination general store/café/event venue/parking area and a site where locals and students can get to know each other.

Woods and Hubbard plan to open the Whistle Pig as early as 2023 to meet a range of needs.

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“We found that vet school students don’t really have a place to stop, eat, or relax while studying,” Hubbard said. “They want local stuff rather than having to drive a certain distance. They want to be able to go to a family place and we are amazed at how interested the students are in Appalachian culture.

The sisters said they were working on what became a multi-piece puzzle. With no municipal sewer in the Hensley Settlement area, they’re working with experts from Virginia Tech Extension on a septic system that doesn’t use a traditional septic tank.

Finding the money and expertise to take on the design and engineering of their ideas was also a challenge. Woods and Hubbard credited Mountain Empire Community College’s Small Business Development Center for securing them a $25,000 technical assistance grant from the Opportunity Appalachia Regional Development Partnership to help fund the design process.

“For a small business trying to open, applying for grants can be a daunting experience,” said SBDC Director Becky O’Quinn-Purdie, “but it’s so much more than a campaign store.”

“With Becky’s help, we hope to be a catalyst for young people who want to stay here and see business opportunities,” Hubbard said.

“We want to be impact-driven,” Woods said. “We don’t need all the big box stores here, and we want to be able to buy as much as possible from local suppliers to build this up and run.”

The Whistle Pig can become a cultural center for the region, Hubbard said, and she would like to see regional artists and bluegrass and early music programs at Walters State Community College and East Tennessee State University take advantage of the facility in as a place.

Woods, Hubbard and O’Quinn-Purdie also credited SBDC staff member and Rose Hill resident Suzette Smith with bringing a local connection, experience in marketing and social media, and a sense of need to the project. The sisters also pay homage to Kingsport architect Mark Freeman for founding their vision.

“He asks you if this will work in three or four years,” Hubbard said.

“If we weren’t so stubborn, we might have already given up,” Woods said as she and Hubbard laughed.

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