As it completes its 15th year of giving Surry County students an inside, up-close look at facets of life in the county — from business to health to tourism and more — Youth Leadership Surry came to Elkin Thursday during its final program of the year before the end-of-program banquet to be held in December.
The participants will end the program as seniors, but began as juniors during the 2014-15 school year. Each month they gather at various locations in the county to get a glimpse of how government operates, popular visitor sites, to tour the jail and see how a courtroom works, to learn about businesses and how they operate from small to large corporate entities, to spend a day learning about and giving back to nonprofits in the community and more.
A new group of juniors will attend the December banquet as they begin their year-long journey through the county.
Thursday, the seniors spent the morning touring Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital to learn about health service in the community and what the Elkin hospital and its system of providers offer residents.
The final stop for the day was actually in Yadkin County at the Jonesville distribution center for PVH, Phillips Van Heusen. The Youth Leadership Surry program is sponsored by Surry County Economic Development Partnership. PVH is in the Yadkin Valley Chamber of Commerce’s service area, explained Patsy Burguess, career and technical education and career development coordinator for Elkin City Schools.
Close-up look at downtown Elkin businesses
The Youth Leadership Surry students, five or six from each of the county’s traditional high schools, were treated to a tour of The Liberty building and a pizza buffet lunch from 222 Public House’s brick oven.
Cicely McCulloch, owner of The Liberty, spent time giving the students a history of the building, which was a cash and carry that had been left empty for a number of years.
“When the bridge was torn down, it became an opportunity,” McCulloch told them. “I knew I needed to have rent to pay for it, so the restaurant owners at 21 & Main came to me and said let’s partner, and they are my caterers” for events in the building.
On the main level there is 222 Public House, owned and operated by Jeff and Erika Gibbs; the Roth Room, which is a smaller meeting room; and Coley Hall, the larger banquet room which can hold up to 550 people. The basement features a yoga studio, offices which are rented out, and in the near future will be the home of Angry Troll Brewery and its tasting room.
McCulloch said she would love to see more of the basement utilized by possibly an outdoor outfitter style operation with bike, kayak and canoe sales and rentals.
She said despite going to college for marketing, she wasn’t very good at marketing The Liberty, and she wants to see its use grow. “I have weddings booked until 2017, but not every weekend. The goal is to have it booked every weekend,” she told the students.
The students heard from McCulloch and from 222 Public House owner Erika Gibbs how difficult and dedicated one has to be to operate their own business, from the many permits it’s taken a year to secure just to get Angry Troll Brewery operating, to the hours of work it takes to run a restaurant.
“It was going to be a $1 million project and it was $2 million,” said McCulloch of The Liberty renovation project. “That was painful. I did get tax credits. They want you to take old buildings and make them right.”
When asked by a student why she closed Diana’s Bookstore, which was purchased and reopened farther down Main Street, she said, “It wasn’t an easy thing. It was very sad.
“There are all kinds of classes to learn how to open a business, how to get loans, but no one told me how to close it, sell it. I couldn’t afford to pay someone else to run it anymore,” McCulloch said, noting that she found she couldn’t run it and run The Liberty.
“You have to plan for what you’re going to do,” she said.
As far as the Gibbses, Erika was able to share the history of their business and how 222 Public House came to be, while Jeff was in the kitchen cooking up pizzas in the brick oven for the students’ lunch.
“You can be anything you want to be,” said Erika Gibbs.
The couple moved from Charleston, South Carolina, to Elkin when her mother helped them get a loan to purchase the building at the corner of Main and Bridge streets and open 21 & Main Restaurant. She said working for someone else isn’t as satisfying, “if you work for yourself, if it breaks, you fix it, if we failed it was our fault, but if we made it, it was for us. You make it or break it on your own work ethic.”
Coming from a tourist primarily fine dining market to Elkin was something different. “We didn’t do enough research,” she said.
While 21 & Main was frequented by tourists, they found the Elkin market was missing a place for pizza and wings, said Gibbs.
As far as owning a store or restaurant and its offering to customers, she said, “Even if you like it, not everyone else will. There are a lot of stores you can open. I might like Prada, Guicci, Patagonia, but do you think it will fit here? A lot of folks here after the farming and textiles went away, they drive to Winston-Salem for jobs, so they are not here spending their money.”
For those students looking for opportunities, Gibbs told them there are plenty of chances for internships at 222 Public House.
Students reflect on year of programming
During their lunch break, some of the students shared their thoughts and feedback on this year’s experiences with Youth Leadership Surry.
“I think it’s been really interesting. I was born here, but didn’t come back until my freshman year, so I didn’t knkow what was going on in the community,” said Ross Dezarn of East Surry High School. “If nothing else, it’s interesting to see what’s going on. I didn’t realize what was happening.”
North Surry’s Amy Cockerham said the program “helped me learn about a lot of things in the community happening … how things don’t just come together, but they take a lot of work and people coming together to make it happen.
“It’s definitely helped me realize I might like public relations or business,” she said, noting the medical field isn’t for her.
As far as other programs during the year, Cockerham said, “I thought forensics was cool, but working in a jail is not something I want to do.”
Tyler Eaton, an Elkin High School student, explained, “I’m learning a lot about Surry County itself — the different processes that go on between the legal system, tourist attractions. It’s a good first step into the real world being exposed to these things.
“And I’m learning potentially what I want to do in the future,” he said.
For Surry Central High School’s Sydney Beacham, it’s given her a more refined decision on her future in the medical field. “It’s really helped me. At the start, I thought I wanted to go in the medical field, but it’s helped me learn I like the business side better,” she said.
“It also let me know what’s going on in other communities like Mount Airy and Elkin, because I’m in Dobson,” Beacham said, noting that if she does move back to Surry after college, she would likely be to Mount Airy or Elkin.
“I didn’t understand what went into making my community what it is and how much hard work went into it,” said Mount Airy High School participant Keara Halpern. “I accepted it for what it is.”
Halpern said she plans on going after leadership scholarships to help fund college, and “I feel like this has given me what I need to achieve those. It made me a better well-rounded leader as well.”
The nonprofit day program also led her to more volunteering opportunities. “I ended up volunteering with the nonprofit I went to over the summer. I did a lot of kids camps for the Surry Arts Council,” she said. “I wouldn’t have done that if it was for this program.”