May 11, 2015
EDGEFIELD — In this sleepy Southern town, the sidewalks are nearly empty on a sunny spring morning, and there are plenty of vacant parking spaces.
Nothing much seems to be going on, but the slow pace might be picking up significantly in the near future.
The National Wild Turkey Federation is building an $18 million Hunting Heritage and Outdoor Education Center nearby, and it is expected to attract 25,000 visitors annually after the scheduled completion of the three-phase project in 2017. The new Palmetto Shooting Complex recently hosted its first major event, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ inaugural Youth Sporting Clays Open, and more than 1,000 competitors and other people showed up.
“This is an opportunity that might not come around again in our lifetimes,” said Edgefield resident Beth Worth. “We need to really get behind what is going on and help push this big ball up the hill.”
Worth, a district sales leader for the Doncaster women’s clothing line, and Max Shanks, who owns Creative Woodworking, head a committee called HOST, which stands for Hospitality of Small Towns. Its purpose is to prepare Edgefield and other communities in the area, including Johnston and Ridge Spring, for the influx of sightseers that is on the horizon.
“We meet pretty much every other Thursday night,” Thornton said. “Anybody who wants to can come.”
The gatherings’ attendees have created other committees to beautify downtown and find solutions to the lack of hotels and motels.
As a result, local residents have decorated windows in vacant buildings and volunteered to rent rooms in their homes.
Tonya Guy, who is in charge of the events committee, is working hard to come up with new tours and reenactments that feature Edgefield’s colorful history, which is full of murder and mayhem.
“I am delighted with the response of Edgefield citizens in terms of the number of people who have stepped forward to join hands with our organization,” said George Thornton, CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation. “Thousands of small towns around the country are dying, and it’s difficult to turn them around without some sort of life-changing event. The Hunting Heritage and Outdoor Education Center is a catalyst that can lead to the regeneration of Edgefield and make it a thriving town.”
Thornton and his wife, Beth, own The Edgefield General Store, which opened on Courthouse Square in March. This summer, they plan to open The Clay Works, a studio for potters and other artisans, on Buncombe Street.
In addition, the Thorntons are in the process of acquiring an unoccupied brick building on Courthouse Square that once was the Plantation House hotel. They want to restore it and turn it into a boutique hotel that would be Edgefield’s version of The Willcox in Aiken. There also would be spaces in the structure for three stores.
“I think people have a civic responsibility to get involved and make a difference where they live,” George Thornton said. “I also like to build things, and Beth does, too.”
Beth Thornton added that it also was important to her and her husband “to protect the personality of downtown and its charm.”
Ken Durham, Edgefield’s mayor and the facilities manager for the Wild Turkey Federation, has a vision for making downtown more tourist-friendly and pleasant for its residents.
“I’ve got a dream of turning Edgefield into more of a village,” he said. “There would be one-way traffic on Courthouse Square, and we would widen the sidewalks, plant trees and open things up. There are grants out there to do that, and we are looking into them. We want Edgefield to become a destination.”