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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 4, NO. 4 -- WINTER 2002
 

The Tale of Gorham's Bluff

In 1892, in the northeastern corner of Alabama, a grizzled Civil War veteran named Billy Gorham appeared on Sand Mountain and, shortly thereafter, built a modest lean-to shack on land deeded him by the U.S. government - a picturesque bluff overlooking the Tennessee River.

Equal parts fact and folklore, and no less dramatic than the expansive view that characterizes the property, the story of Billy Gorham is one of enigma. Depending on whom you ask, this reclusive Confederate was either a former James gang cohort guarding a treasure of silver coins or a pensive wallflower with a fondness for growing strawberries; a gruff, sophomoric wife-killer, or a sophisticated eccentric with a passion for music.

Whether he was none of these things or, as likely, all of them, one aspect of the story is clear. The history of Billy Gorham is an enduring tale rich in contrasts.

And it's one that continues today in the emerging new town that bears his name.

Birth of a Town

Despite its recent 10-year anniversary, the town of Gorham's Bluff is still in its infancy, a reality that compels town founder Dawn McGriff to consistently refer to it as "her child."

It's an analogy, I discover, that turns up often. After all, in the contemporary world of new town development, Gorham's Bluff is somewhat of an anomaly. It is not the work of a conventional developer, nor is it the product of extensive market analysis, nor is its success being measured exclusively in terms of profit. Instead, it combines an idealistic business venture with issues of legacy, family and history in a way that makes the project intrinsically more human. A way that makes McGriff's comparisons with learn-as-you-go parenthood and heartbreaks felt with a child's shortcomings and failures so compelling.

As we discuss the town's history and growing pains, McGriff's role as enthusiastic parent emerges in force, making it abundantly obvious that her relationship with Gorham's Bluff is one that transcends that of developer/project. It's personal. After all, the land itself, though not purchased by her family until her teenage years, has played a familial role since before she was born. Then, in 1992, a hundred years after Billy Gorham settled in, her father Bill began serious consideration of development and Dawn, then a 31-year-old marketing consultant and devotee of the new town resort of Seaside, Fla., assumed the leadership role she maintains to this day.

With their 1993 completion of the Gorham's Bluff town plan, emerging from a series of "kitchen table discussions" with real estate broker Chris Kent and architect/planner Lloyd Vogt, the first broad stroke was applied to the formerly blank canvas. Many more would follow, each contributing to the town's evolving artistic statement. An early street network of tightly woven lots. An overlook pavilion and performance amphitheatre. The first homes. A dramatic bed and breakfast, the Lodge (which Dawn jokingly refers to as their "million dollar marketing brochure"), overlooking the valley below. And perhaps most influential, 1994's amphitheatre production of "Foxfire" that formally initiated the town's culture of performance art.

Still, the unique strengths of Gorham's Bluff ultimately proved to be equal parts weakness. Art, after all, is something personal; something others tend to discover on their own terms. It is pure and is difficult to consider as a commodity crassly promoted. With the town evolving as an artistic work in progress, operations tended predictably to favor the related arts programming and Lodge management, ultimately at the expense of solid real estate marketing. If you build it, goes the ideal, they will come. Well, maybe in the movies but, as it turns out, not in Appalachia. Significant growth failed to materialize.

In discussing the lessons learned, McGriff and I again return to the conflicted analogy with child rearing, where emotion often dictates and the "right way" of doing things is largely a matter of opinion. "Tell me," she says, seeming both frustrated and strangely satisfied, "how we've had theatre for seven years, and only 25 houses. We've got a lodge that's one of Travel and Leisure's top 30 getaway places, and all we have is 25 houses. It's because we went and did what we like. And what's really important to us."

For anyone who's grown jaded seeing "developer" and "town founder" used synonymously in PR literature, as though the former was automatically imbued with innate dignity and virtue, McGriff's sense of genuine conviction and fallibility is refreshing. And while some might find failure in her realizations, she views it differently. In serendipitously pursuing what they wanted, she says, they made every mistake you could make. But, in doing so, they ultimately discovered the right path and, along the way, sowed the seeds of real character.

An Idea Comes of Age

That "right path" led, in many ways, to Nathan Norris, a pragmatic, young attorney from Birmingham feeding a newly found fascination with traditional neighborhood development. Signing on as town manager in March 2001, Norris, with a soft-spoken delivery uncommon for someone as incisive and confident, has provided this second-home arts community with a valuable commodity previously in short supply: balance.

Goal number one? Freeing up the town's resources. Between Lodge operations, performing arts (which are managed through their own organization, the Gorham's Bluff Institute), land development, marketing, and real estate sales, the well-intentioned efforts of Dawn and her modest staff had become diluted at best, and ineffectual at worst. A full-time director was brought in, assuming responsibility for all arts programming and related activities, while the structure and processes associated with managing The Lodge were modified and tuned. Ultimately, it became a realistic proposition to concentrate on restoring the town's slowed momentum.

This was tackled through what Norris clinically calls "improving the product," something crippled by the exclusivity of detached, single-family dwellings outlined in Vogt's original plan. Not only was this monoculture of housing detrimental from a social standpoint, artificially limiting the diversity of people likely to wind up in Gorham's Bluff, it was equally devastating from a marketing standpoint for exactly the same reason. From Norris' perspective, the number of people necessary to populate the town would never materialize based on a single housing experience. Choice was critical.

This choice was achieved through the town's most dramatic endeavor: a complete rethinking of its physical plan and subsequent revision by Steve Mouzon, the Huntsville-based architect and planner. The result of an energetic design charrette where over 60 professionals and homeowners converged, the revised plan articulates a far more distinctive and compelling vision for the town; one built on the creation of lovable, unique places that more convincingly serve the diverse collection of people destined to inhabit them.

Finally, Norris asserted that the Gorham's Bluff vision, the principles on which future decisions would be based, needed to be more effectively articulated. These emerged in three parts: respect and preservation for the property's native landscape; the celebration of creativity in all its forms; and, finally, a community where connection - to nature, neighbors and self - is enthusiastically fostered.

"Connection is my thing," says McGriff and, in fact, more than a few people have commented that the success of Gorham's Bluff can be measured by the quality of her dinner parties. But while she pushed to promote these community connections as one of the town's core values, her role as developer often demands a sense of detachment to ensure impartiality and reduce conflict among the residents. How, I ask, do you feel about that?

"A little sad," she confides, more than a tad aware of the situation's irony. It's to be expected, though. Just one more example of the poetic contrasts that have defined this property for over 100 years.

Where To Next?

Unlike a more conventional project, Gorham's Bluff has no pat answer to the question, "what's next?" There are no rigid implementation schedules, culminating in a total build-out charted by month and year, nor are there currently any bulldozers parked on site, quietly testifying that change is coming.

In their place is a sense of purpose and direction, fueled by a long-nurtured understanding that successful communities are as much a product of their people as they are their physical form. This is the ambitious mountain town's true advantage. For, as the debate grows as to whether a traditional "development" can really possess any soul, Gorham's Bluff will quietly continue attesting that indeed it can.

Norris takes a moment to ponder this. "Over time," he says, "the great places, the places that we appreciate the most, are those where you have a situation like Dawn's, where it's a labor of love. You can tell that in the final product."

"Eventually," he muses confidently, "you get it right."

Scott Doyon is a partner and writer with Civitatis, a marketing communications firm devoted to increased connections between people and place. He can be reached at civitatis@mindspring.com or by calling 404.377.6428. For more information on Gorham's Bluff and The Lodge, including rates and availability, visit the town's website at www.gorhamsbluff.com.