How Main Street Revitalization And Bottled Water Helped Turn Around One Rural Tennessee County

Sep 12, 2017

Out in the woods of Perry County, Jim Bruner flips the switch on a stainless-steel pump.

Up flows mineral water, about 52 degrees Fahrenheit, drawn from a mile below.

"So it's natural," he says. "Natural artesian water, with natural alkalinity. It has a pH of about 8.3. The mineral content is in trace amounts. And that makes it a very unique water."

Bruner pumps, treats and bottles it here, in a humble metal shed tucked away amid the loblolly pines of an old tree farm.

The business, Planet H2O, was something of an accident. When he drilled a test well out here a few years ago, Bruner was looking for oil or natural gas. Instead he struck a previously unknown aquifer.

Today, Planet H2O employs just eight people. Its sales are only about 24,000 liters a month.

But it's available in gas stations and organic groceries across Tennessee.

Bruner hopes to start breaking even within the next year or so.

Jim Bruner flips the switch on a pump at Planet H20.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN

"When I set it up, we were working on a three-year program," he says, "and that's a little ambitious. So within a five-year program, we'll see how it goes."

During the worst of the Great Recession, more than one in four workers in parts of rural Tennessee couldn't find a job.

Today, in many of those places, there's nearly universal employment.

It's a remarkable turnaround, by any measure. And in Perry County, a rural community of 8,000 or so residents nestled along the Tennessee and Buffalo rivers, small ventures are a big part of it.

Eight years ago, unemployment here peaked at a shade below 30 percent — the worst in Tennessee. Things were so bad, the state paid employers just to put people to work. It was billed as a modern twist on the New Deal.

Most of those jobs have since dried up. Yet, unemployment has somehow plunged in Perry County to just 5 percent.

"If I listen to what the economy is telling me right now — our local economy — it is saying we are wanting to come in and bring 10 jobs," says Will Nunley, executive director of the Perry County Chamber of Commerce. "It's that type of business that is interested in our community."

Nunley means startups, mom-and-pop shops and even entrepreneurs. Including himself. A year and a half ago, he started a radio station here — Perry County's first. It now employs 10 people.

Will Nunley, a radio station owner and head of the Perry County Chamber of Commerce, says street beautification and small businesses have revived his community.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN

"I believe we can have just as much success incubating these businesses that are maybe 10 at a time. Or five to 10 at a time," he says.

"We can spread that out to offer more stability in the long-term than going back to one employer that may have a great five-year run or 10-year run and then say, 'We've been beat by China, so we're leaving 200 jobs.'"

That's a big shift in Perry County's economy. Two decades ago, a handful of big plants making auto parts employed half the community's workers.

But through the 2000s, many of those factories picked up stakes.

"It's hard to bounce back from that. It's hard to bounce back from it psychologically. It's hard to bounce back from it economically."

Nunley argues that smaller employers have a deeper commitment to the community — or at least aren't so big that they could tear the local economy apart if things don't work out.

The next step is improving the county's broadband service. Many small employers — and even individuals with IT training who'd like to work from home — have struggled with slow internet speeds.

Upgrading that infrastructure is a better investment than chasing the next big plant, Nunley says. He notes that Perry County has no rail links or four-lane highways.

"I have to be realistic about where we are," he says. "Because we have counties around us that also have great industrial parks that have sat like empty monuments for a decade."

One small enterprise that's made it work in Perry County is Dimples, a combination country store and café just off the square in Linden, the county seat.

It's a cozy place. Toys and bric-a-brac clutter the shelves — some of it for sale, some just personal. On a late summer day, a clutch of lunchtime patrons fill the few small tables.

There's even a nail salon in the back.

"As long as it's not illegal or immoral," says co-owner Reneé Schmidt, "we do it in Dimples," 

A mural in downtown Linden commemorates the high school's state championships.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN

She and her husband opened this place in 2001. That actually makes Dimples one of the oldest businesses in downtown Linden.

From there, they've seen a turnaround. Fewer of the downtown storefronts are vacant, which Schmidt credits to a beautification effort, funded in part by state grants, that brought new streetlamps, wider sidewalks and plenty of parking.

Those improvements have made it possible for Perry County to host two big festivals a year: a flower-themed art show every spring and a World War II re-enactment in the fall. Each brings thousands of visitors.

"We are a cute downtown. We didn't used to be a cute downtown," she says. "It is very appealing. People want to stop, they want to walk around in a little town.

"Mayberry, of sorts, you know."

With big manufacturing plants — and the jobs that go with them — becoming rarer and rarer, Linden and Perry County are banking that charm and small-town ingenuity will drive their economy into the future.