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 Made in America Emporium in the News:

KETK NBC 56 Buying American

The Boss Hog, Brooks Gremmels, talks about Hog Fest on Fox 51

Mouse & The Traps Reunion in the Tyler Morning Telegraph

Click here for: Ben Wheeler Sewer Project News 

The County Line Magazine 

By Tom Geddie

The rejuvenation – some  would call it a reincarnation – of tiny Ben Wheeler is beginning to win  worldwide attention for its can-do attitude and its infusion of new culture  into the region. It’s not the only town doing so – several downtown successes  come to mind; several more are stirring – but it’s the newest and has, in many  ways, come the farthest in the shortest amount of  time.

            The  compact downtown area – 16 acres including tree-filled park land off Hwy 64 in  Van Zandt County – includes two restaurants that also host music every  weekend; several galleries, other retail shops, and businesses; the old Elwood  School which houses the Half-Pint Library for children and teenagers, and  Harmony Chapel, a restored church building that will host an international  songwriters’ show on March  9.

            The  intertwining of the international music show and the international attention  are coincidental, but show the kind of serendipity that can accompany the hard  work of the Ben Wheeler Development Company, the Ben Wheeler Arts &  Historic District Foundation, and local  residents.

            A  group of students in a master’s degree program studying innovation and  organization of culture and the arts at the University of Bologna, which dates  back to the 11th century, decided to do a study of Ben Wheeler because one of  the team members, Peggy Ryan, shared her own research from a study she did at  Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

“I specifically study cultural  advocacy, and I began utilizing the story of Ben Wheeler often after learning  about it in one of my classes,” Peggy said. “I use it as a tool for advocacy,  as it is one of the clearest examples of the positive effects of cultural  policy, due to a clear causality. With my program at Carnegie Mellon, I would  often pay visits to Pennsylvania and California senators and congressional  representatives, and Ben Wheeler would be a story I would speak to them about,  depending on the interests of the politician I was talking  to.”

            Peggy’s  interests include use of culture to bring communities together and using the  arts as an economic  driver.

            Students  in an urban planning class at the University of Bologna were asked to choose  any city around the world and illustrate how the city used the arts or  cultural heritage in some way to benefit the city. Most students chose major  cities such as Barcelona, Berlin, Milano, and Paris; Peggy’s group chose Ben  Wheeler.

            Another  student, Luis Remelli Faulkenberry, said Ben Wheeler offered a chance to “do  something different” as a perfect example of urban planning based on personal  involvement.

            A  third member of the team, Beatrice Spallaccia, said the study showed how  Brooks Gremmels, who owns the development company and operates the foundation  with his wife, Rese, “has managed to intrinsically understand where culture  exists in our lives, what culture means, and how to support this culture for  the purposes of supporting people and improving their quality of  life.”

            She  said the group’s work will remain significant as a tool for  advocacy.

            “We  would like to put together more sophisticated communications illustrating the  cultural policies Brooks has created, and how these are significant and  replicable,” Bea said. “Once back in the United States, I would like to  continue to keep in contact with Brooks, as his voice at a conference for  Americans for the Arts or the National Mayors’ Association would be an  important representation for his work and for others to begin to learn from  it.”

            Brooks  called the study gratifying.

“First of all, it’s flattering that people  have noticed what we’re trying to do here. Not just the obvious – opening a  few stores – but a sincere effort to breathe new life into a community that  was fading. We’ve really tried to let the community choose its  path.”

            He  told the students that the thrust of their studies into public service,  cultural policy, and heritage preservation cover are the same ones he sees as  challenges.

“Our long-term success will be measured by how effectively  those very components are understood and addressed,” he said. “This really has  taken more selflessness than I would have thought I possessed. A more personal  agenda would have been seen through and soon sabotaged by the old-timers  around here.”

Because Ben Wheeler is one of perhaps 1,500 towns in Texas  that is unincorporated, there is no city charter, mayor, city council, nor  zoning laws to slow someone down from turning ideas into realities, aside from  public opinion.

“I am at the point now where the core pieces are in place  in terms of the tangibles such as the physical rebirth and intangibles such as  the attitude that we’re all in this together. I believe that these components  are strong enough today to carefully influence the next chapters of the town’s  life. If I don't make sure that the issues that you are studying are explored  and management invested with the tools to carry on in the spirit that has been  revived, I don’t deserve much of a legacy.”

Brooks, a Tyler native who  retired to the Ben Wheeler area from Dallas, said he intends to spend much of  2012 on sharpening management and staff focus of the properties rather than on  much new construction, although that can always change if the right  opportunity presents itself.

“At first when I started buying and tearing  down old worn-out structures around here, local residents were skeptical,” he  said. “They wanted to know who I was and what I was up to, and I didn’t have a good answer about my goals. I didn’t have a plan at first. But we held a 4th  of July party in the city park – offering free hot dogs, ice cream, and live  music – and almost 2000 people showed up. Folks came up to me all day, some  with tears in their eyes, saying they hadn’t seen their neighbors in years. I  told Rese that night that I knew what I was supposed to be doing with my life.  That’s when I started making plans.”

Bea said that during the study’s  presentation at the university, the group’s professor was primarily interested  in the sustainability of these efforts.

That’s something Brooks has also  mentioned that concerns him.

He formed an advisory group consisting of the  local bank owner, the owner of the largest employer in the area, the city  secretary of a neighboring community, and three local residents.

“This  committee is exploring . . . whether to endorse the idea of incorporating the  town and most importantly – and related to the idea of finally incorporating –  my succession. There is no debt on anything and the businesses are beginning  to prosper, but if something happened to me at this moment I’m sure it would  deliver a shock to the system and leave too many important questions about the  future direction muddled.”

One of the lessons that Brook has learned, he  said, is that immediacy is  important.

            “There  will be some kind of good out of this foundation we’ve laid,” he said. “The  abiding feeling I get from this study is that it gives some credibility to  what we are doing when that many bright people are willing to take this amount  of time to look at what we’re doing. We are being validated through this  attention we are receiving, and I think it portends some things in the future  that might be a whole lot of  fun.

            “I’m  waiting for another shoe to fall. I am confident other people are going to pay  attention to what we are doing here. It’s unique, and you almost have to be on  the outside looking in to see it all.”