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UPLIFT North Carolina: A Program With a Passion for Rural Communities

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

When Simon Jones first founded NatureScapes in 2021, his main goal was to find ways to utilize tourism as a tool for protecting natural landscapes and supporting the communities that are connected to them. This passionate mission was a long time in the making, with the previous 20 years of his experience being committed to economic development and conservation through tourism. With this goal in mind, he began to formulate a framework for an initiative that could provide access to resources, training and knowledge about tourism for the people and communities that were intrinsically tied to rural and natural landscapes. He was determined that these resources could become a suite of tools that would support communities and allow them to take the initiative in reaching their tourism goals for their destinations. 

Around this time, Simon reconnected with an old colleague, Carol Kline, a Hospitality & Tourism Management Professor and the HTM Program Director at Appalachian State University, who also has a history of rural development and dedication to the tourism industry in North Carolina. After getting in touch with Carol, all of the pieces for the fledgling UPLIFT program began to fall into place. 

By chance, shortly after reconnecting with Carol, The U.S. Economic Development Administration began to accept applications for grant funding with the goal of reinvigorating the tourism economy after the impacts of COVID-19.  Carol and Simon decided that this was the perfect opportunity to launch the UPLIFT NC program - there was a need in rural North Carolina communities for resources and support, and UPLIFT could provide the structured system, as well as the extra hands needed, to support local residents and community leaders in their efforts to strengthen tourism. 

The three year UPLIFT NC initiative received funding, and Simon’s original framework became the six major building blocks of the UPLIFT NC program: Understanding (tourism knowledge and context), Planning (participatory planning to know what a community wants to achieve with tourism and how to get there), Link (build local networks as well as connect tourism experiences and their stories through itineraries), Innovate (enhance the tourism experiences offered), Finance (connecting with, and accessing resources) and Tell (tell the story of the region to attract visitors). 

UPLIFT NC program just celebrated one year of work with communities in North Carolina. The first year included a great deal of engaging with the communities, from individual conversations to large group brainstorming, and listening to their needs and priorities. This first phase of the program had the goal of pinpointing where UPLIFT could provide the most value, and sketching out a blueprint plan to achieve the communities’ goals. Starting  in the summer and running for about two years, UPLIFT NC will offer a suite of support and professional development programs that address the needs identified by the communities. These include, storytelling, strengthening and supporting businesses and tourism sites, collaborating with the Smithsonian Institution for festival trainings, and supporting the county level tourism leadership organizations to promote and develop tourism in their landscapes. UPLIFT is also focusing on making connections and strengthening networks, facilitating access to grants and loan funding, and introducing organizations and partners that can support the communities’ tourism missions. 

“The partners we’re working with are always doing a million things, they are very busy, and wear a lot of hats. They know what they want to achieve, but don’t always have the ability to get it all done. Part of the objective of UPLIFT is to provide extra sets of hands to spread the workload and support our partners in achieving their goals.” Simon explains.

Are you interested in connecting or becoming involved with UPLIFT NC or NatureScapes? 

The UPLIFT program is currently focused on specific regions in North Carolina, but their goal is to take the UPLIFT framework and expand it to other regions and locations - if you’re interested in getting involved or bringing UPLIFT to your area, reach out to us at, or at

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