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Image by Fauzan Saari


The goal of UPLIFT is to support tourism through community driven efforts in rural North Carolina. UPLIFT works regionally - across county borders - to support local tourism leaders and practitioners in realizing their vision for tourism in their community, including natural, recreational, cultural, agricultural, culinary, built and other tourism.

America Rescue Plan Act

The UPLIFT program is supported by the American Rescue Plan Act and represents one project of several designed to address the impact from COVID-19 on the hospitality, tourism, and outdoor recreation industries.

We are excited to work with the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Rural Economic Development Division,

the N.C. Pandemic Recovery Office, the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, and the

N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association.  

Our Team

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Taylor Bass

UPLIFT Podcast/Local Priorities Specialist

Taylor Bass is a recent graduate from Oregon State University with a B.S. in Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences. She lives in a small town in Florida and has always had a love for conservation, animals, and the environment. During her senior year of college, she extended her passions into sustainable tourism and hopes to bring a positive impact to small towns like hers. In her free time, you can find her on the water paddle-boarding or jet-skiing!

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Kofi Boone

Program Lead

Kofi Boone, FASLA is a Joseph D. Moore Distinguished Professor and University Faculty Scholar at NC State University. Kofi is a Detroit native and a graduate of the University of Michigan. His work is in the overlap between landscape architecture and environmental justice with specializations in democratic design and interpreting cultural landscapes.

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Will Carswell

Research & Analytics Specialist

Will Carswell is originally from Morganton, North Carolina and received his B.A. in Communications at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2018. After receiving his degree, he was granted the opportunity to move to Madrid, Spain where he taught English for almost two years. As he pondered on the idea of being closer to his family and friends, he decided to move to Boone and he is currently in the process of obtaining his M.S. degree in Applied Data Analytics at Appalachian State University.

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Chris Cavanaugh

Magellan Strategy Group 

Cavanaugh’s consulting experience includes destinations, attractions, and other hospitality entities. Prior to founding Magellan in 2004, Cavanaugh worked in marketing at Biltmore Estate for nearly 10 years.  He previously served on North Carolina’s travel and tourism board and is past chair of Buncombe County’s TDA, serving as Explore Asheville’s interim CEO in 2020. He was named to VisitNC’s Winner’s Circle in recognition of his service to the state’s travel sector.

Rory Cole

Project Specialist

Rory Cole, originally from Sarasota Florida, is a senior at Appalachian State University studying Business Management and Hospitality and Tourism Management. Post-grad, she aspires to cultivate positive changes in the field of sustainable tourism. Between Florida and North Carolina, Rory spends her time hiking, going to the beach, watching movies, and traveling as often as possible. She has always had a dedicated interest in sustainability and is excited to combine this passion with her love for tourism development by joining the UPLIFT team.

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Dr. Carrie Graham

Dr. Carrie Graham is an adult learning strategist and training consultant who helps businesses improve learner engagement, information retention, and skill application; by developing a customized learning journey for employees and clients. She has never fit in the box of traditional expectations in school and at work. Despite often feeling restrained and overlooked she learned how to use her natural skills to open doors for herself and others. She has leveraged her curiosity to help women tap into their potential.

Tourism Enterprise Accelerator Manager

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Olivia Hudgins

Social Media Specialist 

Olivia Hudgins grew up in Durham, NC and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2019 with a degree in Art Education. She taught elementary art in Currituck County, NC and has spent the last year working for Fanimal, a non-profit focusing on careers and mentorship in the field of animal advocacy. She has joined the UPLIFT team as a project specialist focusing on social media! Olivia loves art, animals, and going to the beach with her family.

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Simon Jones

Program Lead

Simon is the founder and CEO of NatureScapes. He grew up in and around wildlife parks in England and the US and has 20 years of experience working with governments, NGO’s and businesses to plan and develop immersive and engaging nature and cultural tourism experiences around the world. Simon has a Masters of Tourism Administration with concentration in Sustainable Destination Management from The George Washington University School of Business.

Carol Kline

Program Lead

Carol Kline is a Professor and the Director of the Hospitality and Tourism Management program at Appalachian State University. She founded the NC Tourism Extension Program in 2000 and has worked with rural communities in NC and beyond for over 20 years.  Her research interests have historically focused on topics relevant to rural communities, such as foodie segmentation, craft beverages, agritourism, cultural and heritage tourism, ecotourism, and tourism entrepreneurship, however now it solely focuses on animal ethics.

Cathy Rhuberg

Cathy has lived in rural western North Carolina most of her life and have spent much of her career working to identify and address local needs. Her hope is to build up our communities economically and to build strong self esteem in the residents through UPLIFT tourism. 

Grants & Loans
Technical Assistance Manager

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Ben Schwarz

Research Assistant

Ben Schwarz is a Research Assistant with Project UPLIFT and NCSU Environmental Science Alum. An RDU native, his specialties are in the intersection of environmental and sociological systems and issues, including climate change impacts and mitigation, natural hazard resilience and response with some experience in GIS and remote sensing. With Project UPLIFT he works in community outreach, database curation, and assists with workshop facilitation.

Jesa Valle

Program Coordinator

Jesarela is a Honduran native with a passion for multicultural tourism. Her Degree in Hospitality and Tourism from Appalachian State University helped her gain more than seven years of customer service experience. Jesarela supported various citywide events and programming for the Convention and Visitors Bureau Center in Durham, North Carolina. Her passion and experience has guided her to be with NatureScapes as their UPLIFT Program Coordinator.

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Laura-Lee Williams

Project Specialist 

Lee Williams has spent her career, thus far, in various environments committed to (re)connecting people to food, plants, the natural world, and each other. Her unique experience has granted her the opportunity to continually wear multiple hats, reaching people, and engaging with them in high-growth environments that encourage innovative thought. She is devoted to knowledge-sharing, addressing real problems for real people, and doing the work alongside folks who want to make the world a better place.

PJ Wirchansky

PR Manager

Bringing 20+ years of hospitality and tourism industry experience, P.J. is currently the Director of Marketing, Communication, and Engagement for the College of Fine and Applied Arts at Appalachian State University. He holds a B.S. in Business Administration and Marketing from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and an M.A. in Integrated Marketing Communication from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He specializes in signature storytelling, ideation, brand development, public relations, marketing strategy, stakeholder relationship management, and hospitality and tourism training.

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Ceara Wynne

Market Trend Specialist 

Ceara Wynne graduated from Colorado State University with a BS in Human Dimensions of Natural Resource, Global Tourism, and a minor in Spanish. She has traveled to over 60 countries volunteering, exploring cultures and partaking in ecotourism. Her love for travel motivated her to learn how to preserve culture, species and the environment. It is her life’s mission to teach people how to travel in a more sustainable, ethical and intentional way.

Charleston "Dong-Jae" Yi

Built Environment Designer & Researcher

Dr. Charleston "Dong-Jae" Yi is a built environment designer and researcher at NC State University. DJ worked as an architecture designer in South Korea and moved to Raleigh for a higher degree. With a Master's in Landscape Architecture and a Ph.D. in Design, DJ focuses on community participation and the meaning of space in his work. His designs integrate environmental elements and community narratives through an equitable and creative participatory process. DJ strives to create meaningful spaces that are both functional and empowering to communities.

Ceara Wynne

Market Trend Specialist 

The Objectives of UPLIFT are to: 

- Develop regional multi-night itineraries to diversify the overall tourism product,

retain visitors for longer, and increase visitor spending


- Enhance, innovate and scale the tourism experiences offered within the regions,

working with new and existing tourism providers

- Strengthen tourism economies, skills and capacities that stimulate entrepreneurship, grow businesses and create or retain jobs

- Tell the stories of the regions, their communities and individual tourism experiences

to attract and retain visitors

- Integrate sustainability principles & practices into the tourism experiences supported

Where We Work

The program will focus in the counties highlighted below as well as bordering counties where connections to regional itineraries exist. Regional workshops will be held in the highlighted counties, however bordering counties residents are welcome to attend. 


Overview of UPLIFT Program

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The UPLIFT program is implemented in three phases over a period of three years.

Learn about each phase here. 


The UPLIFT Acronym

Six building blocks (Understand, Plan, Link, Innovate, Finance and Tell)  form the UPLIFT acronym and the approach taken in our target regions.

Get Involved


Opportunities to get involved are continual and rolling throughout the program. Updates on activities can be found here.

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