Director of Tourism at LivCo
Los Angeles, CA to Livingston County, NY
This episode is sponsored by Visit LivCo. Livingston County, New York is the heart of the Genesee River Valley, home of Letchworth State Park, and westernmost gateway to the Finger Lakes. Make LivCo your basecamp for one-of-a-kind hiking, dining and more. Plan your escape at www.visitlivco.com and follow along on Instagram @visitlivco
I am excited to invite you to my conversation with Melissa Hughes. Melissa and I met through Urban Exodus, as she was a dedicated reader in the early days of the project. When living in Los Angeles, she would often pursue the stories on the website during her lunch breaks, dreaming of her own escape.
After a few years of planning, scheming, and rooftop gardening, Melissa and her husband took a leap of faith and left the advertising world in Los Angeles to become farm managers in Sisters, Oregon. I went and photographed them back in 2018 (images from our UE visit below).
After a few years in Oregon, Melissa was ready to start a family and decided it was time to return to her childhood stomping grounds in rural Western New York. She was invited to manage Fall Brook Farm, her mother’s medicinal herb farm, and also did some freelance work with their county’s development office, while she considered whether or not she would need a lifeline to NYC or LA in order to make rural living work for her and her family long term.
When Livingston County last year made the decision to move their tourism office to the local chamber of commerce, they offered Melissa the role as director of tourism. Melissa's new role entailed flipping traditional tourism on its head. Rather than focusing on ads and pamphlets, Melissa had a more holistic approach. She wanted to attract tourists to Livingston County through art, commerce and community. Her role encompasses business and economic development by offering grants, consulting, and help to those in enriching the community.
“One of the biggest takeaways for me in moving to a small town is this sense that you are enough just as you are. That was a huge weight off of my shoulders. In a big city, unless you are very special, you probably won’t make a dent. And here, the impact you can have in a small community is just… endless.”
A project Melissa recently spearheaded was bringing in nine internationally acclaimed muralists to create large-scale murals for each of Livingston county's nine villages, with creative briefs drafted by the local residents. The mural project in has made a real economic impact in a short period of time, bringing more visitor dollars to the area. It has also inspired greater community pride and lifted spirits during Covid.
Melissa feels grateful and extremely fulfilled in the work because she is helping create more opportunities, jobs and prosperity in Livingston County. For a small rural municipal office, they are a very high-functioning team that has as much hustle and ambition as any office Melissa worked in L.A. The major difference now is that she feels like she is able to have real and profound impact through her work.
Melissa always thought that to make rural living work financially she would need to telecommute - but to have a role like this where she can provide for her family as well as support and contribute to her local community has totally subverted her expectations of how rewarding and expansive rural life could be.
In our conversation we speak about Melissa's experience moving back to her hometown, finding purpose through your work, the urban/rural divide, rural gentrification and rising costs, and the power of art to transform.
This is a story about rural revitalization, returning to your hometown, and prioritizing quality of life and family connection.
• New York State Tourism
• Visit LivCo
• Fall Brook Farm