This post is part of the Thesis Chronicles series.
This is a story about how a community in North Carolina is diversifying its local economy and working toward achieving long-term stability and prosperity through entrepreneurial businesses that focus on the arts and environmental sustainability. The hub of this new activity is the town of Star in Montgomery County, where a couple decades ago the textile mills that formed the backbone of the local economy started to go south and the jobs didn’t come back. In this third post, I discuss how STARworks has linked its homegrown activities to both larger markets and regional economic development policy strategies.
One factor that will matter to STARworks’ success is its regional relevance – in other words, remaining a target for public and private investment. Importantly, it is, in my view, operating within a larger sphere of creativity-oriented economic development work. A multi-county regional economic development organization (one of several in the state that frequently partner with the North Carolina Department of Commerce), is the Piedmont Triad Regional Partnership (PTP). The Partnership, together with the economic development consulting firms, North Carolina-based Regional Triangle Strategies and Mount Auburn Associates, recently identified a “creative cluster” in central North Carolina (also known as the Piedmont Triad).
When I interviewed Margaret Collins, director of the PTP creative cluster strategy, she called STARworks a “perfect example of design thinking at its best,” referring to the Center’s creative use of its existing assets to spawn new enterprises. The emerging theory of the so-called creative economy considers the how culture, knowledge and ideas generate economic activity – and “design thinking” is another manifestation of that.
As a researcher I was, of course, thrilled to include quotes like Ms. Collins’s in my thesis. But the question that must always be asked is: is it measurable? Because that’s what matters in order for STARworks, or any other project like it, to remain a target for institutional support.
Fact is, creative economy activities are hard to measure. But here’s a telling finding for those who may be skeptical about the potential economic impact of arts-based activity: not all activities in these sectors are immediately evident. The consulting firm Regional Triangle Strategies found that data suppression in commonly used databases and under-reporting results in economic activity in the creative sectors not showing up in the data. Nonetheless, RTS believes “the creative enterprise cluster in [North Carolina] employs more people than many of [its] major industries.”
That’s saying something. And, as this creative cluster is better defined, the opportunity to develop and market the cluster becomes more feasible — and entities like STARworks will then benefit from such activities at the regional scale.
Another piece of the puzzle to gain in regional relevance is for Central Park NC to turn their artistic or cultural resources into tourism assets. As I mentioned in my first post, tourism development strategies can be tricky, and Central Park NC realized early on that they wanted a diverse strategy that added small business development, sustainability and other initiatives to its cultural tourism efforts. Now, STARworks is becoming an emerging amenity that itself could draw tourists who might otherwise be visiting Montgomery County’s cultural or recreational areas. STARworks can provide tourists not just with retail opportunities to buy handmade work, but the chance to observe it being made, or the opportunity to participate in making work themselves.
In my view, STARworks has done its homework. As a nonprofit small business incubator, it’s preparing its incubatees with more opportunities for success – and remaining an attractive target for institutional support by linking up with larger policy strategies and markets.
In the final post, I’ll talk about the interesting and creative enterprises that make up STARworks’ tenant businesses. They are all becoming additional assets to the emerging creative cluster of the region.