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, in the center of the state — in fact, the exact geographic center — a region historically reliant on textiles, but which has lost the competitive advantage it once had in the form of lower labor and business costs, abundant natural resources, and cheap land.
A couple decades ago, the textile mills started to go south and the jobs didn’t come back.
That’s not the case in other parts of the state. In fact, North Carolina’s urban areas have been a development success story in the past three decades with extraordinary growth in knowledge-driven industries like finance, biotechnology, and information technology. It’s the rural communities, where traditional manufacturing industries like textiles, apparel, furniture and tobacco once thrived, that are in decline.
But in the early 1990’s, community leaders from this rural area came together and decided that they needed to organize themselves to figure out their strengths and bring back the lost jobs. A coalition of local partners spanning eight counties was formed. Although recruitment of traditional industrial activity was never abandoned, this group (that, it should be noted, was more grassroots-driven than backed by the institutional drivers of traditional economic development thinking, and financing) focused on development opportunities around the region’s abundant natural resources such as the Uwharrie National Forest, lakes for boating and fishing, and back roads for biking.
The community began to brand itself as Central Park NC, “a region apart” and a place that residents of the large urban centers to the north and south, Raleigh and Charlotte, might consider for a stay-cation.
Promoting tourism was a good strategy and one that was very much in vogue in economic development circles at the time. But, the strategy didn’t exactly take off. Meanwhile, not seeing the promise of a one-hit wonder materialize — that a large employer that could rehire the many hundreds of out-of-work textile workers — Central Park NC recognized a potential opportunity in focusing on small business development. If the goal was to repopulate the Main Streets of the area’s small towns with thriving, locally owned businesses, then this was where they would direct their energy.
But what kinds of businesses would have an affinity with the region’s existing assets and could embed permanently in the local economy? Central North Carolina is a region with a lot of incumbent creative assets. An historic community, Seagrove, is home to several hundred potters. Its hills are alive with old-time music and fiddlers’ conventions, including one held every year in Star. And recently, there has been a shift in thinking about economic policy that emphasizes knowledge, ideas, and creativity – the so-called creative economy. Central Park NC decided to focus on growing small businesses and entrepreneurs that were somehow tied to the creative sectors and/or the emerging green economy.
In Star, the local coalition found a key asset it could use to get its new creative economy strategy off the ground: an 187,000 square foot former mill building that could be readily up-fitted for light industrial uses. Once the building was acquired in the early 2000’s, Central Park NC had a new project within its economic development program, the STARworks Center for Creative Enterprise.
In the next couple of posts I will talk about how the savvy leadership team at STARworks went about recruiting the small businesses that would fit in well within its new incubator-of-sorts. If you want to get a head start meeting folks, watch the short video on the STARwork’s website or here.
Like the other projects described in Thesis Chronicles, STARworks is, as another blogger noted, a “new strategy for an old crisis”. It offers a set of concrete, but hope-filled, lessons for regenerating local economies.
Post by Christa Wagner. Image by the Central Park NC website.