Saturday, June 2, 2012

Reshaping a Small One-Industry Southern Town

How does a small one-industry town in the rural American South survive when the major employer shuts down and many jobs are lost? Changes in the “global economy” have cut dramatically the jobs once held in textile, furniture, manufacturing, and other businesses in the South as well as other regions during the past few decades. As a result, many manufacturing plants now stand idle in the rural, former mill towns that dot the South.

A biotechnology research center is being
built on the site of a former textile plant.
Although a wealthy benefactor may appear on the scene with a magic wand or a pot of gold to transform the town and offer it a new vitality, this possibility is very unlikely. Even though Kannapolis, N.C., has benefited from the largess of David Murdock, most towns have to reshape themselves more independently. Murdock, with a personal fortunate estimated at more than $3 billion, has adopted this former mill town. When a textile manufacturing company closed its operations in 2003, Kannapolis became the scene of the largest permanent layoff of workers in state history. However, with Murdock’s extensive investment, Kannapolis is being reborn as home to the North Carolina Research Campus, a 5.6 million square-foot biotechnology research center that promises to offer 35,000 jobs on and near the campus.

Less than 100 miles from Kannapolis is Star, NC, another small town affected by mill closings. However, it faces a more challenging future because no billionaire has stepped forward to rescue it. Unlike Kannapolis’s claim as the home for future biotechnology research, Star’s biggest boast is that it is the geographical center of North Carolina.

With an early history as a shipping point for turpentine, lumber, and brick, the town grew more prosperous when the hosiery mill industry arrived, and mill jobs formed the basis of the local economy for fifty years. However, when the industry left town in the 1990s, more than 2,000 lost their jobs, and Star began to decline.

 STARworks occupies a
former hosiery mill complex
However, Star is rebounding from the job loss not with the support of a billionaire but a local enterprise appropriately named Star works, or STARworks. STAR actually stands for Small Town Area Vitalization, but including the town’s name adds special significance. Located in a former mill building that was donated in 2004 for the project, STARworks is a “business incubator.” As the home for several renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and creative arts-related businesses, it is nurturing their initial development by providing space, training, and encouragement. When the businesses and artisans are ready to move into the local market, STARworks continues to serve them as a support network.

Part of the clay factory
When I visited STARworks during an open house, I was intrigued to see a clay factory, which processes raw clay from the ground. The result is pottery clay. The factory is part of the ceramics materials and research activity, which conducts training workshops and also includes a clay studio and supply shop. STARworks not only is encouraging new entrepreneurs, it’s taking advantage of natural and cultural assets of the region that is well-known for its pottery tradition.

(The STARworks facility also
includes a glass studio, but it
was closed during the open house.)

Area for ceramics and
pottery workshops

What the Star community is doing with its business incubator provides a clear example to other communities that once depended on one industry now shut down. Rather than trying to recruit another big manufacturing company to replace the operation lost, STARworks focuses instead on entrepreneurs who can grow small businesses and develop them further in the local community. Taking advantage of local natural and cultural assets to nurture business startups also offers more promise than attempting to attract another operation with no connection to the community and whose tenure is not guaranteed.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Plant That Bites Back

Carnivorous is such a hard word to spell, particularly when a child is in the fifth grade. That is when my class and I were introduced to one of the unusual plants of the South and particularly the Carolinas – the carnivorous Venus Flytrap. It attracts, catches, and devours insects and other tiny creatures.

In fact, Charles Darwin labeled this plant as “one of the most wonderful in the world.” When he wrote Insectivorous Plants in 1875, he brought plants that entrap insects to the world’s attention. The video below by UNC-TV helps to understand why the flytrap itself is so amazing.

However, the Venus Flytrap is not naturally a worldwide resident. It lives in only the South and only two states – North Carolina and South Carolina. In fact, its native locations are limited to within 60 miles of Wilmington, NC, where it survives in wet sandy and peaty soils. Because these areas are nutritionally poor and do not contain adequate nitrogen and phosphorus, the plant digests animals to gain nutrients for protein formation that the soil does not provide. In addition, the flytrap tolerates fires well and benefits when its habitat burns, particularly during controlled burns of longleaf pine forests, because the fires eliminate its competition.

Park ranger at start of hike
Although several hundred plants are carnivorous, the Venus Flytrap probably is the best known, particularly by school children because many see this plant in action in elementary school as I did. When I was in the Wilmington area with my school-age grandkids, rangers at a nearby state park were offering a “carnivorous plant hike.” Because they were not yet in the fifth grade, I hoped that the hike would teach them something new. In addition to the Venus Flytrap, the park is also home to pitcher plants, butterworts, sundews, and other “plants that bite back.” The starting point of the hike appropriately was the Flytrap Trail Parking Lot.

Sundew, the first carnivorous
plant on the hike
Literally in minutes we saw our first carnivorous plant — a sundew. A few steps away was a pitcher plant. Although both were easily spotted by the ranger without leaving the trail’s pathway, a casual observer probably would have missed them without being told where to look because they blend so effectively with their surroundings.

Pitcher plant seen on hike
Closeup of Venus flytrap at state park

The highlight of the walk was finding a Venus Flytrap. The first one was smaller than I had expected. Because a plant can live for more than 20 years, this one was probably very young. However, its trapping mechanism with hair-like edges was clearly discernible to us but ready to spring shut on any unsuspecting prey. Because the trap can shut in 0.1 seconds, the plant’s trapping movement is remarkable but is common knowledge to as young as now a first grader. Only during the program did I learn that my granddaughter, then entering the second grade, had already seen a flytrap in school – she was clearly less impressed with the hike than I had hoped.

Flytraps for sale at farmers
market in Saxapahaw, NC
Children also learn about the plant because it is frequently seen for sale at markets and festivals, particularly in North Carolina. Although state laws prohibit removal from its native habitats, the plant is cultivated in many locations around the world. Although it does have the reputation for being tricky to grow, the flytrap is popular with many families to teach children more about nature and the dependencies that plants and animals have for each other.

Because Mother Earth has more than a million species of insects, the Venus Flytrap is unlikely to go hungry soon. It will also probably continue to be discussed in school programs and sold as novelty plants. However, be careful about trying to impress children how “wonderful” the plant is – they may have already learned by the first grade.

Venus Flytrap at River Walk in Wilmington, NC
"Venus flytrap" on display at the River Walk
in Wilmington, NC, illustrates its connection
to coastal North Carolina