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.

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