In the rural N.C. town called Star, hosiery was king – until the turn of the millennium or so. Then it was in the market for another.
Russell Hosiery had opened a factory there shortly after World War II, but moved its operation to Mexico in 2001. That left behind unemployed workers and an empty 187,000-square-foot factory campus spread across 12 acres. Now it’s STARworks Center for Creative Enterprise, a pilot project of Central Park NC, a nonprofit aimed at growing a new rural economy with sustainable use of the region’s natural and cultural resources.
The idea: Focus on cultural tourism to build a new economy for the area, and promote the artists and their skills, along with the glass and ceramic artwork and home furnishings they produce.
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Says executive director Nancy Gottovi: “Though we’re in our 11th year and thrilled with our successes thus far, this is not a quick process. Progress for us is incremental. We’re moving deliberately and sensibly to bring manufacturing appropriate to a small-scale community back to Star.”
Gottovi says about 90 percent of STARworks’ operating budget was grant money in the beginning. That’s been reduced to roughly 55 percent in this year’s budget of about $1 million.
“Artists are manufacturers,” she says, and what they make can build wealth in Star. “We’re not going to do it by reselling products manufactured in China. We’re focusing on building small and sustainable design-based industries right here.”
Wet Dog Glass, a kiln manufacturing business, is an anchor tenant at STARworks. Gottovi recruited owner Eddie Bernard after Hurricane Katrina, which had flooded his building and scattered his employees.
The entrepreneurial environment that STARworks offered, and the chance to rebuild his business, made Star attractive, he says. Now Wet Dog Glass builds kilns to specification for artists, colleges and businesses worldwide.
Late last year, Josiah McElheny, whose art has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art and in major international museums, paid a visit, says Bernard. “McElheny is a very evolved artist with high expectations. He liked the effects produced by the electric kilns that we manufacture.”
The campus also includes STARworks Ceramics Materials and Research, which develops and manufactures high-quality, native-clay materials; and STARworks Glass Lab, a state-of-the-art glass studio that offers artist residencies, studio rental, educational programs and its own line of production glassware. STARworks Ceramics also offers residencies, educational programming and studio rentals.