Nancy Gottovi lives in the Seagrove community in central North Carolina, which is renowned for its dozens of pottery shops and nationally recognized artists like Ben Owen, whose work can be seen in museums across the country. She noticed her neighbors were sourcing their clay from far outside the region, forcing them to tie up their cash and storage space on large orders to save on shipping. Gottovi found herself wondering how to help them, and how to build a professional arts community and a sustainable economy in the Central Park region of North Carolina. STARworks was her answer.
Photo courtesy of STARworks.
Today, Gottovi is the Executive Director of Central Park NC, a regional economic development organization growing economic opportunity through the sustainable use of natural and cultural resources in 8 rural North Carolina counties. Under her leadership, in 2005, Central Park acquired an abandoned schoolhouse and textile facility in Star (pop. 857), that dates from the early 1900s. She originally used the facility to start a clay supplies, storage and distribution business to grow the pottery market, eventually working with a local brick company to help source artist-quality clay from the local soils. STARworks Ceramics Materials and Research, now develops and distributes clay across the US. As a not for profit 501 (c)(3) organization, STARworks Ceramics uses artists residencies, workshops and other programming to educate ceramic artists on the use of native materials and advance sustainable, efficient practices in the ceramic arts.
But Gottovi didn’t stop with clay. She raised funds to open a glass studio that provides workspace for local glassblowers and special educational programs for local high school students. Every October, STARworks holds a wildly successful (and profitable!) glass Pumpkin Patch event, where STARworks artists sell three thousand glass pumpkins to visitors from across the state and region.
The Central Park building in Star had more than enough space for all these activities, but it was badly in need of repair, with a roof that leaked and antiquated HVAC systems. Gottovi and her team knew they could do much more to promote the arts and serve as a center of community life, if they could find the financing to renovate the old school/factory.
In 2013, Central Park received a grant from the US Economic Development Administration to renovate the property into a vibrant center for arts and entrepreneurship. But there were a couple of catches – EDA’s support was in the form of a reimbursable grant, which meant Central Park needed upfront capital to undertake the work, and secondly the US Government required a first position 20 year lien on the property as a requirement of the grant, even though it was not a loan. Unfortunately, traditional lenders in this rural part of North Carolina are few and far between, and they found the conditions of the grant prohibited them from participating in the financing.
STARworks turned to Partner Community Capital (PCAP) and a local impact investment fund, Solidarity Capital, for help. Together, PCAP and Solidarity provided a line of credit so Central Park could get started and complete the nearly $2 M project. STARworks hired a local architect sensitive to both historic preservation and the contemporary arts goals of the project to restore the original façade, bring the building’s infrastructure up to date, and transform the interior, which now shows off the building’s gorgeous hardwood floors, provides new (dry!) offices for staff, plenty of community meeting space, and a room for exhibits.
STARworks bills itself as an arts-centered work community that promotes community and economic development through art education and business ventures, but its impact is much bigger. Life in Star, NC, turned upside down when the textile mills closed up shop at the end of the 20th century. In addition to the loss of jobs, the town lost its center, a place where residents could come together as a community.
Today, the 160,000-foot facility sells glasswork and ceramics from a sparkling 5,000 square foot gallery, teaches classes on art production, and brings in nationally and internationally known artists for lectures and residency programs. In addition to the clay company, the building houses Wet Dog Glass, LLC., which manufactures high end glass furnaces and kilns for universities, colleges, artists and arts programs. STARworks also features a café and taproom where residents and visitors can gather, and even hosts a banned book club! All told, more than 50 people come to work daily in the building.
Thanks to STARworks, Star has a central gathering place where it can rebuild community, and it is home to a new economy based on the creative use of natural resources and human ingenuity.