The manufacturing base in many rural towns of the U.S. has dwindled, but in North Carolina, combined public and private support has spurred an innovative approach: combining the creative talents of seasoned artists with the skills of local workers.
Like many rural communities, Siler City, North Carolina (population 7,887), retells its stories, honoring its tradition of manufacturing and its history of agriculture in contemporary terms. The town’s residents also recognize the value and necessity of strong public-private leadership and initiative, enabling local prosperity. Located in Chatham County in the Central Piedmont of North Carolina, Siler City has since the late 1990s experienced a dramatic increase in its Hispanic population (now almost 50%). In this same period, the town has benefitted from the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center’s financial support and from partnerships with the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation.
But setting it apart from most other rural communities its size, Siler City is in the midst of a turn-around, one propelled by the arts, where redevelopment of its historic downtown has put artists and artisans at the core of local enterprise.
Because of the town’s commitment to creative individuals, the ability of its municipal leadership to accomplish community goals, and county and state resources that have been able to provide support and expertise, Art-Force’s Artist + Manufacturer Strengthening Place Program elected to work in Siler City.
Art-Force’s core tenet is that artists are highly trained and underutilized creative thinkers, visionaries, and problem-solvers. We believe America’s small cities and towns desperately need artists’ imagination to retool manufacturing and assist communities in their economic and social transformation. People build lives where there are jobs and where they feel a sense of belonging, and creative people, through both innovation and sensitivity to local heritage, can serve as community change-agents: their work demonstrably affects local economies.
Cities of every size grow, compress, and regenerate themselves every 25-30 years. In the 1880s, Siler City was a transportation and commercial center because of its central location in the Piedmont Triad. When rail was overtaken by highways in the mid-twentieth century, Siler City’s downtown and residential neighborhoods began to ebb. By the 1990s, its real estate was so affordable that artists spontaneously moved within city limits to reestablish studio life, having been driven out of adjacent counties by high rents. But without easy access to a downtown grocery store or supplies, artists soon moved out, vacating core downtown properties.
Hoping to ignite a more sustainable initiative, Siler City’s municipal leaders with institutional backing of the community college and private interests renovated three downtown buildings to support the work of small arts businesses. In 2001, their dedication and initiative created the North Carolina Arts Incubator, which fused inexpensive space for artists and artisans with business assistance to strengthen their ventures.
Between 2008 and 2011, Siler City lost more than 1,000 jobs when two major chicken processing plants closed, a devastating loss to community well-being and economic security. Recognizing the town’s already-significant financial and physical commitment to the arts – which were incrementally invigorating and encouraging related businesses and ventures – in 2010, the NC Rural Economic Development Center selected the town to participate in its North Carolina Small Towns Economic Prosperity initiative, a grassroots program to revitalize small towns through grants, leadership training, and an economic development strategy. This effort gained momentum from investments made by the community college, from the Incubator‘s growing number of studios and its cafe, gallery, public plaza and outdoor performing arts space, and from the energy of municipal leaders.
A walk along the downtown’s Chatham Avenue reveals physical shifts in building facades, sidewalks, and street furniture; wayfinding and signage; galleries and independent merchants; and, schematic designs for both a future park and new studios. Like most rural towns, continued innovation and creative interventions significantly benefit Siler City as its leadership and private industry still struggle to retain high school graduates who leave for higher education and stable employment elsewhere.
Combining civic, educational and business goals is important. And Siler City’s preparedness to do so made it a prime location for this Art-Force initiative: a project allying two mid-career artists with a local manufacturer. The goals are to develop new products for the local company, retrain its workforce to manufacture and assemble these new products, and stimulate downtown vitality through diversified economic development.
In Siler City, Art-Force partnered artists Rick Beck and Hoss Haley with John Sich of Floorazzo, a local business that manufactures large tile. The company currently purchases its stone aggregates from a quarry located seven miles away, and its employees live in town. Floorazzo had established a market for institutional flooring: terrazzo tile made from stone aggregate and glass bound in a nontraditional resin. Working together, cast-glass artist Beck and metal and stone sculptor Haley have designed new products for the company – including sculptural lighting, tabletops, and wall screens — taking advantage of Sich’s patented material, his engineering skills and interest in back-lighting.
In his studio, Beck casts and fabricates thick glass. Handling Floorazzo’s medium as a resin cast glass, he has been able to push existing flat design parameters into cylindrical forms. Artist Haley applied his three-dimensional expertise to bend Floorazzo’s flat tile forms into large geometric shapes that will be lit from within.
As Haley explains, “In a typical design process, you would start with a product you wanted to create, then find suitable materials and develop the manufacturing process. The process for this effort was reversed. We began with the material and manufacturing capacities and then developed a product within those constraints.” Like every skilled artist, Haley is drawn to a challenge. He had to work within the “extremely specific” production methods Floorazzo had established, but he adds, “It is often these boundaries and parameters that encourage creativity and provide an opportunity for unique and exceptional design.”
John Sich, Floorazzo’s owner, described how Siler City is changing and how collaborating with the artists has invigorated his company to work in tandem with the new: “We are located in a community that is 50% Hispanic; it has its own distinct spirit and history in a predominately agricultural county, but that is now shifting to also include a focus on art as lead change-agent. My current employees bring a strong work ethic to the plant, and, because we are currently under capacity, this project has the potential to expand Floorazzo and extend the skills of its workforce.”
Sich adds that all of Floorazzo’s employees live in Siler City. They are, he says, “collectively contributing to a changing downtown where new services and activities are in demand.”
The Art-Force project in Siler City, funded through ArtPlace America and the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center, is expanding Floorazzo’s market reach beyond flooring. It is also augmenting the skills of Floorazzo’s employees to include tool and die work, casting, finish fabrication, and assembly.
In Siler City, the Art-Force program is being realized: diversifying economic development in a rural area by having artists and designers work side-by-side with manufacturers to create new products, retrain a workforce, and stimulate a community’s social and economic connection to place. America’s economic history is grounded in how product-defines-place, and we consider this a 21-century link-response to restoring communities with their inherent authenticity. It is a recirculation of creativity and capital.
Innovative partnerships such as this one driven by Art-Force and the private-public coalition that established the NC Arts Incubator accelerate ideas. And the ideas they generate serve as the precedents necessary to inspire incremental change block-by-block, essential for community resurgence.
Janet Kagan and Jean Greer are the Co-Directors of Art-Force, a non-profit tax-exempt organization based in Chapel Hill NC. Art-Force has also allied artists with small manufacturers in the North Carolina counties of Lee and Pitt as part of this project.