December 16, 2019|By Eric Wuestewald| Community Development

Helping Female Entrepreneurs Level the Playing Field: STARworks Center for Creative Enterprise

The town of Star, North Carolina had its entire economy turned upside down when the textile companies left. Located just south of Greensboro, Star boasts of being the exact geographic center of North Carolina, making it easily accessible from any area of the state. With the advent of STARworks Center for Creative Enterprise, Star is rebuilding its economy and giving its community a central gathering place, all while using its natural resources sustainably.

STARworks is an arts-centered work community started in 2005 by Central Park NC—a nonprofit dedicated to promoting a new regional economy based on the sustainable use of natural and cultural resources.Their sprawling facility manufactures and sells local clay for ceramic artists and glasswork, teaches art classes, hosts artist-in-residency programs and features a café and taproom to give visitors a place to gather. 

We spoke with Nancy Gottovi, Executive Director for STARworks and Central Park NC, to learn more about this successful business in central North Carolina that received a loan from the Natural Capital Investment Fund, which was made possible with financial support from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund.

STARworks Nancy GottoviNancy Gottovi is the Executive Director of Central Park and STARworks. She earned her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has been an adjunct Assistant Professor at NC State University and UNC Charlotte. Dr. Gottovi has served as editor for the national Rural Education Finance Center’s Rural School Funding Report, director of the Heritage and Cultural Tourism Partnership of NC and Project Director of the NC Pottery Center.

Eric Wuestewald: How did STARworks Center for Creative Enterprise get started? 

Nancy Gottovi: Just as I became director of Central Park NC, a local businessman gifted us an 180,000 square foot mill building to use for the community’s benefit. We decided to start a clay/pottery supplies business, and then opened a glass studio. We considered the pieces required to have a successful arts community in a rural area, and knew we also needed a place for people to sell their work, and supportive studios and education programs. So we put together all those different things into STARworks.

We also thought about our responsibilities to the local community. This was a former hosiery mill town, and when the company left, it looked like a big vacuum cleaner went through. We realized that when these big factories operated, they were often the places where people from different walks of life worked side-by-side and got to know one another. When a company closes, you not only lose the jobs, but you also lose those opportunities for people to come together. And yet, you can’t create community change if people don’t have an opportunity to talk to each other and get to know one another. And so we knew we also needed to host events and have a community space where people can come together over a cup of coffee or live music. 

Eric: The Natural Capital Investment Fund (NCIFund) is an affiliate of The Conservation Fund that lends financial support and technical assistance to green businesses in the Southeast and Appalachia. How did NCIFund help with your business? 

Nancy: Our building was originally built around 1900, and it desperately needed renovation. That’s when NCIFund and Solidarity Capital Group came in and helped us with a bridge loan and technical assistance. That allowed us to hire a local architect to conduct historic preservation on the original façade, fix a leaky roof, and radically overhaul the building infrastructure. We really couldn't have done what we did without them and I really appreciate their faith in us. We understand that banks don't usually like to take risks, so it was astonishing to realize that there are great financial organizations out there that really do put a value on creativity, entrepreneurialism, community and environment. 

STARworks IMG 7333STARworks Center in Star, North Carolina. Photo by Rhonda McCanless.

Eric: What inspired you to start an art-based business?

Nancy: I had been learning about small town economic development, and the idea of economic leakage really resonated with me. It means that you should look around your community and figure out what goods and services people in your community have to go out of the community to get—those things that cause a “leak” of dollars flowing outside of your community.

I thought, “Well, we've got this local historic arts community of nearly one hundred potteries, and they're all ordering their materials from the Midwest or the mountains. We've got all of this local warehouse space and unloading docks. If these potters had a local source to buy materials, we could eliminate some of the environmental impact of cross country transportation, while at the same time creating a new small business that could also provide jobs and an income stream for STARworks. Why don't we start a clay business?” 

All along we knew that North Carolina had fantastic clay deposits and that there was no company that was making pottery clays from indigenous clay materials. We partnered up with the only brick company left in North Carolina that actually had a clay geologist who was going out and sourcing clays for brickmaking. The clay for brickmaking and the clay for pottery are really different. So whenever they found sites of good pottery clay, they'd give us a call. And if it was really great, then we’d start ordering truckloads of it.
STARworks Clay Factory Allison and SydneyAllison Daniel (left) and Sydney Williams (right) working in the clay factory. Photo by Rhonda McCanless.

Because we had this pottery community nearby, I thought glass would be a really great compliment to the pottery trade. So we decided to build a glass studio, and then we started doing education programs. Now we have artists residency programs in both glass and ceramics, and we started doing events around those things.

STARworks IMG 7832STARworks Clay Studio resident artist Amanda Gentry works on her installation piece at STARworks. Photo by Rhonda McCanless. 

We have an event every spring called Firefest, where we invite the world's greatest ceramic and glass artists and they attract all these other artists from all over the country that come to work with them. People from the local community can also come, learn about these artists and their work, and even participate in making art. And it's just a lot of fun. Firefest attracts a couple thousand people to our town of 800 residents. 

STARworks Michael Sherrill FF 19 reveal 3Ceramic guest artist Michael Sherril fire sculpture reveal at Firefest 2019. Photo by Rhonda McCanless.

Eric: Can you tell me more about your interaction with the community?

We're demonstrating that art is business. It brings manufacturing and retail opportunities. It is good for tourism and for education. We use glass to teach about chemistry and physics, and you can learn about geology, history, and geography from clay. 

STARworks Westmoore Elementary 6th graders 2018 clayWestmoore Elementary School 6th graders learning about clay with a hands-on class at STARworks. Photo by Rhonda McCanless.

Our feeling has always been that you can't regrow wealth in a community without making something. And maybe it's not going to be textiles anymore. I think we've been sort of figuring it out as we go, but STARworks has become this very creative place where we try to figure out how art can solve the world's problems starting at a really local community level.

STARworks IMG 9874The STARworks Glass team makes a pumpkin for a Hot Glass Cold Beer demo. Left to right: Joe Grant (STARworks Glass director), Matthew Jacob (STARworks Glass intern), and Thoryn Ziemba (STARworks Glass production manager). Photo by Samantha Parker.

Eric: What have you learned from this whole process? Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs or communities seeking to do something similar?

Nancy: Successful economic development in a small, rural town also has to be community development. You can't really separate the two. If you put together enough incentive money, you can attract a company to your state, but odds are, they won’t stay. Rural communities can't really afford to put all their eggs in one basket. One company is not an economy. The creation of an economy and a healthy community can't be top down. It's got to be bottom up. Small towns really do need a different strategy than bigger areas. I hope that STARworks can be a model for other communities like ours.

Find Out More

The Natural Capital Investment Fund (NCIFund) is a small business loan fund that supports entrepreneurs who are creating jobs and natural resource-based businesses in underserved communities in central Appalachia and the Southeast. To learn more about NCIFund and their work, click here.

Written By

Eric Wuestewald

Eric is the Digital Content Marketing Manager for The Conservation Fund. He leads the development, writing and editing of strategic content for the Marketing and Communications teams to reach key audiences and partners through blogs, social media, web content and more. Prior to this role, he was the Marketing and Communications Specialist for the Fund's Conservation Services programs, supporting communication and outreach strategies for projects which promote environmental preservation, economic development and social justice.