Abandoned Sock Factory Turned Creative Hub Helps Rebuild Community

Abandoned Sock Factory Turned Creative Hub Helps Rebuild Community

Wet Dog Glass workers in STARworks

Employees of Wet Dog Glass construct a piece of glassmaking equipment. Photo: Courtesy of STARworks

When an industry leaves a town built to support it, what happens to the infrastructure? What happens to the town? 

In Star, North Carolina, a 187,000-square-foot sock factory was abandoned in 2001, and the more than 1,000 people it employed were left jobless. The cost of maintaining a 360,000-gallon water tank fell to the town’s 900 residents with little use for it, and the factory’s location was designated as a “brownfield site,” meaning it may harbor toxic substances. In short, Star faced a huge mess, economic upheaval, and a building with major red flags for potential buyers.

Still, in 2006, the nonprofit Central Park NC decided to accept the building as a donation. It was a decision executive director Nancy Gottovi concedes was “crazy” – even if she saw its potential. The organization was founded in 1993 to promote a new economy in central North Carolina based on its natural and cultural resources. To Gottovi, the abandon sock factory was one of those resources.

“What really stuck me was what a fantastic makers’ space it was,” Gottovi says. “And it just seemed like ‘Wow, we could do something with this.’”

With more than 4 acres of space, no heat or natural light, miles of galvanized pipe, and nothing but a willing staff of 2.5 to make something of it, they had to be creative.

“We started looking at it like a giant pile of material. We had no money and not very many people. We had an idea,” she says. “And we still say, ‘ignorance is bliss.’”

But, it’s clear from Gottovi’s string of successes with STARworks in its first 10 years as an arts and business incubator, that more than blissful ignorance was on their side.After taking on the building with a mortgage, and clearing up the existing contamination issues with the previous owner through an environmental survey, STARworks hit the ground running.

One of the first ideas for the new space was to develop a ceramics supplies business to supply area artists, like those in the nearby Seagrove pottery community, with much needed goods. They attracted Takuro Shibata, a Japanese potter with a background in ceramic materials to move to Star and help build a ceramics supplies business with a clay factory. Gottovi says that business now has about 2,000 customers and continues to grow.

Their next idea was a glass hot shop that could attract artists to the community. This idea led Gottovi to Eddie Bernard, owner of Wet Dog Glass, a small-scale manufacturer of glassmaking equipment. Business was thriving in New Orleans, right up until the 2005 devastation of Hurricane Katrina took its toll and shut Wet Dog Glass down completely. After two years of moving around, and rebuilding houses to stay financially afloat, Bernard was eager to settle down somewhere and get the business up and running again. More than a supplier, Bernard became STARworks newest tenant.

“When we saw this space she had, we just asked her, ‘Do you have any space available?’” he recalls. “When we moved here, we were just so accustomed to dealing with whatever came our way, we weren’t scared of anything.”

For Wet Dog Glass, STARworks was immediately a natural, mutually beneficial, fit.  Wet Dog supplied the equipment for STARworks world-class glass studio, and their employees even volunteered to help build it out in exchange for access to the space. STARworks ended up with a beautiful workspace, and Bernard and his team benefit from seeing their equipment in action, serving as a great test environment to improve their product designs.

Hearing Bernard tell the story now, he could’ve lived in Star his entire life. He’s a homeowner, he has strong ties to the community and a passion for revitalization, and even serves on the town’s board of commissioners.

“The relationship between STARworks and the town is now a very good relationship, but it’s been a complicated one to build because this was a factory town,” says Gottovi. “No, we’re not going to create a thousand jobs, but we’re not going to pack up and move in a couple years, either.”

Now that STARworks has been growing for nearly 10 years, the value to the community is obvious.

“Since 2007, STARworks has managed to create or attract six new small businesses, provide community access studio space for creative entrepreneurs, and programs for area youth and adults as well as residency programs for artists from all over the world,” Gottovi says.

Bernard’s feelings parallel her own. “It’s been seven years since I’ve been here,” he says. “There’s been more job creation and a lot of tourism. And when we have big events, everyone does more business.” 

Of course, it’s still an evolving concept. For STARworks to succeed, Star must succeed as well. Even something like a coffee shop, which many towns take for granted, is on Gottovi’s major priority list in hopes of attracting young people to the two blocks that comprise Star’s downtown area, all with a view toward a new, making-based economy.

“The mission of our organization is to grow a new economy based on our resources,” she says. “It’s become apparent to me that we’re not going to build wealth by reselling things made in another country. And maybe it’s not going to be socks. Maybe it’s going to be things that are well designed.”