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STARworks – Hot Glass, Cold Beer, and Economic Development

The old textile town of Star, NC is spinning a new story. Experience its journey from past industrial glory to current-day transformation, driven by the innovative vision of STARworks.
STARworks Center for Creative Enterprise
STARworks, Center for Creative Enterprise, located in the old Russell Hosiery Mill in Star, NC. Photo by Ron Clabo.

Welcome to Star, a tiny North Carolina town that has attracted artisans from as far away as Japan and Estonia. Why? You might ask. I wondered too. So, I got in my car and went for a visit.

The railroad that passes through Star once brought people to work in its lumber industry, attend boarding school, and work in the textile mills. But those days are gone. What once was a vibrant town is now somewhat sleepy. The people that remain are outgoing and friendly, and many want more for their town.

I’ve long been interested in community economic development, perhaps a result of growing up in a small town. Many towns, especially in rural North Carolina, lack access to the resources needed to create economically strong communities. Organizations that pitch in to help are greatly needed and in short supply.

Recently I discovered STARworks, an organization making a difference in rural North Carolina. It's a great story. Let me take you on a journey; it’s a good one.

Rural North Carolina

North Carolina, like many states, is predominately rural. Seventy-eight of its one hundred counties are rural, says the NC Rural Center. Star too is rural, and located in the geographic center of North Carolina.

Plaque located at the Geographical Center of North Carolina.
The plaque of the Geographical Center of North Carolina. Located in Star, NC on private property. Photo by landowner’s family member. Used under CC BY-SA 4.0 License.

While the urban parts of the state are abuzz with economic growth and a surge in prosperity, North Carolina’s rural areas yearn for revival.

Many of these rural towns, like Star, once drew their livelihoods from age-old industries. Imagine textile looms weaving, skilled hands shaping furniture, socks being knitted, and the air filled with the rich scent of tobacco. But today, these rural areas are facing tougher times.

Exterior of the Montgomery Hosiery Mill in Star, NC.
Montgomery Hosiery Mill in Star, NC: a monument to the town’s textile past that now sits silent. Photo by Ron Clabo

Everyone’s dad or uncle used to work at one of these mills.

Star, A Textile Mill Town

Star, NC has a Historic district listed in the National Register of Historic Places, a testament to the vibrancy the town had when textile mills were in full swing. At one time, several textile mills were operating in Star. They were the backbone of the local economy here.

But currently, many of the historic buildings are in desperate need of repair. The Bank of Star sits with plywood in the windows. The architecture is easy to admire as it cries out to be restored to its former glory. The two-story, buff-brick building was constructed in 1910 and was Star’s first commercial brick building. Today there is a shortage of people making deposits.

I was enjoying a cold drink on a hot day outside a café when I overheard a young lady talking with her friends.

Everyone’s dad or uncle used to work at one of these mills,” she said emphatically.

Then it was quiet as if to give time for her words to sink in.

One such mill was the Russell Hosiery Mill. In 1941 the mill moved to Star and set up shop in the former Collegiate and Agriculture Institute building. Over the years, it grew and became a major employer in the town. At one point, it employed 800 full-time workers and produced top-quality socks. It changed hands a few times over the years and is known locally as both the Russell Hosiery Mill and the Renfro Mill.

Many folks have fond memories of working there.

NAFTA Changed the Town and North Carolina Forever

By the 1950s, our state was producing more textiles than any other state in the union. Textile mill towns across the state were riding a wave of economic prosperity. In 1986 the Associated Press listed the Russell Hosiery Mill in Star as one of the NC’s Top 100 private sector companies.

But 50 years later the situation looked very different. The signing of NAFTA in 1993 changed the rules of the game. NAFTA may be just five letters, but it echoed through the streets of Star, through North Carolina, causing fear and angst.

It wasn’t long before “free trade” made it difficult to compete with foreign goods produced with lower-cost labor. When NAFTA was signed into law, the politicians and the media wanted everyone to know how great free trade would be. Maybe it was for the people who wanted lower-cost socks. But it certainly wasn’t great for the people and towns of North Carolina whose economic livelihood depended on textile mills. No, for them, NAFTA meant something very different.

A framed wall hanging displays socks made in the spring / summer of '95 by the Russell Mill.  The socks are shown in 16 colors.
Russell Mill in Star, NC, produced socks in a wide array of colors. Colors included: Misty Green, Mosaic Blue, Pink Passion, Lori Blue, Spruce, Raspberry, and Cherry Red. Photo by Ron Clabo.

Initially, NAFTA resulted in factories tightening their belts and striving to become more efficient. But before long, whole product lines were shifted to other countries. Orders for textiles in North Carolina were drying up as customers sought lower-priced foreign goods. Carolina textile mills struggled to survive. In 2001, the Russell Hosiery Mill, then called Renfro Mill, closed and shifted production to Mexico.

The following year, the Raleigh News and Observer, reported that in the first eight years of NAFTA, North Carolina lost 86,000 textile jobs. Like many textile towns in North Carolina, Star was hurting and needed a new economic engine.

Central Park NC Project

Around the time NAFTA was working its way through Congress, North Carolina leaders came together to search for a new source of economic growth. They could read the writing on the wall.

One outcome of that was the creation of the Central Park NC project. The project's goal is to develop a new rural economy that promotes sustainable growth while preserving the natural and cultural assets of central North Carolina.

The organization seeks to create jobs for an eight-county area in the heart of North Carolina. The town of Star sits right in the middle of this region.

Map of North Carolina showing the 8 counties participating in the Central Park NC Project.
The eight-county region of the Central Park NC Project and the location of Star, NC. The counties include Anson, Davidson, Montgomery, Moore, Randolph, Richmond, Rowan, and Stanley counties.

Central Park NC’s strategy aims to support the growth of small businesses that enhance heritage and cultural tourism. It also looks to improve facilities to increase overnight tourism in the region.

STARworks is Born

Launched in 2003 STARworks was an initiative of Central Park NC. STARworks stands for Small Town Area Revitalization. It was initially based in Badin, NC.

The following year a local businessman donated the shuttered Russel Mill building hoping a non-profit would put it to good use to help the town of Star. A University of North Carolina article captures that moment as Nancy Gottovi, executive director of STARworks, contemplates the possibilities.

“I fell in love with the space the first time I saw it. I thought, ‘Well, with 2.5 staff members, this is a little more than we need, but everybody gets a corner office,’” Gottovi said, chuckling.

The Russell Mill building is a sprawling 187,000 square feet – it’s absolutely massive. You need a map so you don’t get lost. So as an entrepreneur, I can’t help but admire Gottovi’s boldness.

Of course, transforming the sprawling old mill into something useful was going to take a lot more than just boldness. It was going to take vision, leadership, and a whole lot of help. Still, when I think about what that moment must have been like, it stirs something deep inside me.

Looking back, the marriage of STARworks and the Russell Mill building seems like fate. The very name of STARworks seems to declare its new location in Star while conveying a clear intention to foster job opportunities. Perhaps that’s why the name changed from STARworks to Starworks.

A display of nine different wild clays collected from different towns in North Carolina.
North Carolina wild clays collected, analyzed and on display at Starworks, NC. Local clay locations (left to right): Lilesville, Catawba, Okeewemee, Cameron, Westmore, Carthage, Mitchfield, Cameron (Black) & Cameron (Purple). Photo by Ron Clabo.

Starworks moves to Star & Creates a Clay Making Business.

The early days must have been pretty tough. The building was reportedly leaky and had no power or water. Beyond that, high on the agenda was finding sources of revenue for the organization that could create jobs for the community. But how would they do that?

Interestingly, Star sits just 11 miles down the road from Seagrove, the pottery capital of the USA. With more than 100 working potters in that area, pottery clay is constantly needed. A few local potters were making pottery clay themselves from local raw clays, but at that time, many were importing clay from outside the state. Gottovi thought there might be an opportunity to create a clay production business.

The three of them, together, embarked on an adventure that started with a 7,000-mile journey.

Searching her network, she reached out to Takuro Shibata in Japan. Takuro and his wife Hitomi were active in the pottery industry in Shigaraki, one of Japan’s oldest pottery-making towns. Takuro had a Bachelor of Engineering in Applied Chemistry. He had the education and experience to potentially develop new commercial clay bodies from locally sourced materials. Gottovi presented the opportunity in hopes of recruiting Takuro and his wife to North Carolina.

The couple made a life-changing decision to close their pottery studio in Shigaraki permanently. They sold all their equipment and much of their personal belongings. They packed their lives into three suitcases, somehow managing to make room for their cat who, rumor has it, refused to be left behind. You know how cats are, they don’t take 'no' for an answer. The three of them, together, embarked on an adventure that started with a 7,000-mile journey.

Initially, Takuro was the only one working on the clay-making project. He conducted research to identify and test local materials. His degree was also put to the test. Early on, he didn’t know for sure if they could produce good pottery clay from local materials, but they worked hard towards that goal. Like all entrepreneurial ventures, there was risk involved in the quest to create a clay-making business.

But create a clay-making business they did. Starworks Ceramics now manufactures 13 major blends of clay made from local NC native clay. The beauty of this sustainable business is that it is directly tied to an abundant local resource – clay. It also doesn’t hurt that it has a built-in market just down the road. Today, Takuro is the Director of Starworks Ceramics. He still oversees clay production and continues his research to improve the quality and variety of clay offered.

Pallets of clay produced by Starworks.
Starworks pottery clay produced from local North Carolina materials, packaged and ready for purchase. Photo by Ron Clabo.

Starwork Glass Studio

But, the clay-making factory was just the beginning of Starworks' ambitious vision.

When you have a building that’s 187,000 square feet, there is plenty of opportunity to house an array of complementary businesses. With that in mind and a desire to create more jobs, Gottovi explored the possibility of creating a glass studio. She found the perfect partner in Wet Dog Glass, a glass furnace manufacturer.

Wet Dog founders, Eddie and Angela Bernard, were located in New Orleans, LA, when their business was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Looking to rebuild, they partnered with Starworks and moved to Star, NC, in the spring of 2008. They had the skills and expertise to build a fully working glass studio, which helped create a budding glass community in Star.

Glass artisan smiling while using acetylene torch to heat molten glass on the end of a steel rod.
Guest artist Kazuki Takizawa performing a glass demonstration at FireFest. Photo by Ron Clabo.

Have you ever seen a stunning vase emerge from an orange blob of molten glass? Come watch, and enjoy the fun. There are various opportunities throughout the year to visit the glass studio and watch this amazing process. Hot Glass Cold Beer happens the 2nd Thursday of the month except in June, July, and August. Get in the car, and drive on down; you’ll thank me later.

A crowd of people watch the creation of a blown glass vase at Starworks during FireFest.
Unforgettable evening - visitors watch on as Joe Grant, Starworks Glass Director, creates an addition to a vase at FireFest. Photo by Ron Clabo.

Other Starworks Initiatives

In addition to a clay factory and a hot glass studio, Starworks has built and operates a pottery studio, metal studio, artist-in-residence programs, a gift shop, and a café and taproom. There are also many educational programs and demonstrations throughout the year.

Starworks is active in the community and has hosted elementary school visits, summer clay camps, hands-on workshops to reach at-risk youth, and Chamber of Commerce After Hours events. They also host their annual FireFest event and monthly Hot Glass and Cold Beer glass-blowing demonstrations.

We could all use more of that, right?

I have personally attended some of those events and have found them both educational and inspiring. This past year I attended FireFest and witnessed firsthand all the fire arts (glass, pottery, and metalsmithing) on full display.

There is something fascinating about watching an orange blob of molten glass become a beautiful vase or a pot created from a spinning lump of clay. It’s quite mesmerizing. The experience sparks a new level of curiosity in the audience and childlike wonder in all who watch. We could all use more of that, right?

A person demonstrates throwing a pot using a pottery wheel.
A ceramics intern demonstrates creating planter pots on a pottery wheel at Starworks. Photo by Ron Clabo.

The revitalization efforts haven’t been easy.

At Starworks, Gottovi has pulled together people with wildly different skill sets to build something from nothing multiple times. If you’ve ever done that even once, you must know how impressive that is. It doesn’t come easy, that’s for sure. Yet, some townspeople may still question the success.

As the Small Towns, Big Ideas report points out, “The transition from a one-buffalo town to a community supported by a number of small businesses requires more than reshaping an economic development strategy; it requires shifting mindsets and community expectations.”

That’s a critical challenge that Starworks faced.

No doubt, some townspeople would still like to see Starworks create as many jobs as the Russel Mill did in its heyday. But that’s almost certainly asking too much, and I sense that people now realize that.

Starworks has made a real difference.

I feel like that’s such an important thing to say out loud.

Starworks demonstrates that economic growth and arts promotion can thrive together, even in a small rural North Carolina town. It's a testament to the fact that supporting artisans and fostering economic development are not mutually exclusive but can indeed complement one another.

Joe Grant, the Glass Director at Starworks, was recently interviewed by PBS North Carolina. In the interview, Joe said that Starworks may never create as many jobs as the former sock factory. But they are employing people, bringing new tax dollars to the area, and creating events and cultural opportunities for people to experience.

I feel like that’s such an important thing to say out loud.

Put yourself in Starworks' shoes for a moment. Imagine stepping into an old, abandoned mill that no longer has power or water. The roof leaks and nothing complies with modern building codes. You need to somehow use it to create jobs for the community. You'd have some pretty big shoes to fill, wouldn't you?

So, when I say that it’s not fair to judge Starworks based on the number of jobs a sock factory created at the height of the NC textile wave, you can understand why. When Starworks moved into the abandoned mill, that mill was creating zero jobs for Star, and it certainly wasn’t a destination bringing in tourists.

If the only thing Starworks accomplished was to create a clay factory that supplied the region with local pottery clays that would have been a massive accomplishment in and of itself. But in addition to that, they have built a glass studio, pottery studio, metalsmithing shop, gorgeous artisan gallery, café, and expansive education programs.

Ron Clabo holding a weighty poured glass piece in the shape of North Carolina..
Ron Clabo, GiftOasis founder, explores the School House Gallery. A wonderful gift shop of artisan made items like this one made by Starworks’ staff. Photo by Mary Clabo (Ron’s mom).

Let there be no doubt Starworks is making a real difference for the area, and I think the community now realizes that. While I was having lunch at Sherry’s Family Restaurant in town, the waitress saw my camera resting on the table and asked about my visit. The words “blog article about the town” had barely left my lips when suddenly everyone in the restaurant perked up and had ideas and suggestions for me.

They were quick to mention Starworks and the great things happening there. Every one of them said I should go for a visit and you should too.

GiftOasis Founder & President
Ron is passionate about small businesses and the role they play in economic development. He is an e-commerce professional and entrepreneur who enjoys helping others. He delights in the process of creating something from nothing. He takes great pleasure in products made by small businesses, including makers, designers, and artisans. Ron lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and earned an MBA in General Management & Sustainability from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He grew up in Alaska and earned a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. His biggest surprise in college was falling in love with pottery making. He spent many late nights in the ceramics studio and thoroughly enjoyed the beginning and advanced ceramics courses. Ron is an e-commerce pioneer and has been active in the field since 1995.
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