Forget factories: Mountain towns turn to arts and crafts

The Chamber of Commerce types in Chatham County used to talk about tax incentives and injection-moulding plants as the answer to Siler City's downtown blight. Today they gossip about mixed media and the virtues of salt glaze.

Instead of getting a new car dealership on the 1940s-era Chevy lot, they're installing a smithy. In an old photography studio will go a glassblowing kiln. And on Friday, officials here cut the ribbon on the first studios of Siler City's "arts incubator" - three blocks that locals hope will transform Siler City from a dark, desolate farm town to a brightly lit, Left Bank-on-Cape Fear with original 1950s storefronts. If all goes well, it will be the largest such artists' quarter in the world - built in a place where no artists have ever shown their work.

After the tobacco leaf, after the cotton, after the furniture factories, come the potters. Tapping into a century-old social movement to help country craftsmen get their goods to the city, Siler City's incubator, starting in a former hardware store, is the most exciting thing to happen here in 30 years. The purchase of a dozen downtown buildings to create an urban artists' colony may revitalize a town that economists say is "dying on the vine." But perhaps more important, in an economy shedding jobs like wool shorn in springtime, Siler City's gambit is a sign that officials are beginning to take seriously an underground market worth some $50 billion a year - with hints of possibility for artists across the Heartland.

"It's a dramatic shift," says Siler City potter Richard Danek, a sometime attorney who, with his straw cowboy hat and gunslinger's build, has the profile of a sad-eyed Lucky Luke.

Launched as a social-justice endeavor in the 1920s by New England society ladies aiding women of the mountains of Appalachia, the arts-and-crafts movement now includes thousands of blacksmiths, weavers and potters from Santa Fe to Sanford, N.C. Its growing acceptance as an "economic development tool" is driven by aging Baby Boomers spending heaps of cash in artist meccas like Asheville, Boone, and Pittsboro. North Carolina trails only New York and New Mexico in sales of American handiwork.

The movement started as a play on Scandinavian folk economies, says Jan Davidson, a banjo maker and director of the Brassville, N.C., John C. Campbell Folk School. "It was a social revolution even in the beginning," he says. Now, he continues, the descendants of those who bought mountain-made goods on Fifth Avenue "come here to work."

Today the arts economy is hardly a state-subsidized cooperative. But it's a vibrant cousin of capitalism - one reflecting Colonial American industries. In Siler City and other artists' outposts, artisans - not foreign factory workers - are the local economy's bricks and mortar. "This is a 100-year-old drama of mountain makers and distant markets, which eventually have come closer and closer together," says Mr. Davidson.

What's more, artisans' wages are rising. Many now make $50,000 or more a year, albeit often piecing together a collage of careers. Most agree that artists will never replace factories. But all a town like Siler City needs is a spark of hope, says Elaine Doby, the county unemployment director.

"A lot of people are going to be making their living supporting this new leisure economy," says Mike Evans, a tourism professor at Appalachian State University.

In North Carolina, handiwork brings in some $3 billion in sales - from corn-shuck weavers, woodworkers, calligraphers, leatherworkers, basketmakers, luthiers, and blacksmiths, to name a few. But never before has this "crafts class" been so courted by economic-development wizards. Even Gov. Mike Easley raved about the artists' role this week, saying, "the working of wood, the molding of clay, the weaving of fibers, and the plying of other crafts not only feeds the soul, but North Carolina families as well by creating new jobs and promoting economic vitality."

In the Carolina towns of Dunn, Sanford, and Pittsboro, artisans have resuscitated, on a smaller scale, blocks of blight. A few years ago, Todd, N.C., was a mountain burg in economic doldrums. But after artists started a summer festival, Todd turned its fortunes around - and is now a choice destination for city folk.

Amid the steady trickle of lost jobs in this "state of small towns," crafts "are definitely becoming more important," says Ruth Summers, director of the Southern Highlands Crafts Guild in Asheville. "They're a perfect combination of a sustainable, low-impact business that can be brought into local communities."

But the concept can't be forced: Advertising stunts are likely to fail, experts say. And it's hard for self-employed crafters to expand quickly, or on demand, since they can only work so much. "The thing about all that dancing and singing and presenting is, if the local community isn't involved or doesn't have any participation in it - or if they wouldn't by choice go to it - you're not quite on the beam," says Davidson.

To be sure, project leader Leon Tongret is a transplanted California high-tech salesman. He rarely goes to galleries - though he loves artists' "energy." The idea, he says, is not "pretty pictures that may or may not sell," but to provide custom and cost-competitive goods for local interior designers. The city itself offered a rare opportunity - plenty of cheap vacant buildings, and three metro areas within an hour's drive. Now, potters and bankers alike are hoping that's enough to go from vases to viability.

Already, potter Mark Hewitt draws apprentices from as far away as Kansas. And there's a popular studio tour on which artists open their workshops to the public for a weekend. There's also an influx of talent - like Forrest Steel, a close-shaven painter from upstate New York, who came here "to experience something new."

Studio rent, starting at $100 a month with an old livery full of kilns and clay mixers, is a bargain. Some 200 artists are expected to live and work downtown five years from now - and mortgages on the brick buildings could be paid off by 2013.

For Matt Garrett, vice president of the community college, the change is punctuated by a decision to light the building 24 hours a day, as an advertisement and a beacon of new hope. "People have come up to me all excited and said, 'I can't remember when I last saw the lights on downtown,' " says Mr. Garrett.

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