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The Backyard Tourist

by Christa Wagner

December 8,2009

Psst. Guess what they're calling us? We're the urban banana. The nickname refers to the arc along I-85 between the Triangle, Triad and Charlotte. I think it's kind of cute. But lately, I've been peeling away from my downtown Durham apartment and heading southwest to discover North Carolina's Central Park counties: Randolph to Richmond by way of Montgomery and Moore. The eight counties that make up the cleverly named NC Central Park have a lot to offer the urban day tripper.

In mid-November, for example, I enjoyed the Celebration of Seagrove Potters festival. There were too many beautiful things I wanted to buy, some beyond my student budget, but other pieces were perfect. Who knew there were so many uses for a slab of colorfully glazed pottery the size of my cell phone? ($5 each.) I bought four: one for my keys, two for used tea bags, and a pretty blue one for the odds and ends that always accumulate on the kitchen counter. I was in Seagrove both as a tourist eager to stock up on holiday gifts and as a researcher, so to speak, for my graduate work in rural entrepreneurship. In addition to famous Seagrove ceramics, I marveled at glass blown at the STARworks Center for Creative Enterprise and ate a perfectly grilled pimento cheese at Blake's restaurant in Candor, where that day Congressman Larry Kissell was also having lunch.

Researcher or tourist, STARworks Center for Creative Enterprise is fascinating. STAR stands for Small Town Area Revitalization; it's a nonprofit located in the town of Star focused on growing businesses to one day place in the region's downtown areas. These businesses have a lot of appeal for its urban neighbors, in my opinion. And you can check out the whole region on just one tank of gas.

Seven central Piedmont counties formed the Yadkin-Pee Dee Lakes Project in 1993 to preserve and better market the natural and cultural resources in the area, a project that became the NC Central Park, and eventually launched STARworks. Star is also – here's some important local trivia – the exact geographic center of North Carolina. Easy to access from any corner of the state!

But before entrepreneurs from Japan and New Orleans were mixing clays and building glassblowing furnaces there, the 187,000 square foot building was a textile mill. Beginning in 1940, it employed most of the town, about 1,000 people, before it shut down in 2001. In the late 1800s, the site housed the Carolina Collegiate and Agriculture Institute and later, the Country Life Academy. The STARworks team likes to say that they are returning the building to its original purpose: nurturing small businesses that make things. Notably, the economic impact to the local area is expected to reach $2.5 million this year. In July, Our State magazine trilled that STARworks is supporting "central North Carolina's creative comeback."

That creativity includes glass furnace manufacturing and glassblowing, clay manufacturing and ceramics, renewable energy, in the form of a geothermal equipment installer and a planned biofuels micro-generator, and small scale agriculture. Forty people are employed or affiliated here, providing business development that matches the assets in the area. I was amazed to learn, for example, that Seagrove ceramicists and area potters had stopped throwing their own local clays (it is a lot of work to mine and mix, after all) and instead imported the dry, powdery stuff from Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Now, with an incredible must-see contraption that churns and presses and shifts and plops (and occasionally bellows and whistles), STARworks Ceramics is mixing and selling clay mined from less than 10 miles away.

Meanwhile, Wet Dog Glass, a glass furnace manufacturer with an international reputation, has built a studio in the space for area artists and students to use and houses its own glass art equipment business next door. STARworks Glass offers short courses in basic "hot shop" techniques and sells pieces made by local artists in their gallery.

Central Park's natural amenities provide another great reason for urbanites to get out of town. Some friends recently met my fiancé and me for a delightful day hike in the nearby Uwharrie National Forest. With a picnic in tow, there was no better way to spend a Saturday.

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