How a Village Became a Hub for Resilience and Rock & Roll

A while back April questioned the sustainability of a "sustainable gas station", and she was right on. Any retail outlet selling gasoline cannot rightly claim to be 100% sustainable, but then any business that runs on any amount of gasoline or fossil fuels cannot be 100% sustainable either. We are all on a journey, and few - if any of us - have reached our destination.

A Village Reinvents Itself
But down the road from me, in the tiny former mill town of Saxapahaw, North Carolina, is a gas station that is working hard on becoming more sustainable. And that's just one of the exciting, green and innovative things going on in this rural community that is working toward resilience in its truest sense. From local food to biofuels to renewable energy to serious rock and roll, a village that was once considered a bit of a backwater (and a good place for high school students to buy recreational drugs, according to one local who shall remain unnamed) has become a hub for a new way of doing things.

But let's start with the gas station—better known as the Saxapahaw General Store.

A Gas Station Becomes Food Hub (And Remains a Gas Station)
Describing itself as a "5 star gas station", the General Store in its present guise was created when when Jeff Barney, a "butcher and self-taught cook", and his business partner Cameron Ratliff, "teacher and self-taught biscuit maker", worked with the former owner of this convenience store and gas station that had served the existing community for several years. Their idea was to combine the best of local, sustainable provisions and casual (but refined!) dining, while also serving more traditional gas station fare (including gas). They describe themselves as a "freedom of choice" store, where local and organic is promoted but not forced on the general populace. This from their website:

"They imagined a spot where a village could gather for refreshments, meals, and basic home provisions, run by folks whose varied backgrounds have each taught them they can influence their world by collaborating with their neighbors."

Critical Acclaim
The result has been a surge of interest, including a review in the New York Times travel section which raved about the "jarring contrast of farm-fresh food and service-station atmosphere". With menu items ranging from local Braised Beef Short Ribs ($18) or pan-seared scallops to simpler, cheaper dishes like a $4 local hot dog, I can attest to the fact that the food is both insanely good and surprisingly cheap. And where else can you pick up a tank full of gas (or local biodiesel), a 12 pack of miller, a twix ice cream, fair trade chocolate AND a bag of local, organic chicken feed? The strength of the place is that it successfully serves the whole community while continuing to move things forward in terms of sustainability.

But that mentality isn't reserved for the General Store alone.

Creative Reuse
Down the road from the General Store—past the environmentally-themed charter school that we'll have to discuss in another post—are the Rivermill Apartments. Housed in the former cotton mill that was the center of Saxapahaw until it was destroyed in a hurricane, the apartments overlook the Haw River. While at first glance they look like expensive yuppie flats, the apartments are actually mostly rentals and seem to house folks from all walks of life and a variety of income levels. Similarly the former mill workers' cottages are mostly rented out, while a more expensive conversion of an adjacent mill building is currently underway that will feature solar hot water, geothermal heating and a number of other green building features.

Communities Need Community
Built by members of the prominent local Jordan family, the apartments are what kicked off the current revival of Saxapahaw. Having decided to convert the mill, the family soon realized that apartments in the middle of nowhere were not the best thing for the community. So plans were hatched in collaboration with locals Heather and Tom LaGarde to create a farmers market and summer music program, create space for artists in the village, and to open the former dye house as a music venue, coffee shop and pub.

Rock N Roll Comes to Town
And hence the Haw River Ball Room (venue), Cup 22 (coffee shop) and the Eddy (pub) were born. Besides offering up more excellent local food and beverages, and providing a venue for everything from a small acoustic jam to some of the hippest, biggest bands around, what's interesting about these venues is the shared use of space. The Eddy sits above the ballroom, the balcony of which doubles as the coffee shop (where more than one TreeHugger post has been penned) and, when not in use for events, is occasionally home to a gigantic bouncy inflatable obstacle course that a nearby business rents out on weekends, and which becomes an impromptu indoor playground during the week.

From the artists' studios through the puppet workshops to the architectural salvage operation, there really is a little too much going on in Saxapahaw to cover in one post. But there are lessons that can be learned for every community wanting to revive its economy.

Avoiding the Green Ghetto
All too often green businesses and communities become their own little hippy ghettos, serving like-minded people and even squeezing out communities that existed before. But the people behind the current efforts here seem conscious of doing things differently. While I'm sure that the revival of Saxapahaw has changed the demographics somewhat, a village or town cannot be resilient unless the people who work there can afford to live there, and unless each business supports the businesses of those around them.

Many of the operations in Saxapahaw are still a labor of love for their owners. But there seems to be a lot of love to go around.

I'm excited to see this community thrive.

How a Village Became a Hub for Resilience and Rock & Roll
From a "five star gas station" to a leading music venue, some old cotton mills in rural North Carolina are becoming a hub of a new economy.

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