Resilient Pittsboro

My brother Jim doesn’t make it to Pittsboro, North Carolina very often. He’s a jet setter with houses in New York and Canada, and a busy life that seldom brings him down this way.

We were delighted when he stopped by in 2012, and then flattened by a remark he made soon after arriving. “Too bad you have so much invested in this place,” he said. “It looks like a dying little town.”

The architectural center of Pittsboro is the Chatham County Courthouse, an old brick building with pillars lining the front. The building sits in a traffic circle at the very center of town, which means that every car going into town passes by. In 2011 the courthouse was destroyed in a fire, and in 2012 the remains of the building still sat, fenced off and boarded up—a monument to destruction.

Across the street sits the General Store Café. But the establishment undertook a massive expansion right before Lehman Brothers failed. Like the rest of the American economy, our General Store fell off a fiscal cliff and closed its doors for good.

Visitors to our town are also greeted by: an abandoned Mexican Tienda, a bankrupt smoothie and sun-tanning shop, and a failed car dealership.

We hated to admit it, but Jim was right. My family had invested a lot in Pittsboro, and it appeared to be dying.

Our long time Mayor, Randy Voller worked hard to connect us to our region. Pittsboro joined the Triangle J Council of Government, which includes the neighboring communities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill.  We joined the Research Triangle Regional Partnership, and he established a bus service connecting us to Chapel Hill. On his watch Pittsboro conducted energy audits, installed the latest LED traffic lights, and built the first reuse water pipeline in North Carolina. When Pittsboro needed to expand its sewer capacity, instead of building a larger wastewater plant, they piped grey water to the 3M mine to be used in their industrial processes.

Our contribution to the town was an Eco-Industrial Park that we opened in 2005.  It was an abandoned alloys plant, with four strange buildings that we thought we could repurpose into useful enterprises. The woods of Chatham County have provided cheap real estate for the past forty years, and as a result they are full of artists, musicians, and cultural creative of all sorts. For many of us, Pittsboro is our closest town.

Our anchor tenant is Piedmont Biofuels, a community-scale biodiesel plant that makes biodiesel out of fats, oils, and greases. At the time of Jim’s visit, Piedmont was booming. It distributes fuel to a cooperative of roughly 400 members—people who like to be “off the petroleum grid” by using 100 percent biodiesel.

Piedmont Biofuel Plant

But after Jim’s visit, all we noticed was the one building on our lot standing empty. The building had recently been home to a bustling bio-herbicide and bio-insecticide company. But the owner had shed all of his employees, moved to the country, and now operates the business out of his garage. We also had an abandoned warehouse on site—formerly the home of Eastern Carolina Organics, who outgrew our facilities and moved away.

Pittsboro’s “shock event” was not seawater pouring over levees, not tornados or a wildfire burning out of control. It wasn’t a river bursting through its banks, or a tsunami. For us, it was the slow and unstoppable reality of an economy gone bust.

Our recovery has been similarly slow, and surprisingly unstoppable.

It began with Chatham County’s determination to build a new “Justice Center,” and refurbish the courthouse. The Justice Center brought back the usual cadre of lawyers, judges, defendants, and courthouse workers, and in response to the influx of traffic, an abandoned building across the street sprung to life as a patio café.

The General Store reopened as a newly renovated Roadhouse that has become a hub for local activism. The Pittsboro Town Board changed a zoning law that enabled condominiums to be built on our main street. What had once been abandoned spaces filled up with a wine shop, a catering venue, and a place for music lessons. With commercial activity up street and down, Pittsboro was once more bustling.

Abandoned spaces are like the common cold—catching. One empty warehouse, storefront, residence can quickly lead to the depletion of a city or town. But when reframed, these same empty spaces can be considered as “capacity” for new ideas and enterprises.

Harnessing the Haw River

Take the situation in our industrial park. The park is comprised of fourteen acres of land, with roughly four acres for buildings, with the rest in overgrown meadows and trees.

Viewed one way, this land is virtually vacant, an empty lot festering beside the biodiesel plant. But viewed another, it’s a fecund and beautiful urban farm that produces tons and tons of food. Trucks and trailers are loaded on our property and used to ship produce to farmers markets, fancy restaurants and to local members of their CSA. It was Piedmont’s ability to imagine the potential capacity of this vacant lot that has lead to their success.

When imaging resilience it is easy to get lost in the technical nuts and bolts—in BTUs and electron production and gross median incomes—but when the dust settles, it’s the people that make resilience happen.

It’s important to note that there is a lot of renewable energy and local food at the heart of Pittsboro’s resurgence, but it is not the type of industries that matter. It’s the people who take the risks, who open the new enterprises, and frequent them that matter most.

Were Jim to return today, he would be amazed.  The abandoned car dealership has been redeveloped as a small scale manufacturing plant that will take advantage of the property’s massive sprawl to install an array of solar panels. The one abandoned building in our park is becoming an artisanal distillery. Our empty warehouse is being used to stage festivals and screenings of independent movies.

Solar double cropping

Unlike almost any other locale in the world, Chatham County’s “on-farm” population is growing, due in large part to the sustainable agriculture program at Central Carolina Community College, which graduates a new crop of enthusiastic young farmers every semester. Pittsboro now boasts two farmer’s markets, one on Thursday night at the fairgrounds in town, and the other in the yard of the Co-op grocery store, Chatham Marketplace, on Saturday mornings.

Growth is coming, and in preparation, Pittsboro’s citizens are organizing. Hundreds of people have joined “Pittsboro Matters” to ensure their voice helps guide the community’s development.

There is a raging debate about how to protect our water quality, our wilderness, our downtown, even our night sky. The Town Commissioners are currently looking at “model lighting ordinances” which would limit the “sky glow,” a measure of light pollution from our town.

Pittsboro was wiped out by the departure of the textile industry, and came back only to be wiped out again. Today, it has filled its empty mills with restaurants, medical facilities, a jeweler, a meadery, and even a micro-hydro plant for making electricity.

It has recovered from shocks before. And it will again.

Photo: Pittsboro Courthouse, Wikicommons