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Can this rural town go from a youth exodus to an art epicenter?

What kind of future should a struggling rural town choose? In the town of Green River, population 950, a nonprofit called Epicenter aims to use art and architecture to bring new energy, life and economic development. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, how a rural community is using art and architecture to bring new life to the small town of Green River, Utah.

    Jeffrey Brown takes us there, as part of his occasional series, American Creators.

  • Woman:

    This is a town called Green River.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What kind of future should a struggling rural town choose? That's the question posed by a recent exhibition at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City.

  • Woman:

    Maybe that's a fun thing that people could come on vacation and do.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Visitors are given four options – become a tourist magnet, lure a new industry such as waste recycling, establish a futuristic space research colony, or withdraw further from the outside world.

  • Maria Sykes:

    You know, each of them has pros and cons, which is like the reality of a real place. If a new industry comes in, there's going to be a lot of new jobs, but maybe we lose the small town vibe that we really love.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Maria Sykes was in charge of the exhibition, but this was no academic exercise. Sykes works in the real world of the really small town of Green River, 180 miles to the south of Salt Lake. It's a stunning setting underneath Book Cliffs.

    In the 1950s and '60s, Green River prospered thanks to uranium mining and a nearby missile base, swelling the population to 2,700. With those jobs gone, the population hovers at 950, and the town mostly caters to tourists stopping briefly on their way to the spectacular national parks further south.

    Sykes first came here nine years ago, a recent architecture graduate from the University of Alabama. She was volunteering for AmeriCorps.

  • Maria Sykes:

    The first thing I saw was the beautiful landscape, of course. And then I saw a lot of potential. We can only do 50 people at a time in the quarry.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    She and two colleagues formed a non-profit called Epicenter, with the goal of using art and architecture to give new energy and life in a rural setting.

  • Maria Sykes:

    So this is the community center, which was actually the original non-profit where…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    From where you came?

  • Maria Sykes:

    Yes, where we came from.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Each individual project is necessarily small. A welcome sign at the edge of town. Installations from visiting artists. A mountain-biking trail. A model home the group hopes to replicate for low-income residents.

    But they are all part of a larger vision.

  • Maria Sykes:

    Architecture isn't just looking at a building. It's looking at how the city is shaped, and then thinking about, what can we do as citizens to make it a better place to live through architecture and design?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Initially, says Mayor Pat Brady, there was skepticism from local residents.

  • Pat Brady:

    They were outsiders. Why are you trying to do all this stuff?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. Who are you to tell us?

  • Pat Brady:

    Right. Some were calling them socialists. And there was some resistance to them because of their thought patterns. They're different. You know, we're pretty set in our ways here.

    So you have got to follow these instructions.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Brady, who in addition to being mayor, is also a math teacher in a grade 7-12 school of just 90 students, says the town has grown to accept and embrace these outsiders.

    What tipped it, the balance?

  • Maria Sykes:

    Their longevity and willing to live here and buy houses and become a member of the community.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One approach, Epicenter's Fix It First program, which has helped make minor repairs to dozens of houses in town. Architect Steph Crabtree built two new porches, repaired the roof and installed new windows at the home of Karen Smith.

  • Karen Smith:

    There's no way we could have done it on our own.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You couldn't?

  • Karen Smith:

    My husband has a bad back and he physically can't do it. And, financially, it was the only way we could afford it.

  • Steph Crabtree:

    We loan them the money to have the repairs done. We're able to either do the labor ourselves or get volunteer labor in to the keep costs down.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Oh, that's how you make it work financially?

  • Steph Crabtree:

    Yes. And then they pay that back to us at a very low interest.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All around town, signs of the boom-bust cycle. Abandoned buildings, a bank, gas stations and numerous motels are reminders of its more prosperous past. Like many rural communities, Green River has seen a mass exodus of young people.

  • Pat Brady:

    We have a lot of great people. Students graduate and go off to college. But they can't come back, because there's nothing here for them.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    We met 17-year-old Lindsey McFarland a star student at Green River high, who plans to attend college in the fall, and says she likely won't be able to return to live in this town she loves.

  • Lindsey McFarland:

    They just don't have jobs that I'm interested in. So, they have restaurants and stuff, but I'm not really a cook.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What do you want to do?

  • Lindsey McFarland:

    I want to be a biochemical or a biomedical engineer.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But there are signs of life, with Epicenter's help. One exception to the exodus is Joshua Rowley, who grew up here and graduated in a high school class of just 16. He went off to Salt Lake City for college and assumed that's where he'd stay.

  • Joshua Rowley:

    I vowed never to come back.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You thought you never would?

  • Joshua Rowley:

    Oh, no. When I told my siblings and my parents I was moving back, they just didn't believe it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But then he and his husband saw a Green River restaurant for sale, one he himself had worked at as a teenager.

    With two other partners, and marketing and other assistance from Epicenter, they renovated the building, updated the menu and opened three boutique guest rooms. Business has been good.

  • Joshua Rowley:

    It was the exact opposite of what I thought when I left. There is so much opportunity here.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Epicenter has also attracted fresh blood, including artists who appreciate the lower cost of living.

    Christopher Henderson is a designer and builder who moved here from Salt Lake City. Anna Evans is a jeweler and fabric artist from Portland. The two met doing volunteer work for Epicenter, and quickly fell in love with each other and the town.

    For just $4,000, they purchased an abandoned miniature golf course and are slowly renovating it to create a garden, studio space and eventually a house.

  • Anna Evans:

    I just wanted to put more effort into my art and have more time for that, and not just try to scrape by to live.

  • Christopher Henderson:

    I guess we both sort of realized we were working to stay in the city, rather than working for ourselves.

  • Maria Sykes:

    It's a stationary taco truck.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Maria Sykes is proud of the improvements her organization has helped bring about, but is quick to say the goal isn't radical change.

  • Maria Sykes:

    I have heard, if there is ever, like, a stoplight in this town, I will move away. And, actually, the longer that I live here, the more I start to, like, really relate to those folks. We don't want this to look like Park City, Utah. We want it to look like Green River.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Very high and a place for wealthy people?

  • Maria Sykes:

    Right. Exactly. Like, we want it to be like a pretty down-to-earth, authentic place, because that's what it is. It's nitty-gritty here.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    No grand plans, then, but a mix of art and economic development to help foster a healthy future.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Green River, Utah.

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