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.
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.
This is a town called Green River.
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.
Maybe that's a fun thing that people could come on vacation and do.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So this is the community center, which was actually the original non-profit where…
From where you came?
Yes, where we came from.
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.
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?
Initially, says Mayor Pat Brady, there was skepticism from local residents.
They were outsiders. Why are you trying to do all this stuff?
Yes. Who are you to tell us?
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.
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?
Their longevity and willing to live here and buy houses and become a member of the community.
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.
There's no way we could have done it on our own.
My husband has a bad back and he physically can't do it. And, financially, it was the only way we could afford it.
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.
Oh, that's how you make it work financially?
Yes. And then they pay that back to us at a very low interest.
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.
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.
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.
They just don't have jobs that I'm interested in. So, they have restaurants and stuff, but I'm not really a cook.
What do you want to do?
I want to be a biochemical or a biomedical engineer.
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.
I vowed never to come back.
You thought you never would?
Oh, no. When I told my siblings and my parents I was moving back, they just didn't believe it.
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.
It was the exact opposite of what I thought when I left. There is so much opportunity here.
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.
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.
I guess we both sort of realized we were working to stay in the city, rather than working for ourselves.
It's a stationary taco truck.
Maria Sykes is proud of the improvements her organization has helped bring about, but is quick to say the goal isn't radical change.
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.
Very high and a place for wealthy people?
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.
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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Jeffrey Brown is the chief correspondent for arts, culture and society at PBS NewsHour.
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