So I’ve got a story for you. This is usually the phrase that causes friends to fill up their coffee cup or order another beer (and the occasional few to recall they need to be somewhere else) because this isn’t going to be brief.
I’ve spent my adult life as a builder, primarily of large complex structures—arenas, multi-story buildings, clear-span truss structures—as well as have provided large, specialty crawler crane service to build power plants, refineries and windmills. Additionally, I’ve participated in retrofits of numerous historic structures, such as mills, manufacturing plants and theaters being repurposed for commercial, residential, event and performing-arts use. Along the way, on a smaller scale, I renovated two wonderful homes—one from the early 1800s and another from the early 1900s. I have valued participation in building well-designed, permanent, useful structures that will remain well past my years. However, with due respect, these have simply been buildings, and my attachment has only run so deep.
In 2008, my partner Claire and I decided to buy the Upper Mill property in the Village of Saxapahaw, N.C., doing so somewhat on blind faith. It was a decision that included providing the funding for the complete commercial and residential renovation. This commitment was not planned or necessarily desired, but one we made willingly based on a unified vision and our intent to make a permanent home in Saxapahaw. Little did we know the magnitude of the physical, mental, emotional and financial resolve that would follow.
What we quickly found was, while facing the reality of the nuts and bolts of the project, we were actually building something much more valuable: a working and living community. Claire and I were now deep into the process of “community building” within a beautiful, natural and sustainable village setting. Thankfully, we were working in collaboration with talented, open-minded friends and professionals. There is a lot we could share about the process—the challenges, the delicate balance, the role of design and the joy—but we will save that for another story.
The message I would like to share is that along the way I began to realize, value and desire a communication about the significance of investing in building community, especially in a reuse, revitalization process that so closely aligns renovation of buildings and infrastructure alongside renovation and design of an existing and evolving community. Purpose, place, care, intention and high-level interaction brought life to bricks, timbers, fields and trails just as it had originally been done.
I haven’t always had access to money (of the magnitude this project required). I acquired access the same way my parents did, through years of hard work, risk, valued relationships and intuitive entrepreneurship. (Note: I use the words “access to money” because while in our case no bank participation was used, I could see other situations with less personal financial funding required where resourcing through banks, grants, investment groups, etc., might be the path facilitated). While I did not come from a long history of formalized philanthropic giving, my parents have spent a lifetime of service to others as quiet, joyful, and anonymous givers of time and resources. Having observed well-intentioned people generously supporting the arts, their alma mater and many worthwhile charities, I never had the desire to see my name on a building or to be known as the biggest donor. However, I have learned through this experience that investment in community alongside of others (in a place I intend to live) is not only fulfilling, but widely impactful on multiple levels.
We have come to believe there are many unconventional ways to have an impact far beyond a name on a building. And that the timing is right with revitalization and a sustainable return to the villages, farms and land so alive right now. There are many villages, such as ours, waiting for rebirth and a whole generation of “do somethings” looking for a place to do it. This can happen on a relatively large scale, like Saxapahaw Rivermill, or on many smaller and varied scales, such as a community garden/farm, a farmer’s market, a local bakery or a trail system. These provide active life, interaction and community. The impact and reach will surpass your dreams. Most promising is that others more talented will show up and take your efforts far beyond your initial vision, allowing the project to organically have a life of its own that belongs to no one and yet to everyone.
I choose to share this information in an effort to encourage an alternative trend in which people with access to money and the openness of vision to choose to live in and/or fully participate as part of a small, close community can realize the impact this can be on their lives and the lives of others.
I caution you in advance that the extreme demand on time, finances and mental capacity is directly proportional to the rewards of community. In the case of the Saxapahaw project, we did not begin with an expectation for financial return—and that’s convenient because there will not be any. But that’s just fine. We came here to build a life, not a business (we have day jobs). And, when complete, we can respectfully pencil our names on the life we are building—right alongside of the names of our friends and neighbors. It just feels right because it is.
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