STAR leads N.C. community to economic recovery

A few years ago, Spruce Pine, N.C., was facing a major loss in its once-thriving textile and furniture industries.

Searching for economic revival, the town looked 200 miles east to UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School for guidance.

STAR (Student Teams Achieving Results) sends teams of top MBA and undergraduate students to build strategies for corporations and non-profit organizations. The students get real-world experience, and the businesses benefit from advice that would otherwise cost a fortune.

“One mission of STAR is to work in areas of the state that have lost traditional industry, such as the furniture, agricultural and textile industries. How can we reshape and refocus these talents?” says Lynne Gerber, director of Kenan-Flagler’s action learning initiative and faculty director of STAR.

Spruce Pine’s non-profit organization, Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree, sold local handmade crafts in a downtown store. They reached out to the STAR program to help turn those crafts into a sustainable business. The STAR team’s work in Spruce Pine was made possible with support from a grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation.

“Craft really is part of our economic future,” says Shirley Hise, director of Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree. “The jobs created one at a time are the jobs we are not going to lose.”

Collaboration with the STAR team brought big changes for Spruce Pine. They successfully marketed their crafts to national retailer A Southern Season, made plans to sell their products online and developed marketing and branding strategies. What was once a small group of artists making a living from their crafts has grown to 110. From handmade cutting boards to blown-glass ornaments, the downtown store now boasts a robust inventory.

In January 2011, Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree will launch a rebranding effort to take them from a seasonal business to a year-round venture, a suggestion of the STAR team. “We’re implementing the strategies that the STAR team set forth to make our efforts more sustainable,” Hise says.

STAR’s involvement with Spruce Pine began with Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree, but it didn’t end there. This year STAR sent a team to Spruce Pine to work with Highland Craftsman, Inc. The company sells poplar bark shingles and other architectural elements for the home under the trademark Bark House.

Chris McCurry, co-founder and owner of the business, says “We were evaluating directions for our company to grow into. The STAR team has a unique perspective and a sound research team.” STAR pointed the group to new opportunities and affirmed their direction, which was important in a sluggish economy.

Gerber says McCurry was so impressed, “she joined Shirley Hise in spreading the word that UNC-Chapel Hill can really be helpful to the community, and now we have a new Spruce Pine project for Spring 2011.”

The spring project will be with Spruce Pine Main Street, with which the STAR team will work to prepare a community regeneration plan for businesses in Spruce Pine that can provide the town with ways to continue redevelopment, provide jobs and support commercial endeavors.

Gerber says, “We believe that STAR has been, and will continue to be, a benefit to several once-thriving regions of our state as they seek to rebuild their communities into dynamic, productive commercial hubs.”

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Katherine Vance’s photo essay was a part of the Carolina Photojournalism Workshop, where each year a small group of multimedia students travel to a different part of North Carolina to produce a documentary website in a week

More video about STAR and Spruce Spine