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Does the textile town of Star have a bright future? It hinges on fixing aging infrastructure

A water tower can be seen in Star, North Carolina, on Dec. 21, 2023, where federal funding has been awarded to complete fixes and upgrades to the sewer and water treatment facilities.
Cornell Watson
/
for WUNC
A water tower can be seen in Star, North Carolina, on Dec. 21, 2023, where federal funding has been awarded to complete fixes and upgrades to the sewer and water treatment facilities.

This is the fifth installment in our Main Street NC series from the WUNC Politics Podcast. We're visiting communities across the state to hear from local leaders about the positives going on in their towns, and the challenges they face, from population loss to flooding to aging utility infrastructure.


Deep inside a former textile factory in the tiny town of Star in Montgomery County, two glass artists are feeding a molten wine glass into a 1,000-degree kiln.

StarWorks, a studio, gallery and shop, opened in this unlikely location in 2005 after a donor handed the keys to the abandoned hosiery mill to a nonprofit group.

Starworks is attracting international artists and visitors to the town about 20 miles south of Asheboro, not far from the pottery mecca of Seagrove. It’s now expanding with the construction of a new dormitory to house artists who have been struggling to find a place to stay in this rural corner of North Carolina.

The outside view of older buildings in downtown Star, North Carolina, on Dec. 21, 2023.
Cornell Watson
/
for WUNC
The outside view of older buildings in downtown Star, North Carolina, on Dec. 21, 2023.

The town of Star’s leaders want to build on the success of Starworks by finding new uses for the other shuttered textile buildings and historic structures that line Main Street. But while most of Star’s historic buildings are standing strong, the town’s water and sewer infrastructure is showing its age.

The town’s 60-year-old water tower has faded green paint, and many of the underground pipes are 100 years old. They break frequently, and one man gets the call to come patch them up.

Wesley Brown is the public works director, and he also serves as the fire chief and zoning officer. In the cold winter months, the water line breaks are almost a weekly occurrence. Most of the time they’re minor, but occasionally a bigger break can prompt an order to boil water.

“You worry every morning — with mornings like this morning — how much the ground’s going to move, what lines will break," Brown said. "It’s just an ongoing process, especially during season change."

A plaque sits in the ground at the geographical center of state in Star, North Carolina on Dec. 21, 2023.
Cornell Watson
/
for WUNC
A plaque sits in the ground at the geographical center of state in Star, North Carolina on Dec. 21, 2023.

Star was fortunate last year when the state legislature allocated $10 million to replace the old water and sewer lines. It’s one of dozens of towns across the state receiving a total of $2 billion to replace deteriorating water and sewer infrastructure.

Towns like Star have struggled to fund the overdue upgrades to systems built to serve major manufacturing facilities that have long since closed.

Local revenue won’t cover the cost, and water and sewer rates end up increasing because so much water leaks out of the aging pipes on its way to homes and businesses.

Star is also receiving more than $25 million in other state and federal funding to replace the water tower and its 60-year-old sewage treatment plant.

Brown water still reliably flows through the treatment ponds at the plant, but Mayor Bill Hudson and Town Commissioner Ray Mims worry about what would happen if the equipment broke down. The new plant will eliminate that concern — both for town leaders and for potential businesses looking at coming to Star.

“It's going to be a nice dual facility,” Mims said. “Now, if our facility has a problem or a major break, we’re shut down — the whole town sewer shuts down.”

Once the new plant opens, Hudson adds, “you can just throw a switch valve and stay in business.”


To hear more about Star’s efforts to fix its aging utility infrastructure – and the town’s plans for the future – WUNC sat down with Mayor Hudson, Commissioner Mims and Brown at the municipal building.

NOTE: This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Tell me a little about the town's history and what this town's historically been known for.

Hudson: "Started in the 1890s, it was a railroad and logging town: There were two railroads that came to Star, and railroads have always been important to Star. The logging turned into furniture and turpentine, and we even had a Coca-Cola bottling plant in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Then we got into textiles; textiles were very, very big. We had maybe 4,500 jobs in Star at one time. They didn't live here, but they came here for their textile jobs. And then we lost those jobs, so we're finding our way since then."

How did the designation that is the center of North Carolina come about? What sort of studies had to be done to establish that this really is the geographic center of the whole state?

Hudson: "The Army Corps of Engineers did that, and apparently they do it in all 50 states. So we were designated the geographic center of North Carolina. You would really like for the center to be beside a beautiful lake or a little waterfall. But in our case, it's on a poultry farm. If you GPS ‘geographic center of North Carolina,’ it'll take you right to that monument that’s on the ground."

What's the current state of Star’s water and sewer infrastructure?

Hudson: "Our underground piping is very, very old. Some of it may be 100 years old, or maybe older than that. We're constantly patching piping, and this new money that's coming in will make a tremendous difference. I think if we can get some new pipes in the ground, they won't be breaking every winter."

What's the process like as you guys are applying for these grants? Is it difficult for a town of this size to know what funding is available and make sure you get all the paperwork in?

Bill Hudson, the mayor of Star, North Carolina, stands for a portrait outside his insurance business on Dec. 21, 2023.
Cornell Watson
/
for WUNC
Bill Hudson, the mayor of Star, North Carolina, stands for a portrait outside his insurance business on Dec. 21, 2023.

Mims: "We’ve been very lucky because we work with an engineering firm here that's really helped us and brought us up to speed and gave us a lot of good advice."

Hudson: "Another friend was (N.C. Rep.) Wayne Sasser, and his assistant Cody Huneycutt was very helpful. I'd like to mention our state Sen. Dave Craven. Everything worked, you're in this big giveaway for town of Star to get the $10 million. Everything fell into place. I'm really excited to see just how far that $10 million will go. I don't think it'll cover everything, but I'm excited to see just how much infrastructure can be replaced."

How much does the quality of the utility infrastructure here come up when you talk with economic development people about the potential to bring new jobs to town? Do they need some assurances that you're going to have a new and reliable system in the future?

Hudson: "I'm afraid to say we haven't had that conversation with anybody that I'm aware of. It’s pretty common knowledge that our infrastructure is in dire need of improvement, so that conversation hasn't been started as of yet.

"Star is a wonderful place to move to and build a new house and just have a very comfortable lifestyle — if you like the country. But to move a new business here would be a stretch at this point. We definitely need this new infrastructure before we can have those conversations."

Is there potential for manufacturing to come back to this area of the state?

Hudson: "We have a lot of those buildings left. The buildings that used to be used in textiles, they've sort of turned into warehouses. There is a potential to get manufacturing back to Star. We're in the center of the state. We have railroads, we have the interstate, we have ample water supply."

What role does the art scene play in the future of Star? Starworks has kind of become a big deal here in town and seems to attract some visitation.

Hudson: "Starworks is a phenomenal asset to Star. This year for the first time our railroad company, Aberdeen Carolina Western, is partnering with Starworks and the town of Star on Christmas train rides. We had 13 Christmas train rides and it originated at Starworks. We're having people come from out of state to ride these trains. Aberdeen Carolina Western has done a phenomenal job decorating the cars. These are vintage cars that have been refurbished, and it's the same cars that Rockefeller used to ride around in.

"If we had more places for people to stay, we could certainly fill up Star because we're the center. We're 20 minutes away from the Uwharrie mountains, Badin Lake, Lake Tillery. We're 20 minutes away from the zoo. We're 20 minutes away from all the pottery shops."

In addition to the utility grants that we discussed, what other support does Star need from state and federal government in order to succeed and put in place the vision that you guys have for what the town will look like 20-30 years down the road?

Brown: "I think our biggest thing would be expanding the infrastructure. The (Interstate 73-43) bypass is real nice for transportation, but we actually don't have any water and sewer services on the side of the bypass."

Mims: "We're expanding our parks. We've got several parks here that we applied for grants to bring our parks up (to a higher quality), so there will be more to entice families with children."

A aerial view of the downtown area of Star, North Carolina, on Dec. 21, 2023.
Cornell Watson
/
for WUNC
A aerial view of the downtown area of Star, North Carolina, on Dec. 21, 2023.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.
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