The iron pour was a hit.
Molten metal settled into forms cooling in a yard as hundreds of visitors scanned sculptures in an adjacent abandoned building-turned-art gallery. Folks grooved to local bands, sipped Brevard Brewery craft beer and bought Korean barbecue tacos from the Asheville food truck El Kimchi.
The scene could have been straight out of Asheville’s buzzing River Arts District, and it wouldn’t have attracted much attention. But this September event went down in a forgotten section of Brevard, population 7,500, the small-town center of Transylvania County. A Nov. 11 party drew a similar mix of food, music and art.
Welcome to the Brevard Lumber Yard, the working name of a burgeoning arts district that the property owner and a host of artists, residents and town officials have high hopes for. Josh Leder of Leder Properties bought the King Street property in August for $550,000, according to him. Since then, Leder has dusted off cobwebs, spruced up sidewalks and is talking about establishing artist studios, an art gallery and an art school on the 2-acre property. Seven buildings dot the site, and could be home to a farmers market, a restaurant and a music venue.
“With today’s economy, you have to get a little creative,” the 37-year-old south Florida native said during a recent tour of the old lumber yard.
So that’s what Leder did — mainly by attracting creatives. Leder has landed one of Asheville’s most prominent art gallery owners. Chris Foley, owner of the Haen Gallery, a contemporary art gallery on Biltmore Avenue in Asheville, plans to open a new 14,000-square-foot gallery at the lumber yard. It should be up and running by February and will feature sculpture.
Leder is still in the early stages of planning out the development, but he sees the potential for his site serving as an economic hub built around the arts.
“So much of this has just been people wanting the lumber yard to be something,” Leder said. “The Haen Gallery coming in solidifies it and gives credibility to the project,” he said.
Artists like bronze caster Sam Owen see Brevard Lumber Yard developing much like Asheville’s River Arts District developed in recent years. Owen, who worked in the RAD for 15 years before defecting to Brevard two years ago, was a key organizer of the lumber yard’s fall parties and wants to establish a small working foundry at the site.
“The whole plan is similar to the River Arts District,” Owen said. “More and more artists keep coming to the area, and just like John Payne had The Wedge studios as a hub for working artists, we’re hoping the lumber yard will do the same.”
Owen is planning another show in January that will fill one of the lumber yard’s big buildings with a variety of artwork by top-notch artists.
The Brevard Lumber Co. opened in 1908. It was built at the convergence of three of Brevard’s main thoroughfares — King Street, Railroad Aveune and French Broad Street just outside downtown. The site bustled with activity as a cotton mill, train depot, ice house and livestock yard.
But business slowly shifted away. Brevard Lumber Co. hung on until 2007, and then weeds started growing up in the sidewalks around the big brick buildings. The site was mostly forgotten. The Great Recession had begun, although it was hardly a new story for the residents of Transylvania County.
In the span of about a year, from August 2002 to September 2003, the county suffered devastating job losses. First, RFS Ecusta halted its paper production, idling more than 600 workers. Then the lights went out at the Agfa X-ray film plant in Pisgah Forest, putting 270 people out of work. After that, Coats American announced the closing of its 38-year-old thread mill in Rosman, putting another 228 people out of work.
Transylvania County saw manufacturing jobs drop from about 2,200 in 2001 to just 489 in 2004. The average annual earnings per job fell for all workers in the county by more than $1,800 during the same period. Its unemployment rate soared to more than 14 percent. (Today it stands at 9 percent.)
“I think the county was shellshocked,” Brevard Mayor Jimmy Harris said. “I say that because I was shellshocked. That all happened about the time I was first elected mayor, and people were telling me we were going to see tumbleweeds here,” he said.
But the town forged ahead, said Harris, who owns Harris Hardware, a store that’s been the family business on Main Street for 40 years. Town officials invested in upgrading utilities and began writing development plans for areas like the Brevard Lumber Yard site.
“We decided we needed a five-year plan, a 10-year vision and a 20-year dream,” Harris said. “I think if you work toward that, it shows. Twenty years from now, I think we will be a vibrant economic center. That’s the dream.”
The power of 10
Leder said there’s no doubt that “Brevard has really laid the foundation for success,” which is one of the reasons he moved ahead with buying the old lumber yard.
He also lives in the area with his wife and two children and sees his development intersecting with Brevard’s other resources. He notes the nearby Brevard Music Center, the site of a world-class summer music institute and festival. There’s Brevard College, a small, private United Methodist liberal arts college and its nearly 700 students who want places to go and things to do, he said.
Another newcomer that’s brought excitement to town is the announcement earlier this year that popular Colorado-based craft brewer Oskar Blues would build an East Coast brewery in Brevard. The brewery plans to officially open in December.
And there’s the area’s natural beauty, from stunning waterfalls to bumpy mountain bike trails that draw in tourists.
Jeff Perlman, the former mayor of Delray Beach, Fla., is a mentor of Leder’s who has visited Brevard and also sees its potential. With Perlman’s guidance, Delray went from a forgotten little town just north of Boca Raton to one of Palm Beach County’s buzziest beachfront getaways with a vintage, artsy feel.
“I think he’s got an incredible opportunity, with the town strategically located between Lake Toxaway and Asheville. It has the performing arts center and college. There’s just a lot to build on in Brevard,” Perlman said.
“The potential for the lumber yard is not just as a great amenity for Brevard, but to be a regional attraction,” he said. He believes in arts and culture as an economic driver, something that worked in Delray, he explained, adding that he’s a believer in the “power of 10” rule of placemaking.
“You have to have 10 things to do in a community or a space in order to keep people coming back and draw them from a region,” he said.
Momentum has also been flowing from a community effort that started earlier this year called Imagine Brevard. The group held a community meeting in August to hear from residents, said spokeswoman Susan Evans, and has begun planning Brevard’s future from there. It will be built around seven key ideas that Imagine Brevard culled from listening to residents, ideas that include cultivating small businesses, creating more parks and pathways and connecting with young people.
“We have people moving here because you can mountain bike, you have the breweries, you have a huge art influx and artists that we’re not spotlighting,” Evans said.
Leder’s plans for the lumber yard address another need the Imagine Brevard group heard from residents — that people want more things to do year-round, rather than just the fall and winter months when most part-time residents arrive.
“Downtown is geared toward tourists and a little older crowd, and what he’s looking at is an arts district. It’s kind of a different vibe and it’s great,” she said.
Leder said he’s happy to be a part of Brevard’s renaissance.
“You have to give people a chance to make it in this economy,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”