By KARA FOHNER, The Gaston Gazette
CRAMERTON, NC (AP) — Cramerton’s new downtown retail space won’t just be an art gallery, bar, music venue or recreation center. Rather, it will be all of those things and more.
The City of Cramerton has partnered with the nonprofit Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation to use a downtown business to promote Gaston County’s arts community, the health of the South Fork River and Cramerton’s outdoor recreation opportunities.
John Searby, executive director of Catawba Riverkeeper, a non-profit dedicated to the health of the South Fork River, said the non-profit wanted to have a presence in downtown Cramerton that would allow them “the business corridor of the… To connect downtown with the river very conscious way.”
Cramerton City Council, on the other hand, would like to offer arts and music programs as part of their Parks and Recreation program.
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Confluence, the storefront they’re about to launch, will achieve those goals.
“And we think it’s a creative use of a vacant downtown area that has struggled to retain tenants over the years,” Searby said.
Initially, Cramerton gave Catawba Riverkeeper two grants — a $200,000 grant to renovate the building and another $50,000 annually to run Confluence, “but it’s reviewed and renewed every year,” Searby said.
“This would not have been an option for us from our regular operating budget. So we think it’s a pretty unique approach to meeting the needs of a community,” Searby said.
Stephanie Newman, Confluence coordinator, said Catawba Riverkeeper wanted to create a “retro community center feel” and make Confluence a gathering place where visitors “come from the river, maybe have a beer, a t-shirt, or grab an artwork, created by a local artist.”
In addition to selling art from local artists, Confluence will also have an artist-in-residence program where artists and musicians will host classes and workshops, Newman said.
“We will also be inviting local musicians and the like to host music nights and open mic nights,” Newman said. “As well as hopefully encouraging some of the musicians who come in to use the space for things like music lessons.”
Confluence is at least partially inspired by Asheville’s River Arts District, a neighborhood filled with art studios and galleries as well as beer, food, and other local attractions.
In planning for Confluence, Searby said they used imagery from the River Arts District for inspiration and had conversations about essentially bringing what this Asheville community offers into a building in downtown Cramerton.
“And that is sort of the vision here. You know, if you walk through the River Arts District in Asheville, you can stop at a brewery and have a beer, you can stop at a working art studio and watch artists at work, you can catch a live concert about every night week,” Searby said. “You can, you know, rent a bike and cruise a greenway, and you’ll be able to do all those things right here in one building.”
They hope to have the building finished and ready to open by “mid to late fall,” Newman said, and had a soft opening in the final months of the year by offering some programming, but their full lineup of programs is slated for early 2023.
“So we’re probably going to do a concert, probably an art class. We’ll probably have a music class. We will definitely be hiring bikes and having the bar open in the fall. But I think as far as that’s possible, that’s what you can do every day at a conference,” Searby said, which will be in early 2023.
As for the Artists-in-Residence program, they hope to offer an artist free studio space along with a small stipend, and in return that artist will lead the programming and engage with the community. They want to be a resource for local artists and provide an opportunity for Gaston County residents to support their artists and musicians.
Searby said they want artists to feel that “this is where you can make a living and … there are places where you can turn your passion into a career.”
Confluence was the brainchild of former Cramerton Mayor Will Cauthen and former Cramerton Parks and Recreation Director Eric Smallwood, along with Newman, Searby said. Cramerton’s new mayor, Nelson Wills, “took up the mantle” and continued with the project.
“That’s probably one of the coolest parts of this story,” Searby said. “In the political climate that we live in today, it’s quite unique for someone to be in a heated political race and the person who defeats the incumbent is able to take on a project that was something of a pet project Predecessors, … that’s a testament to some of the City Council executives who were excited about this project and somehow kept the momentum going.”
“And it’s a testament that Nelson sees understanding and the value of this project and … puts all political agendas aside and says, ‘That’s a great idea, we have to keep it going’ because it could have been dead if.” There was a leadership change,” he added.
Proceeds from Confluence go to the South Fork River Health Project, a joint effort by all communities along the South Fork River, along with Catawba Riverkeeper and several other organizations.
The goal of the South Fork River Health Project is to improve water quality, flood resilience and access to recreational opportunities along the South Fork River, Searby said.
“So ultimately this space becomes a source of funding for this work around these three priority areas. And that’s probably the most unique thing about this space,” Searby said. “So you come here and have a glass of wine and do a sip and paint activity with your friends on a Friday night. All money goes back to making the river better quality, safer, and a better community good. So we think this is a really unique offering.”
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