Farmville adds art and entrepreneurship to farming heritage
East Carolina University students learn to make paperweights, bowls and other objects at GlasStation, a glass-blowing studio located in a former Gulf station on West Wilson Street.
By Bryan Mims
The name of the town — Farmville — sounds so, well, country. A mud-on-the-boots, tractors-on-the-road kind of place, you might reckon. Or maybe it conjures memories of that once-popular farm simulation game on Facebook called “FarmVille.”
But what’s in a name doesn’t always reflect what’s on Main. The town of roughly 4,700 people a dozen miles west of Greenville has espresso and pinot grigio; loft apartments and a taproom; boutique fashion and spa treatments; an art gallery and a dance studio. A vodka distillery and vintage toy store are on the horizon. The Popinjay Salon, Biscuit and the Bean Cafe, and The Frivolous Fox, a shop selling jewelry, artwork, candles and more, are within an easy walk from the local Piggly Wiggly.
Farmville is also where 22-year-old Anna Newsome, who spent most of her childhood an hour outside New York City, this year became director of the Farmville Chamber of Commerce. She succeeds Judy Gidley, who retired after five years leading the chamber, boosting its membership and launching or reinstating various community events. Newsome, an East Carolina University graduate with a degree in hospitality management, moved to North Carolina from New Jersey before her senior year in high school.
“I think it’s just a unique town,” she says of Farmville. “All the storefronts and businesses are so eclectic. I do intend to stay for a good amount of time to help Farmville grow and make it better than what it is now.”
The name of the town does stem from the area’s farm-to-market heritage, which trails back to Colonial times. After its incorporation in February 1872, Farmville grew into a small commercial center to support the flourishing brightleaf tobacco market.
For generations, tobacco lit up Farmville with cash. In 1907, Albert Coy Monk began buying leaves and shipping them in hogshead barrels from the town’s railroad station. A.C. Monk and Co., later known as Dibrell and Alliance One International, blossomed into one of the world’s largest dealers and exporters of flue-cured tobacco and stood as Farmville’s biggest employer through most of the 20th century. Grand old houses, largely built on tobacco money, lord over Church Street, their front doors framed by white columns and their sprawling lawns bounded by wrought iron or white picket fences.
The town was dealt a blow in November when the business, now based in Morrisville and called Pyxus International, said it would cease tobacco-processing operations in Farmville. About 565 jobs, most of them seasonal, will be moved to a newer facility in Wilson, though the company will retain a local office.
Though tobacco’s dominance has declined, farming is still Farmville’s economic backdrop, as indicated by the milling grain silos in the southwest corner of town. Those flat, fertile fields of Pitt County push up corn, soybeans, cotton, sweet potatoes, peanuts and, still, tobacco. While agriculture might lack the urban chic many small towns are striving to gain, there’s something cool about being country.
That “something” lured a globetrotting native son to come back and help coax new growth out of his home turf. Bert Smith spent years working in sales for the tobacco industry, traveling to dozens of countries. He lived in England, Brazil and Argentina.
A decade ago, he returned to Farmville and opened Plank Road Steak House, a stylish, dimly lit restaurant with exposed beams and brick walls. It belongs to new owners now, but Smith still takes ownership in Farmville. Around town, Smith, 68, is greeted at one business after another with a Norm-from-Cheers kind of familiarity.
At Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery, a homegrown beer-maker that was started in 2004 by philosophy professor Paul Philippon, everyone in the taproom knows Smith’s name. He orders an amber ale and breaks open the shells of roasted peanuts. Philippon chose Farmville because of its inexpensive real estate. The brewery distributes its stouts and porters from Pennsylvania to Florida.
Smith is one of four men who formed The Farmville Group in 2012. “We sort of deputized ourselves as a sort of homemade posse,” he says. The group’s mission is to put the “ville” back in Farmville after a number of businesses went fallow. And the posse has hit pay dirt: In the last five years, Smith says the number of vacant buildings in downtown dwindled from 29 to 10.
Partnering with the Pitt County Economic Development Commission, Pitt Community College turned the vacant Bank of America building into a satellite campus. The group dreamed up a slogan: “Only good things happen in Farmville.” They encouraged downtown businesses to get a new paint job. They cultivated a relationship with ECU and the town’s arts council, recruiting art students to paint murals around town. And they created a Farmville version of Shark Tank, the ABC television show that features aspiring entrepreneurs making business pitches to investors.
A number of businesses have taken the plunge as Farmville’s “sharks” went fishing. The group recruited Dapper Dan’s Arts and Antique store to relocate to Farmville after 30 years in Greenville. “We had a chance to buy a building downtown here, and it’s the best move we ever made,” says owner Dan Roberson, whose building has three apartments on the second floor. “I did not realize how much I miss the small-town feel, the friendliness of the people. And everybody supports each other.”
Don Edwards, a real-estate investor who owns the University Book Exchange and other property in downtown Greenville, bought the former Farmville Hardware Co. for $150,000 and is converting it into offices, retail space and apartments. And the town is investing $4 million in a new library, an 18,000-square-foot building that replaces an aging structure.
At East Carolina ArtSpace, a venue on Main Street that houses studios for local artists, paintings from Vincent Li, an ECU School of Art and Design graduate, pop off the walls.
Andrew Wells, another ECU alum, has also put his brushstrokes on Farmville’s murals. “Because they got so attached to Farmville, they kind of hang around Farmville,” Smith says.
Over on West Wilson Street, an old Gulf gas station is now the GlasStation, a glass-blowing studio leased by ECU that offers classes in glass art. In a courtyard adjoining the studio, the group plans to build a 300-seat amphitheater where the university can host a concert series.
With the infusion of the arts and trendy new enterprises, Farmville hasn’t lost its agrarian soul. Carolina Poultry Power is poised to start production this year at a $22 million plant turning chicken and turkey waste into electricity. The company expects to employ about 30 people converting poultry litter into a fuel that can be used as a natural-gas substitute to generate energy with a steam turbine. The business is moving its home office into the former hardware store along Main Street.
The Farmville Group’s entrepreneur competition reeled in First Flight Vodka, which is on tap to open a distillery this year across from the Plank Road Steak House. Owner Wes Shepherd began making vodka at his Kitty Hawk Stills site in nearby Winterville in 2012; now he’s passing the bottle to Farmville in hopes of boosting local tourism.
The sharks also snagged Vintage Point Antique Toys, which has maintained an online presence for years but now wants a brick-and-mortar store. It is currently seeking a location.
Standing on the corner, scanning the once-abandoned buildings, Smith says the restoration projects will “give us an urban feel, a small urban footprint here in Farmville.”
But being a little country has a certain cool quotient, too — you know, that whole small-town charm thing. Smith and his buddies have made the “ville” vibrant again in Farmville, to be sure.
That said, they’re not about to sell the farm.