Stephen Hill is betting art will transform Kinston
Arts in N.C.
Photography by Cindy Burnham
Stephen Hill walks a downtown Kinston neighborhood on a muggy summer afternoon, much to the bemusement of neighbors sitting as still as possible in the shade of their front porches. A woman grilling pork chops calls out — Hill is a familiar face in this predominantly African-American precinct now called the Arts and Cultural District. He’s hard to miss, the man with a moustache, psychedelic shirt and skinny pants and the bouncy energy of a teenager, though he’s 56.
Hill has purchased and renovated 60 nearby houses with plans to pick up 14 more. His houses are instantly recognizable by their bright paint and white picket fence. In some cases, he owns an entire rainbow-colored block, while other houses are dotted between homes gray and neglected. His vision: a place where more than 100 artists will live, work and sell their art.
By comparison, Asheville’s burgeoning River Arts District has about 200 studios, an economic engine driving new apartments, breweries and restaurants. Drawing creatives to Kinston, though, is a different challenge compared with the internationally recognized North Carolina mountain city. While Kinston’s population has declined by almost 5,000 to 21,000 in the last 25 years, Asheville has grown by 23,000 people, or 35%.
With little to lose, Kinston is making a strong pitch, offering relocation grants from a local foundation, the smART Kinston City Project, that provide artists up to $3,000 for moving expenses and art supplies. That can go a long way with rents starting at $200 a month.
Can art revive this town? Hill is banking on it.
He has invested about $12 million in downtown Kinston, not including the commission for one of its most dramatic sights, artist Thomas Sayre’s “Flue,” seven sculptures stretching up to 28 feet tall. Sayre is one of the state’s most prolific artists, perhaps best known for his red clay “ring” installations at the North Carolina Museum of Art and along busy Randolph Road in south Charlotte. Charlotte commissioned Sayre to design and fabricate “Furrow” at one of its light-rail stations for $142,500.
There was some head-scratching at City Auto Parts, the Kinston store Ray Beard has operated since 1969, when Sayre’s sculpture was delivered last year. “It’s not something that I can go looking forward to,” says Beard, whose shop is across the street, “but a lot of people do.” If it helps Kinston, though, he’s for it. “It’s on the way to recovery I think. Downtown Kinston is thriving right this minute. Somebody’s doing something right down here.”
Food as art
To be sure, no one is doing more right than Vivian Howard. It’s thanks to her Chef and the Farmer restaurant that tourists pay good money to learn how to make biscuits and crane their necks for a chance to be on A Chef’s Life, her nationally broadcast public-television series that premieres its fifth season in October. But if Howard is Kinston’s most famous daughter, Stephen Hill is the behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealer. It was a conversation with him that sealed the deal when a Raleigh businessman decided to open a new vodka distillery, and a quiet word of encouragement when an elected official debated another run. It’s the combined weight of Howard and Hill that make up Kinston’s center of gravity.
Visitors might drive two hours for dinner at C&TF, but they’ll stay at The O’Neil, the former Farmer & Merchants Bank that is now a boutique hotel, or the Mother Earth Motor Lodge. Hill renovated both inns. Farmer & Merchants had been vacant for 26 years before Hill transformed it in 2015. Mother Earth Motor Lodge was an eyesore before its renovation this year. Hill also rehabbed apartments for short-stay rentals at the former offices of United Kingdom-based Imperial Tobacco Co. The medieval-inspired architecture is one of the last visible reminders of Kinston’s tobacco legacy — the trapezoid-shaped building is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The common denominator at the inns, Mother Earth Brewing and sister distillery Mother Earth Spirits, restaurant Ginger 108, and nightclub The Red Room is Hill and his son-in-law, Trent Mooring. The projects are distinct from Hillco Ltd., a family-owned business whose board includes Stephen and his brothers Robert and Gregg, neither of whom live in Kinston. Started by their father, Robert Hill Sr., in 1956, the company has been among the state’s biggest providers of senior care for decades. It now operates nursing homes, along with an insurance company and other businesses. At one time, the former Britthaven chain had more than 30 senior facilities.
Stephen Hill keeps offices at the brewery and The O’Neil, where he also has an apartment. If the hotels, restaurant and nightclub are spokes on a wheel, Mother Earth is the hub. Hill and Mooring started the brewery in 2009, later adding a taproom, beer garden and gift shop. Mother Earth consistently ranks in the top 25 largest North Carolina breweries, brewing about 8,000 barrels last year, according to the Brewers Association. It struck Hill, sitting on the brewery’s rooftop deck, that he couldn’t stand the sight of nearby dilapidated buildings, prompting him to buy more downtown property.
“I’m not going to sit and look at this for the rest of my life,” he says, an irony considering that he left Kinston as a younger man, intent on a life of politics. He worked as an aide in Washington, D.C., for U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones Sr. of Farmville until his father asked him to return to work at the family business in 1985.
“Here’s what’s unique about Stephen,” says Mayor BJ Murphy, a Kinston native who runs a social-media marketing company. “Not only does he have the financial resources, what a lot of people need to understand is that this is home for him, and his heart is in it. His intent is pure. Add in his business savvy and his love of the arts … he is the epitome of what a Main Street champion should be.”
Kinston needs champions because it has faced lots of obstacles in recent years, both manmade and natural, none more powerful than the decline of tobacco. Sayre’s sculptures represent tobacco barns that once dotted the landscape of Lenoir County, curing golden leaf that made Kinston one of North Carolina’s wealthier towns in the first half of the 20th century. Downtown Queen Street hosted a “magic mile” of banks, retailers and other businesses that sold everything from shoes to cars through the late 1970s. With the shuttering of tobacco warehouses, Kinston’s central district gradually emptied. Despite recent new businesses, downtown tax values dropped between 2015 and this year. Officials are pinning hopes on a $7 million project to repair Queen Street’s sewer lines and a road “diet” taking the main drag from four lanes to two.
Devastation from Hurricane Floyd in 1999 also slammed Kinston, coming about the same time that DuPont laid off nearly 1,200 people at its local plant, the world’s first to make polyester fiber. With tobacco demand waning, farm income has steadily declined: In 2015, Lenoir ranked 17th in the state with about $200 million in cash receipts. In 2000, it was No. 13.
With fewer reasons for young people to stay here, Kinston’s population dropped to about 21,000 last year, 825 fewer than in 2010. Almost 70% of residents are black, while average annual household income in the city is about $28,000. The largest employer, with about 1,500 workers, is Mississippi-based Sanderson Farms, which raises and processes chickens.
Though Donald Trump promised in an October campaign stop to bring back Kinston’s manufacturing jobs, its Global TransPark offers perhaps the greatest economic potential. A master plan predicted in the 1990s that the aviation-themed industrial park would have created 48,000 local jobs by now, not bad for a county with a population of about 60,000. Later forecasts reduced the projection to 3,600 jobs by 2010, which also didn’t materialize. Still, the state-funded park packs a big punch, employing about 1,300, many earning two-thirds more per year than Lenoir’s average salary of $35,000. A 2016 study estimated GTP’s economic impact at about $452 million, fueled by key tenant Spirit AeroSystems Inc., a Wichita, Kansas-based aircraft manufacturer.
There was a time when strong families pulled the strings of many Southern towns. For Kinston, that meant the Harveys. Harvey Enterprises in its heyday oversaw a fertilizer company, John Deere dealerships, an auction house, feed stores, oil and propane retailers, convenience stores, cotton gins, a testing laboratory and more. It has long ranked among the state’s 30 largest private companies in Business North Carolina’s annual rankings. Family patriarch C. Felix Harvey III was a board member at NCNB Corp., the predecessor of Bank of America Corp., and helped lead the charge for the Global TransPark. He died in 2014 at age 93. His great-nephew, Jim Seagrave, now runs LGM Enterprises, a charter aircraft company, while another heir, former UNC basketball player Charlie McNairy, heads International Farming Corp., which specializes in farmland investing.
It’s a different era now, perhaps, with Southern towns preferring to depend less on one family and more on the grassroots efforts of many. Hill says it’s time for outside investors to do their part in Kinston — then, in the next breath, he says he can’t turn down new opportunities. “It’s my way of creating art. I can’t paint worth a poop, but I can look out and visualize things that I would want and I would want my family to want, and the public follows behind. It’s a way of creating a landscape.”
Social Beverage Co. followed. With Raleigh-based owners, it distilled the first batches of Social House Vodka this summer in Kinston’s former power plant, part of a $5.8 million investment that will create 34 jobs, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. Kinston’s proximity to railroad lines, a strong airport and the power plant’s two deep-water wells were key factors for its selection over other sites in the Carolinas and Virginia, President Cary Joshi says. Kinston is also 10 miles from Social House’s supplier of corn, the vodka’s main ingredient.
“It was a conversation with Stephen that clinched us going to Kinston,” Joshi says, even though Mother Earth Spirits is a competitor. “His passion for Kinston, the arts, was a compelling thing that we wanted to be a part of. We wanted to join him in that renaissance.”
Mayor Murphy is confident that arts can transform an economy, though the thought scares some people. “It’s not as predictable; it can be abstract,” he says. Kinston’s renaissance requires a lot more work, with arts only one of many tools, City Manager Tony Sears adds. “Can the arts help save Kinston? Absolutely it can.” He notes that an emphasis on arts has sped awareness of something that’s been there all along: Kinston’s long tradition of great Southern food. Beyond Chef and the Farmer, Sears cites Howard’s spinoff The Boiler Room; a deli owned by her sister; a taqueria started by one of Hill’s former employees; Lovick’s Café; and 80-year-old Kings BBQ, which overnights its barbecue around the U.S. Howard plans to open a bakery next year.
Field of dreams
Back in the Arts and Cultural District, more Teach for America teachers and Down East Wood Ducks baseball players live here than artists. Hill says that’s temporary, especially as Kinston’s new minor league team gets more settled and once he turns a spoken agreement with western North Carolina’s well-known Penland School of Crafts into a written one. The idea is for Penland to share its deep pool of applicants with Kinston. Hill, who chairs the 24-member North Carolina Arts Council, brings street cred to the table.
Hill has built it, but will they come?
Sara Smith, a painter and marketing director for Chef and the Farmer, moved to the Arts and Cultural District after living and working in the Triangle, a decision she didn’t take lightly at 38. “There aren’t that many [other] gay people here,” she says and laughs. “I like my new friends, the church that I go to. And if I want Trader Joe’s [in Raleigh or Wilmington], I hop in my car once a month and get my fix.”
Smith’s work, which focuses on landscapes and foods of Lenoir County, has been shown at The Arts Center in Kinston and the Myrtle Beach Art Museum. Two of her drawings are in Howard’s new cookbook, Deep Run Roots.
“I don’t mean to sound campy,” Smith says, “but I hope other people would see what’s beautiful about this area and the people.”
Plus, she adds, “It’s the cheapest rent I’ve ever had.”
For more stories from our Arts in N.C. issue, please click the links below.