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Small Town Creates Its Own Self-Sufficient Way of Life


Pittsboro, N.C., is a small southern community with big ideas. Instead of depending on government or big business to boost its economy, town residents have managed to work things out at the local level and become small business success stories in the process. Pittsboro feeds, houses, fuels and entertains itself -- proving that a small, thriving economy is still possible in a globalized world. Faiza Elmasry reports.

Pittsboro is what businessman and writer Lyle Estill calls home.

"It's about 2,500 people that live in a wooded, rural area of North Carolina," he says. "It's a place where I've been living and doing business for the past 18 years."

Estill is in the energy business -- from wind to solar to hydropower. These projects, he says, meet local needs and contribute to developing his town's economy.

"When you think of economic [development] strategies, it's always based on big," he says. "So [people say,] 'When we get a new automobile plant or when we get a major factory, we'll be fine.' In the meantime, while we wait for those factories to come along or while we watch them close, there is an alternative. That is the economy that's based on small business and on trading amongst ourselves."

In his book, Small is Possible: Life in a Local Economy, Estill explains how people in his town decided to become a self-sufficient community.

"One of the good stories about that would be Chatham Marketplace, which is our co-op grocery store," he says. "Basically, a group of people got together and passed the hat and [put] together a grocery store. It's full of food that comes off the local farms. It's a place where we trade with one another and keep ourselves fed on local food. It is now sort of the centerpiece of our community, or one of them."

Estill says in Pittsboro, bank tellers recognize customers' voices over the phone and doctors still make house calls. The town, he says, even has its own entertainment events.

"We have the Shakori Festival of Music and Dance that came to town," he says. "They took an old farm and turned it into a venue for music and dance. That happens a couple of times a year. I'd say live music is probably at the core of entertaining ourselves. We have bands on the Bynum General Store's front porch on Saturday nights."

The community college has become a place where residents can learn from one another.

"Our community college sort of acts like our canvas, so that if you have a subject that you are passionate about and you want to teach about it, you can go down there and start teaching," he says. "That means that we've had a number of innovative programs."

Piedmont Biofuels Co-op started as one of those programs. Rachel Burton is one of the founders.

"It was a course that was developed by myself and another co-founder, Leif Rorer, at our community college," she says. "Lyle [Estill] was one of the first students in that class. The three of us, after the class was finished, continued to make biodiesel in his back yard."

Over the last five years, she says, Piedmont Biofuels has grown significantly.

"We started with a handful, less than 10 people that were interested in making their own fuel," Burton says. "We [now] have over 500, close to 600 co-op members that are fueling at eight different locations across central North Carolina. Mainly what we do is we collect waste vegetable oil or any type of fat that we can convert into biodiesel. We chemically modify waste vegetable oil or animal fat into what is biodiesel. It's a clean, renewable diesel-fuel replacement."

Longtime resident Barbara Lorie, who has lived in Pittsboro since 1958, says she is really proud of her community.

"This county is, in my opinion, unique in the kinds of people who have found their way here, following that pattern of living in an environmentally sound way," she says. "Here in Catham County, we have more organic farmers than almost any other county in the state. One of the primary organizations we have here, the Haw River Assembly, is taking care of a whole river. Their objective is to clean up this whole river. Is that not incredible?"

Estill says what his town has done is incredible, but it could easily be replicated in other communities around the world.

"Food would be a good example, eating locally," he says. "Most of us can eat a local diet, if we try. If we don't care, we don't pay any attention to it. Then we just eat what hits our plate. By putting just a little bit of intention into what to eat, we can cut the number of miles that that food travels, and you can get down to a relationship with the grower in any city, big or small. So, I think the localization of an economy is a state of mind that can be done anywhere."

As Estill explains in Small is Possible, it all starts when people make a conscious choice about how they want to live their life. Then they can create their own small businesses, trade goods and services among themselves and help their local economies grow and flourish.

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