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A Small Town’s Comeback: How The Industrial Commons Leveraged Local Assets for Rural Economic Development

June 5, 2024


This article is an adapted excerpt from an inspiring new book, “Assets In Common.

The Renaissance of a Rural Textile Manufacturing Town

About 75 miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina lies Morgantown. Though small in size with just about 17,000 residents, a large ambition and model is unfolding. A network of businesses and community leaders are crafting a model of place-based rural economic development with an influence to extend across all of rural America. This small town and its surrounding region carries the history of being a vibrant hub of textile manufacturing. For generations, much of the U.S. textile industry was centered by the factories that sprinkled the landscape, partnered with a hardy workforce which resided in the town. However, as globalization took its toll in the 1990s, the textile industry’s decline left Morganton reeling, with shuttered factories and diminishing job prospects. It was against this backdrop of economic hardship that an inspiring story of community resilience and ingenuity began to take shape among a small core.

Reversing Economic Despair through Local Empowerment

The globalization of the textile industry in the 90s dealt a devastating blow to Morganton, a town in a region that served as a hub for the U.S.-based textile production, leaving its once-thriving industry a mere shadow of its former self. Unemployment rates soared, and any sense of workforce agency and self-determination was lost.

For Molly Hemstreet and Sara Chester, two lifelong residents of Morganton, the plight of their hometown struck a deep chord. They witnessed firsthand the toll that economic decline had taken on their friends, neighbors, and loved ones. But rather than succumb to despair, they channeled their determination into action, envisioning a path forward that would honor Morganton’s rich heritage while ushering in a new era of economic opportunity.

Solutions Offered: A Networked Ecosystem for Resource Sharing

In 2015, Hemstreet and Chester established The Industrial Commons (TIC), a 501(c)3 organization with an ambitious mission: to create economic opportunity in this industrial town for the people of Morganton and the surrounding region. Drawing inspiration from the cooperative models of the Mondragon Corporation in Spain and the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, they followed the emerging pathway of forming a multi-stakeholder cooperative ecosystem rooted in the unique culture, skills, and relationships that defined their community.

At the heart of this ecosystem are the worker-member cooperative enterprises, where employees have the opportunity to purchase Membership Shares after two years, granting them ownership voting rights and profit-sharing distributions. Moreover, The Industrial Commons Corp, a Delaware Public Benefit Corporation solely formed by TIC, holds a class of Founding Shares in these cooperatives. This unique structure gives TIC certain veto powers, allowing it to stay committed and involved in each cooperative’s formation and strategic direction while preventing the sale of the companies.

But TIC’s support extends beyond legal structure and governance. With its established balance sheet and capacity to raise patient, philanthropic capital, the worker-member cooperatives benefit from sharing economic interests. TIC’s robust financial standing can be leveraged to provide capital access that standalone worker cooperatives may struggle to obtain. Aligning with its local industrial revitalization mission, the non-profit can purchase major equipment and make it available for the cooperatives’ use without burdening them with debt. This innovative approach enables capital-intensive enterprises, like manufacturing, to launch with the necessary support.

At the heart of TIC’s approach was a deep commitment to place-based design – the idea that sustainable economic development must emerge from and respond to the specific needs, assets, and aspirations of a local community. This principle manifested itself in tangible ways, from the establishment of a member-governed network of regionally based textile manufacturers to the successful conversion of local businesses into worker-member cooperatives.

A Blueprint for Rural Revitalization

The story of The Industrial Commons offers a powerful blueprint for rural communities seeking to reshape their regional economies in a way that honors local culture, relationships, skills, and knowledge. Here are some key takeaways:

  1. Root Innovation in Place: TIC’s success lies in its ability to leverage Morganton’s textile heritage while embracing modern, sustainable practices like circular economy principles. By grounding innovation in the unique context of their community, TIC demonstrated the value of recognizing and building upon local knowledge and expertise.
  2. Empower Community Ownership: Through its cooperative model, TIC empowered workers to become active stakeholders in their economic futures. This sense of ownership and democratic decision-making fostered a deep sense of pride and commitment, especially in the industrial context of manufacturing.
  3. Embrace Resilience and Adaptability: Morganton’s journey from a declining textile manufacturing town to hosting a burgeoning industrial cooperative ecosystem is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of communities that refuse to accept economic decline as inevitability. By embracing change and leveraging their unique strengths, Morganton’s residents charted a new course toward evolving prosperity.

Inspiration for Another Era of Rural Economic Development

The Industrial Commons is profiled by and representative of a trend outlined in an inspiring new book, “Assets in Common,” published by the Purpose FoundationCommon Trust and One Project. The Industrial Commons approach demonstrates how a deeply rooted community can thoughtfully consider what assets lie in common among them, and then use legal and financial structures to connect these assets for increased resilience, competitiveness, mission integrity and growth. By democratizing business ownership, fostering cooperation and keeping economic development locally rooted within the rural context, TIC has paved a replicable path for other towns looking to rebuild and root assets of their own.

Readers can download a free PDF of “Assets in Common” here to learn more about this pioneering model for community economic empowerment and the pathway to scale it represents for the shared and steward ownership movement.

Charity May

Charity May is the Principal and Founder of Sacred Futures and Co-Author of Assets in Common. Her work as a regenerative systems designer, practitioner and advisor reimagines the governance, design and development of capital vehicles, community-led projects and businesses committed to cultivating renewal and reciprocity between human and more-than-human worlds. Charity is certified in permaculture design and carries experiences which spans across finance, impact investing, real estate, ecology, organizational design and the arts. Her work at Sacred Futures serves capital providers, founders, public and private enterprises working closely with the Earth. More of her writings can be found at