They say that sometimes what you’re looking for is right under your nose. But for the residents of Hale County, the answer was growing in the backyard. Thanks to an excess of naturally harvested bamboo, an interest in handmade bikes and a newly transplanted designer from out west, a small nonprofit put the tiny rural town of Greensboro, Ala., on the creative map. Eleven small businesses later, nonprofit HERO shows what the power of design, community and entrepreneurship can do.
Hale County’s HEROs
Let’s step back to how it all began: the partnership between a nonprofit called HERO and former designer named Pam Dorr. Pam was living and working in San Francisco when she made a trip to Greensboro (population 2,731) after reading a particularly inspiring book, which we’ll tell you more about later.
She fell in love with the town, moved down south and went on to found the affordable housing leg of HERO, which has now built housing for families in seven Alabama counties.
But for an inspired soul like Pam and her hard-working team, that wasn’t enough.
“We started doing housing, and some of our partners helped us recognize that we could use design to do better work. We helped others start businesses, and then (began to) start businesses ourselves,” Pam says.
‘A Catalyst for Community Development’
We’d be putting it mildly to say that Pam and the team at HERO are involved in a lot of projects.
There’s PieLab (which offers pie and coffee with a side of hospitality job training), Martin Stewart School (a former schoolhouse that will soon be turned into a facility for conferences and design workshops) and Caldwell Creek (a 32-unit subdivision of affordable, single-family homes) not to mention the bamboo bikes and a handful of other projects.
When Pam arrived in Greensboro, 75 percent of downtown was empty. But thanks to HERO’s focus on repurposing abandoned buildings, the biggest complaint they now receive is that there’s not enough street parking.
Designing A New Community
Pam is quick to point to design as a key reason for the success of HERO’s businesses and programs.
“Design makes what we do compelling and interesting, and gives us a further reach than we would have in a small town otherwise.”
HERO also plays a large role in creating employment and job training. Over 50 new jobs have been created by HERO’s small businesses, and several of the workers you might see on any given day at HERO’s bamboo bike shop or Pie Lab are students gaining valuable experience and job training. With the fair wages earned by HERO’s employees, they’ll be able to afford one of HERO’s homes.
“We’re a catalyst for change,” Pam says. “We’re inviting others to join in our work, and inviting our partners to help us. This isn’t something we do alone – this is something we do with the help of our community and with others from the outside, and that’s what makes it work.”
Design makes what we do compelling and interesting, and gives us a further reach than we would have in a small town otherwise.
How The Bamboo Bikes Began
But back to those bamboo bikes, which have put HERO on the international map. HERObikes are handmade at a studio on Main Street from locally grown bamboo.
It all began in 2008 when one of HERO’s graphic design interns, Ryan LeCluyse, heard about bikes made of bamboo. When residents of Greensboro began complaining about an overabundance of the sustainable material, the team began to build bikes.
“What we found pretty quickly is that we liked doing bikes,” Pam says. “We liked riding bikes, playing with bikes, cutting bamboo up, curing bamboo, so we just started working a lot with bamboo.”
Picking Up Speed
It wasn’t smooth biking at the beginning (is it ever?), but Pam and her team were lucky enough to have great partners. There was University of Kansas Professor Lance Rake, who studied bamboo at the Bamboo Institute in India. Thanks to his learning’s and influence, HERO now owns two patents for The Semester Bike and one for a new bike making its debut at Interbike in Las Vegas.
HERO also has lots of volunteers from AmeriCorps VISTA and is working with Georgia State University on a marketing project.
Orders come in from all over the world, and they’ve found a way to ship the entrepreneurial, community vibe of Greensboro along with their bikes by offering DIY kits as well as workshops where you can build your own bike and experience the creativity of Greensboro for yourself.
“We often get the question – why a bamboo bike?” Pam says. “It’s organically grown, it’s sustainably harvested – the bamboo grows literally a block from our shop. We cut it down, walk over and build a bike. We call it hyper-local and it’s an amazing way to do work.”
‘A Small Town With Good Things Happening’
Despite the runaway success of the bamboo bikes, HERO is nowhere near done with its work and still considers every project a learning process.
Pam speaks highly of the incredible learning experiences that she’s having along with her team and the community of Greensboro.
“On the professional side, we’re learning how to develop a new product, how to launch that product, how to do a Kickstarter. Whether we succeed or fail, we’re learning every day.”
So, what’s next for the little town that could? Quilts, as it turns out, and a new pajama project called Sleepy Town.
And for Pam – the West Coast designer turned Southern entrepreneur? She’s not going anywhere.
“When I got here I never expected to stay – I came here for a year and ended up feeling like there was something I could do here that I couldn’t do anywhere else in the world,” she says. “This is a small town with good things happening,” she says. “We really want to help our community…people are born, raised and die here. It’s got the ‘front porch’ feel to it. People are kind, and it’s really nice to celebrate a rural community.”
And with that, the HERO biked off into the Greensboro sunset.