Beyond the Build

Community Service

Making a Difference, One Storefront at a Time

Impressive things are happening in the “Black Belt” town of Greensboro, Alabama. The area was named for its rich topsoil when cotton was king, and is now facing a variety of challenges. For the last few years, a grassroots group of folks from around the nation have focused their efforts down South, inciting change in the most palatable way. Greensboro is now home to HERO, a catalyst for community development, providing economic development, community resources, housing education and affordable housing construction.

HERO’s efforts are thriving. The organization has created 11 small businesses and 50 new jobs since 2011, taking many people off welfare. Profits are used to build affordable housing in the area. HERObike is one of those companies.

Greensboro CollageI’m not sure how I came across their bamboo bikes. Thinking back, it may have been a Kickstarter campaign. In any case, I found myself in Greensboro last weekend picking up my new bicycles. While there, I met with HERO’s Pam Dorr, a transplant from the San Francisco Bay Area who came to Greensboro a decade ago as part of Auburn University’s Rural Studio. She never left, which has proved a game changer for Greensboro, Sawyerville, Newbern and other neighboring towns.

Pam saw opportunity in what was considered a local nuisance. She began working to build bikes out of wild bamboo, landing on an engineered bamboo tube in a hex shape lined with carbon fiber. HERObike now employs 24 people in what was an abandoned building. Their bikes are shipped around the world, and two to our office.

Pam was gracious enough to spend her Saturday afternoon with me, first loading up my new two prized possessions, and then taking me on a tour. We visited the original homes that Sambo Mockbee built some 20 years ago, and toured the new community initiatives of the rural studio. Along the way, Pam described all the good things that are bubbling up, from fifth-graders tutoring younger kids, to Lions Park, complete with skateboarding area, concession stand and baseball and softball fields. And of course, she touched on Project Horseshoe Farm, an initiative  to meet the needs of children, seniors, and adults with mental illness, instilling pride and helping them live on their own. Teach for America and  Habitat for Humanity are also strong influences.

Our afternoon finished up with a wonderful lunch and a slice of pie at PieLab, one of Pam and her team’s initiatives. I’ve heard it stays packed at lunchtime and on Sundays. (Next week Mercedes Benz takes the place over for an all-day conference.)

A visit to Greensboro make it clear that Pam is changing the town one storefront at the time and doing it with grace, vigor, energy and a ton of patience. Needless to say, she is totally committed. Maybe we all should be a little more dedicated to the communities around us, helping one on one, and not just with money. It changes the lives of the recipients and ours gets changed in the process.

I plan to stay connected with and HERO. In fact, I liked my two bikes so much that I pre-ordered two more of an upcoming model with wheels that glow-in-the-dark.

[Coverage I found interesting: CBS on HERO; New York Times on Pie Lab; A tour via YouTube]


Merrill Stewart Jr.

Merrill Stewart is Founder and CEO of The Stewart/Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham.