Keys to Freeze, Mile 2868: A Wild West Town’s Visionary Experiment

A cadre of young designers, architects and creatives sets up shop in a down-on-its-heels Utah town, determined to meld Green River’s pioneer past with a fresh take on the future.

Keys to Freeze, Mile 2868: A Wild West Town’s Visionary Experiment

A dear friend was explaining her tattoo to me one day: The blue ink looked like the pen markings you made on your arm or hand in high school when you were feigning paying attention. Two simple letters were etched into her skin: be. She explained to me that she was playing off of the verb To Be, the most basic principle of language and existence. For those who have tried to learn a foreign language, to be is one of the first verbs a person attempts to master. You are in a space, you are playing a particular role, and you are in a certain mood. My friend wanted to take the cornerstone of language to a simpler, basic state. For her, the tattoo is a reminder to focus on the moment and to truly be in a place.

In the middle of Utah I explored this idea of being, investment, and truly adopting a place as your own when I came across “Epicenter,” an amorphous organization serving the once-forgotten community of Green River. It is here that a young group of designers, architects, and other creative professionals have chosen to take up residence, shunning major metropolitan hubs and other corridors that may appeal to others in their demographic. They have quite a vested interest in seeing the town prosper.

The Green River community was originally founded in 1876, becoming a natural stopover for travelers and the U.S. Mail. Throughout its history, Green River has served as a port, railway stop, military base, and pit stop for the highway drivers of US-6, US-50 and I-70. It currently has a population of a little more than 1,000 people, many of whom take on multiple roles in the community.

A “Welcome” sign is a chance for a community to encapsulate who they are in a blink of an eye to passing motorists. This handmade sign was refurbished recently through a project led by Epicenter.
A “Welcome” sign is a chance for a community to encapsulate who they are in a blink of an eye to passing motorists. This handmade sign was refurbished recently through a project led by Epicenter.

Someone who passes by this small town could discard it at face value. When vacant structures, neglect, and the absence of vibrant spaces make people turn away, Epicenter sees opportunity to grow, to create such spaces, and to build a future.

Epicenter was formed by three Auburn graduates in 2009. There is no single definition of Epicenter’s true function in Green River. The name implies that it is the focal point of action and ideas. The organization lives by five central values: “Community, Purpose, Accountability, Excellence and Adventure.”

Their body of work is ever changing based on the needs and desires of the tight-knit community. Members of the collective routinely step outside their job description to help others. Whether assisting people in filling out paperwork, completing an investigative housing study, or repainting the “Welcome” sign for the town, all the good that they do is spawned from just knowing their neighbors.

Chris Lezama of the Epicenter team believes that Green River is on the cusp of something special. He sees people building relationships, starting conversations, and cementing the foundations for the community’s future.

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Broadway once served as the main road of Green River. The town gradually has been spread out beyond the central through-street and pulled toward the highway interchanges. Broadway now stands nearly empty with many boarded-up buildings and vacant lots. There are only three open businesses. Frank’s Pizza is one of many opportunities lying fallow until conditions are right to reinvest in the street.

Seemingly abandoned properties intermingle with the occupied and vibrant places. Motels, businesses and homes represent the past, present, and future of Green River. Weathered walls and empty windows make a person question what happened but also provokes one to reimagine the space’s future.

This observation tower was part of a branch of the White Sands Missile Range located in Green River. From 1964-1975, the town prospered from the presence of the base that launched 244 missiles. Today, the remnants of the base dot the landscape and serve as silent memorials to a bygone era. The Epicenter staff sees opportunities to create housing and creative spaces within the vacant government structures, but no dreams have yet been realized.

The Chow Hound is one of the few businesses that stay open late, and serves as a central meeting point for the community. Ice cream and burgers are served with help wanted posters, fliers and warm conversations. One resident said that it is normal to stop there every day for one reason or another.

Epicenter’s work is a hybrid of building relationships while creating opportunities. The Epicenter mission statement simply says: “We nurture local businesses, entrepreneurs, and ideas. We’re dedicated to the town of Green River where we strive to provide local solutions to universal design problems.”

Epicenter branding on the side of its building is complemented by the ghost layers of past occupants. The historic construct on Broadway was renovated after a decade of vacancy with the help of a Rural Business Enterprise Grant from the USDA, private foundations and donors. The past billiard room, general store, bar, and potato chip storage facility now houses Epicenter’s programs, staff, Frontier Fellows, and office space.

From these walls, ripples of positive change will flow into the community.

Epicenter, with the help of the town and local business owners, developed a set of brochures to market and advertise the attractions of the Green River area. Small towns do not always have the resources or capacity that many larger communities take for granted, such as accessible designers. The brochures are all over the town and are complemented by the Destination Green River website.

Green River doesn’t have a housing department. One of the first projects that Epicenter took on was generating a comprehensive housing study in which they categorized every piece of property in Green River and rated its conditions. The research team found that there was a lack of housing in the community and, of what was available, forty-seven percent needed repairs. It was from this study that the “Fix it First” program was developed by the Epicenter, a low-interest micro loan pool giving homeowners access to capital for minor renovations to their homes. These renovations can range from roof repair to window replacement and can prevent major issues from occurring later on. After handing out thirty loans to community members, the program boasts a 0% delinquency rate.

Amy Wilmarth, originally from New Mexico, is a mother and local business owner in Green River. She was one of the first participants in Fix it First.

Originally from California’s Bay Area, Chris Lezama is the Principal of Economic Development for Epicenter. He builds relationships with local business owners, facilitates working groups, and helps to create technical assistance opportunities to support Green River’s businesses. Chris recently was accepted to grad school at the University of Michigan, but decided to stay in Green River. “I feel like we are at a tipping point, that things are falling into place and I want to be here to see those things through,” he says.

Maria Sykes, originally from Alabama, graduated from Auburn, and then left Atlanta to come to Green River as a member of Americorps Vista and was part of the team that formed Epicenter. She is the Principal of Arts & Culture and manages the Frontier Fellows Program, a four-week program for creative professionals to immerse themselves in Green River and work on self-initiated, site-specific projects.

High school teacher, track-coach, and mayor of Green River, Pat Brady believes the town is more than what meets the eye. He is impressed by and thankful for what Epicenter has done for the community. The housing plan, forming countless working groups, and helping the community center expand their programing shows that Epicenter is not settling for the status quo.

Green River currently does not have a chamber of commerce. Joe West, owner of the KOA Campground, is one of many business owners who participate in the Green River business group. Known as “Potluck,” the group meets on alternate weeks to discuss local tourism and other economic development issues. The Epicenter hosts the meetings, but Potluck relies on the members and their energy to continue the conversations and create change in the business landscape.

Natalie Hert and her dog Kiska rest in the shade outside of the Holiday Inn. Originally from Colorado, Natalie came to Green River to own and operate the Holiday Inn. She wants the community to concentrate on what it has and accept that it may never grow to be a Moab, a city about fifty miles southeast of Green River with a population five times larger. She is looking forward to taking advantage of some technical assistance for her staff provided by Epicenter.

The Ratio stands forty-five feet high on top of Monument Hill in Green River with mesas in the background. Completed in 2010, this art piece is the first of two works by Andrew Rodgers located in the town. The pyramid-like structure stands out for countless drivers who bypass Green River while driving on I-70.

Elements was completed in September 2013 by Andrew Rodgers. The structure resides on Monument Hill, a a seventy-five-acre sculpture park. Each pillar is more than thirty feet high, one topped in twenty-three-carat gold, representing the four elements: earth, fire, water, and wind.

To learn more about Green River and The Epicenter’s work you can visit www.ruralandproud.org.

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Read more Keys to Freeze adventures on Narratively as our six daring cyclist friends make their way from the Florida Keys to Deadhorse, Alaska.