Dreaming of a Peace Villa
This year is my 20th anniversary of working with handicrafts from around the world. I've managed an artisan's co-op, had three brick and mortar stores in Chicago, sublet a small space in Paducah, Kentucky (212 Broadway) and have been selling online for about nine years. The path has been a difficult one, always struggling with lack of capital and with the hard work involved of maintaining inventory, but it's also been a fascinating journey. I've met people from all over the world, have helped many small importers with their businesses, and now am part of an online community that has been inspiring and supportive.
As I look back, even with all the hurdles (I've learned almost every lesson you can learn through the School of Hard Knocks!), I still believe fervently in the importance of incorporating hand made products in our lives, of their cultural relevance, the economic development potential there is in production and marketing and most importantly of the bridges they build between people around the world.
Unfortunately, the ethnic market niche has cycled around and shrunk while competition has grown simultaneously. When I first started selling on eBay, I was one of few with certain items. Now sellers post their wares directly from Tibet, Uzbekistan and other remote (to us in the United States) places in the world. A few years ago, I began to think about a different kind of retailing, one that incorporated both the hospitality and retail industry. I spent several months studying bed and breakfasts, how they are run and marketed and found that the industry in the SouthEast corner of the United States, with Florida as an exception, basically catered to Victorian and Cottage looks, neither of which appeals to me very much. Florida and New Mexico, however, have many models that are inspired by SouthWestern, Mexican, and European decor. Further west, there are plenty of rugged cabins, yurts, and other alternative structures that are interesting and exciting. I thought that the perfect blend for me would be something that incorporated the ethnic flair and had a gallery attached. Then, I thought, why not have each room represent a different country and peacemaker (ex: India and Gandhi, South Africa and Nelson Mandela, Guatemala and Rigoberta Menchu)? The rooms would be decorated with that theme and everything in it would also be for sale. "Like your bed? It's from India. We'll ship it to you!"
The potential for creating different environments representing these places excited me. Visit an An Indian Summer and drool over all the collections of environments she has compiled! As I dreamed, the vision grew into something much larger with huts instead of rooms, acreage of space, a campus of activity and inspiration around the world. I documented some of this on my website and you are welcome to read more about the vision on a grander scale. After months of seeking partners and doing research, I shelved the idea. It resurfaces from time to time, and although I had mentioned it on my earlier post on eco-housing, I realized I hadn't really put this dream out here on the blog. Who knows? Maybe the right people will read it and the dream could come true! (Wouldn't THAT just be something?)
The Time is Right for Going Green in the Hospitality Industry
My love for craft extends itself out into the environment, for how structures can exist harmoniously with nature, blending in, enhancing, and leaving the smallest footprint possible on Planet Earth. I shudder at all the boxes we've built for ourselves and for our cities and towns, plastic covering everything. When I was researching this concept, the green movement was beginning to make its way into the hospitality industry. Now there are wonderful retreats, hotels and Bed and Breakfasts all over the world that both inspire the soul, heal the body and seek to maximize green resources for both construction materials and the operation of a building.
Hacienda Nicholas in Santa Fe is one example of a beautiful place I could see myself wanting to spend some time, relaxing, recovering... And, the fact that they are environmentally conscious is a selling point in my book! But, here in the SouthEast, we see much less of that drive to go green. Residents in Paducah recently took it upon themselves to start a recycling program. Initiatives happen because people push them into existence and going green is finally making progress because it also makes financial sense in terms of saving money on the rising costs of utility bills.
Paducah, Kentucky as an Ideal Location for the Peace Villa
Paducah has been undergoing revitalization over the past five years. The Artist Relocation Program is now established and seasoned, several key buildings downtown have been renovated, and the City now has a second renovation neighborhood targeted, Fountain Avenue, where buildings and land are available at low prices in exchange for investment in rehabbing and new construction. This neighborhood is adjacent to Lower Town and very close to Downtown.
Paducah is centrally located, almost equidistant in the middle of a two-three hour triangle of St. Louis, Memphis, and Nashville. It's only a seven hour drive from Chicago or Atlanta. Because of this, tourists drive through regularly and stop at the Quilt Museum before getting back on the highway. If the city can continue to develop more magnets that will keep people here for more time, a business like the Peace Villa will just be one more added attraction.
Business Potential for Mixing Retail with Hospitality
Paducah has many of the chain hotels and a couple of bed and breakfasts, but residents of Lower Town clamor for more cafes, more places that they can walk to. I see the Peace Villa in my mind as a structure that resembles a traditional Moroccan or Spanish architecture model on the outside, with a gallery and cafe at the entrance, a large courtyard in the middle, with a swimming pool and tables. The accommodations rise up for two or three stories and there is a lovely roof garden. Can you see it?
I have found that one of the difficulties in selling ethnic textiles or crafts is that many people can't see in their minds eye how they can display them or incorporate them into their homes. In Chicago, we had several designers shop in our stores, but online, it's especially difficult to showcase a product on a low budget. In the Peace Villa, product would have visibility in many different environments and settings. Space helps sell the product, as well as having a memorable experience with it.
I can see the Peace Villa as a local hang out, a place vibrant with cultural activities, classes, presentations, live music as well as a destination that would bring more tourists to Paducah. This is a hot climate in the summer, yet there is only one public outdoor pool. Everything closes early. Nothing happens on Sundays. We could change that! We could offer a place of beauty to both locals and visitors.
Social Goals for the Peace Villa
The Peace Villa would also serve as an educational place on many different levels. The most important one for me is to continue in this work of promoting cultural dialogue and understanding. I think that this is the greatest threat to our national security: the ignorance we have of other cultures, their people and their aspirations. Lately, we have had all this press conference about whether Obama is Muslim or not. He states that he is a Christian, but why should that even matter? We lack a fundamental respect for people of other faiths and traditions that continues to instill fear and hostility. This translates into the decisions we make in our foreign policy and of how we treat our neighbors right here.
The Peace Villa can help awaken curiosity about other cultures by creating these spaces that educate about other traditions, customs and art. Schools could come and visit. We could develop presentations on the different cultures represented. And, on the green side, there is a local tech school here that has a carpentry program. Perhaps they could include the Peace Villa as a teaching tool about how to build green. The possibilities are endless!
The Dream Team for The Peace Villa
If you are interested in this concept, do contact me. My resume is posted on my website. I would also love comments about what the rest of you think about this idea or if you have been to similar places.