[Photo: Epicenter / www.ruralandproud.org]

Maria Sykes worries that the world is becoming “a bit homogeneous.”

It seems that as places grow together, they also grow more similar. So in Green River, her home since 2009, she co-founded an organization dedicated to preserving the uniqueness of the southeastern Utah oasis: Epicenter.

Epicenter debuted after AmeriCorps volunteers were invited to work in Green River and decided to make the small, southeastern Utah town their home. The organization works to augment Green River’s existing assets by providing affordable housing, community building and other intentional improvements. Epicenter also hopes to act as a model for other rural communities, leading the way in showing how small towns across the country can build upon their home’s vibrancy and opportunity.

“Every city in the world can improve,” says Sykes, who serves as Epicenter’s executive director. “I don’t think that Green River is exceptional in that it can benefit from architecture design and care.”

Before settling in Green River, Sykes earned her degree from Auburn University’s School of Architecture and worked in Atlanta, Ga. Then the 2008 recession hit, and she found herself in Green River working on what would become the town’s community center. A summer visit to the town then suddenly turned into 12 years.

“There’s this master narrative that rural places are in need of help or deprived. And yes, they are denied a lot of resources, but I think rural places have so many assets — things that all demographics are looking for,” Sykes said about Green River and what Epicenter strives to accomplish. “Recognizing and lifting those things up, rather than focusing on what’s wrong with a place, can be a really powerful place to start from.”

One of the ways Epicenter seeks to “lift those things up” is through housing. Epicenter works to provide affordable housing for low- to mid-income households in Green River, not only to improve general quality of life, but to keep families and future generations in the town. At the organization’s beginning, they focused on cost-effective solutions such as helping residents access the internet, apply to social services and manage resources like local contractors.

Epicenter now gathers their own data through surveys to gauge the housing needs of Green River and has gradually shifted to bigger projects.

Such data revealed that 49% of Green River homes were in need of repairs. In response, Epicenter unveiled its Fix It First program, designed to help elderly, disabled and low-income homeowners repair their homes and prevent future problems. Since this program began in 2012, Epicenter has completed 47 home repair projects for homeowners across Green River.

“It’s about being a good neighbor and not over-promising anything,” Sykes said. “We’re not here to save the town — Green River doesn’t need saving. We’re here to build up a community and celebrate this place.

Right before the COVID-19 pandemic shut America down in March of 2020, Epicenter started its most ambitious project yet: Canal Commons. The City of Green River owned a 3.2-acre plot of land in the town south of Main Street, which they hoped would become affordable housing. Epicenter submitted their proposal for developing the land in late 2019; the city accepted the plans in early 2020, and in June, Epicenter officially broke ground.

“We embarked on our biggest project ever, and then the pandemic hit, but we were still able to move forward,” said Sykes. “Whenever it seemed like the world was falling apart, I was continually surprised that we were able to get the support that we were asking for.”

Phase 1 of Canal Commons includes five single-family rental units — three units will have two bedrooms and the other two units will have three bedrooms. They will begin taking applications for the rental units in the coming months, and Sykes expects construction on the first five units to be complete this summer.

“We’re thinking of it as a little pocket neighborhood that came from years of conversation with the community,” Sykes continued.

Epicenter also struck a deal that allowed the organization to trade labor instead of buying the land outright from the city. Epicenter volunteers help write grants for the town, participate in different municipal committees and complete other jobs, like redesigning the town’s website. That labor will eventually total to $109,000, the value of the Canal Commons parcel.

Sykes anticipates Phase 2 of the Canal Commons project to break ground in December 2021. The second phase includes five more units on the land, but they will be owner-occupied rather than rentals. Residents are already eyeing the property and may work with local contractors to build their new homes.

“Now feels like the perfect time to actually be designing housing for our neighbors, with single-family homes and lots of public green space,” said Sykes.

That green space is tentatively named Pearl Baker Park after Pearl Biddlecome Baker, a lifetime resident of Green River and a Western icon in her own right.

“It was time for a park named after a woman,” Sykes quipped.

AmeriCorps volunteers will work on landscaping the rest of the acreage with trails, sculpture benches and other community designs.

In the midst of the planning and execution of Canal Commons, Sykes has found herself looking back as much as forward.

“2020 kind of gifted us the opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing,” she said. “So much of our work is about looking forward, but also honoring the past. It’s like time travel.”

Sykes and Epicenter’s other leaders have begun working on a collective publication about their work and time in Green River thus far — “a collection of conversations and interviews and essays and poems and reflection pieces in general” that they hope to publish by the end of the year, according to Sykes.

“We really want to be critical of the work that we’ve done: what hasn’t worked? How can we decolonize this sort of work? How can we make it more equitable?” are a few of the questions Sykes and others at Epicenter have pondered over the years. Perhaps most of all, “How can we bring new people into this community without it being extractive?”

The assumption that rural areas are behind the curve is one that frustrates born and bred Green River residents as well as relative newcomers such as Sykes. Some locals bristled at the idea of an organization like Epicenter, not wanting to sacrifice Green River’s singular history and tradition to “development.”

Most of that local resistance, Sykes noted, “is 100% justified.”

“We came in as these idealistic outsiders who didn’t know the town that well,” she admitted. “But I think that as our organization matured, we’ve matured; we’re constantly re-tuning our language and the projects we do.”

For example, instead of using the potentially condescending term “rural development,” Sykes has taken to saying “local investment” instead. “Investing” in the town’s existing resources, history and potential is more productive than terminology that suggests Green River is somehow unfinished or lacking.

“We happen to be in a rural place that happens to be isolated. There are all these factors about this place that give Green River special challenges,” Sykes said, “but also, more importantly, these factors give us some really unique assets.”

And it’s those assets, like world-famous melons and frontier history, that Sykes hopes to not only preserve but showcase. Found in Green River, Moab and the remaining small towns across America, these singularities are, perhaps, saving the world from a fate of homogeneity, bit by bit.