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Designing the future of Hopscotch

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When Hannah Ross wants to talk about design, the first thing she shows me is an urban garden.

The garden in question is Raleigh City Farm, which sits on a 1.3-acre lot north of downtown, across from the William Peace University campus on Blount Street. Because it's early March, most of what's visible is dirt, but when fully bountiful, this commercially oriented nonprofit will serve the community and its businesses.

It's also adjacent to Person Street Plaza, a cornerstone of the neighborhood's redevelopment aspirations. The shopping center houses Yellow Dog Bread Company, the new outpost of the Durham-born Wine Authorities and the soon-to-open Person Street Bar.

To Ross, the farm represents the kind of ingenious, forward-thinking, socially minded commercial venture that she believes can elevate Raleigh's profile and improve its standard of living. Ross has a stake in the matter, both as a returning Raleigh native and as the director of the new design festival that the Hopscotch Music Festival is bringing under its brand.

"The overarching idea is how we can shape the future, how people are shaping the future elsewhere," Ross says of the festival. "Makers, creators, storytellers, reinventors: how they're re-imagining old systems and processes and spaces and creating something new and unique."

This festival will run for two days, beginning on Wednesday, Sept. 3, the day before the acclaimed three-day music program commences. The details of the design festival will be announced in the coming weeks, but the organizers have already named Ross its director.

In some ways, Ross is an unusual choice, because she doesn't have a formal design background. She studied communications at Clemson University before heading to Brown University to pursue a master's degree in environmental studies. During her time in Providence, she coordinated the community garden at the school's Urban Environmental Laboratory.

Upon graduation, Ross returned to North Carolina to work at Elysian Fields Farm in Cedar Grove in Orange County. Her current job is at Interfaith Food Shuttle in Raleigh, where she is a farmer training coordinator. She didn't intend to stay in the area, but the creative and entrepreneurial opportunities in the city changed her mind. She found a place that the The New York Times recently enthused over in a travel piece, "36 Hours in Raleigh," which described it as "awash in entrepreneurial energy from homegrown clothing labels and converted art galleries to craft breweries and ambitious restaurants."

Ross also began doing communications and project work with New Kind, a Raleigh design consultancy with a philosophy of collaboration and open-source creativity that grew out of the founders' work with Red Hat. In early 2013, Greg Lowenhagen, Hopscotch's director and founder, approached New Kind about a joint venture: a design festival.

It's a common strategy for destination festivals to look for ways to diversify their appeal. Most famous, perhaps, is the currently unspooling South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, which has long included a well-regarded film festival and an interactive conference. More recently, SXSW has been extended to include conferences on education, the environment and, inevitably, startups.

In a mid-February interview at Trophy Brewing, Lowenhagen acknowledged the temptation to add to the event. "Over the course of the past four years, we've been approached by a few people, and people in the general public, about adding a tech or film component to help make Hopscotch grow into something a little bigger," he said. "The tech and the film are great, but they're really well done elsewhere.

"We think we can do a design festival well, one that encompasses graphic art, graphic design, architecture, urban planning, technology, film, food and music," Lowenhagen continues.

The first year's festival, he says, will involve a full day of activities Wednesday and a partial slate of events Thursday that will segue into the music festival. There will be 25 to 30 speakers at concurrent sessions at venues around the city, Lowenhagen says, adding that the design component, will "mirror [the music festival] in being a mixture of local and international talent."

Although Hopscotch has become a highlight of living in Raleigh, and has garnered acclaim from major media outlets and industry figures, it's still finding its footing as a viable business, turning a profit only once in its first four years.

Hopscotch passed on the design project last year, but this year, Lowenhagen decided to team up with New Kind's Matt Muñoz and Jonathan Opp to create a festival. Despite her title, Ross stresses that the programming is a group effort—she is functioning as a project manager, but the programming is happening collaboratively.

As we walk the North Person district, she points out places where exciting businesses have recently taken root, such as The Station at Person Street, Oak City Cycling Project, Stanbury restaurant and its neighbor, celebrated local chocolatier Escazú.

The timing seems perfect for a design festival, but not just because of the creative clamor. Muñoz describes design as "creation with intent," and the city seems full of visionaries poised to do just that. Meanwhile, however, disagreements lurk about what the city's vision is, and what its future should be. Whether it's a contretemps in nearby Oakwood over an insufficiently conservative home design, or Wake County's political leaders' apparent indifference to the light rail projects that Orange and Durham counties are embarking on, there are fault lines everywhere.

"We're in a critical moment in Raleigh where we're the second-fastest growing city in the U.S.," says Ross, "deciding how to develop well."

Muñoz is optimistic that Raleigh is the right place at the right time. "This area has a history of design with the [N.C. State] design school. It's all about creating the future of collaboration of industry, nonprofits, education, N.C. State's Centennial Campus. Look at the Wright brothers. They came here because they had an idea of how to grow, how to fly."

More at hopscotchdesignfest.com.

Disclosure: The INDY owned Hopscotch until 2012, but is no longer involved in the festival. Nor is INDY Music Editor Grayson Haver Currin, who was the festival's co-director for its first four years.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Creation with intent."

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