Above: Cole Auditorium at Richmond Community
College hosted 177 events last year. Top right: The addition of a
Progress Energy generating plant boosted Richmond County's tax bas by
$350 million. Below right: Rockingham Dragway provides a $5 million
boost to the local economy.
Learn More about
Richmond's Biggest Strength
Options from the Speedway to Broadway
Richmond County has quietly laid the
building blocks for an economic boom
and confidently expects success
Gov. Mike Easley came to Richmond County last spring to help dedicate
Rockingham’s new town hall, local business and civic leaders in the NASCAR-rich
region couldn’t resist teasing him about his recent experience on the race
track. But there was also a serious message behind the banter.
While promoting the state’s solid business ties with NASCAR, the governor got
behind the wheel of a race car at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord. The
governor lost control of the speeding car and slammed into a wall. Injuries were
confined to the car and the governor’s pride.
“Like you, governor,” Rockingham Mayor Eugene McLaurin II said to Easley at
the municipal building ceremony, “we’ve hit the wall. But also like you,
we’re not going to let that stop us from progress. And we’re taking steps to
get things right again.”
The comment seemed doubly appropriate for this area. Richmond County has hit an
economic wall in recent years with the decline of textile and other
manufacturing jobs. At the same time, however, motorsports continues to be a
major economic stimulus with one of the racing industry’s legendary raceways
located in the county and a dragway that’s considered among the nation’s
People chuckled at the ribbing the governor took at the public ceremony, but
local leaders seem deadly serious about getting back behind the wheel and
keeping on track. The economic downturn here, not unlike that in many counties
across the state, has been a challenge, but both public and private employers
see it as an opportunity.
Instead of cursing the darkness, Richmond leaders are praising the light. And
things seem bright, indeed.
Richmond County has the kind of resources many other counties envy. There are
plenty of good roads, with more coming. There is a readily available workforce.
There are more than adequate supplies of water and sewer service. There is a
thriving network of public and private initiatives aimed at economic
enhancements. There is a healthy community college that is a cornerstone of
worker training and retraining. There are affordable housing and safe
neighborhoods. There are readily available healthcare services and ample
recreational facilities. There is a first-class library. There are available
industrial parks with all the needed amenities. The county is within 30 miles of
50 golf courses. There are cultural and environmental enterprises far beyond
what many areas the size of Richmond support. And there is a lot of history and
community pride woven through it all.
In short, Richmond County is good to go. Existing industries looking to expand
or new prospects interesting in locating in the county have the green light.
Solid Building Blocks
Richmond County, hard by the South Carolina line in the south central part of
the state, stretches across 480 square miles of rolling, pine-covered soil known
as the Sandhills. It is 80 miles east of Charlotte and the same distance from
Greensboro to the north and Raleigh to the east. The county’s population has
held firm at roughly 46,900 for the last decade, growing 3.8 percent during 10
Richmond and neighboring Montgomery counties once produced more peaches than all
of Georgia, and while agriculture is still a dominant part of the county’s
economy, the mix of crops is changing. Tobacco and cotton productions have been
replaced with poultry and livestock and peaches have yielded to vegetables and
The per capita income in Richmond as recently as 2000 — virtually all of it
non-union — is $26,643 with the median family income at $42,600.
Unemployment spiked up when the economic slump hit two years ago and is still
high, recently standing at 11 percent, but that was three percentage points
better than the same month last year. The upside of that means there are more
than 3,000 workers available for expanded or new business opportunities.
A dozen existing industries in Richmond have expanded their production in the
last few years, even as the economic slump has continued. Another half dozen
have opened new facilities in the county in the same time period. The changes
have brought diversity and change to the county’s economic base.
That seems to be a sign of the times for Richmond. And it’s a sign that is
welcomed as the economically fertile area marches onward into a brighter and
Richmond County was formed two and a quarter centuries ago by visionary leaders
who developed a solid governmental and family structure out of what would become
thriving industries of textiles and railroads. As those two cornerstones have
been slowed with changing economies, others must take their place. That is where
Richmond finds itself today.
“We have a proud heritage,” Rockingham’s mayor McLaurin says, “and
we’ve got to create our own new opportunities. We’ve held our own during
these recent tough times. Our citizens have been understanding and supportive as
we have stayed focused on quality of life and services in an efficient manner.
We know about our past that has been so rich with entrepreneurs. It is now up to
us to develop our future and create that past spirit anew. I’m still not
satisfied with the status quo, and we’re not perfect, but I’d rather be in
Richmond County than anywhere else.”
McLaurin can speak with experience about the past. His employment is in the
petroleum field with a company founded in Richmond by his grandfather in 1912.
The company is now French-owned but still has the strong family ties to the
McLaurin, in fact, is one of several of the new, young leaders — people aged
from their middle 30s to late 40s — with growing influence over economic
growth and progress in the area.
The Richmond County Board of Commissioners is led by Kenneth Robinette, an
energetic developer (including a golf course) and businessman with strong ideas
and views on how to move forward. “We’ve moved out of the financial pits
after reaching bottom (because of the slumping economy) and have put things in
place to move forward,” Robinette says. “We are now primed for growth
because of our location and infrastructure. We’ve been facing what a lot of
rural America has faced, but we’ve taken the position that if something is not
working, let’s fix it. Our incentive package for industry is as good as that
of any rural county in the state. Things are turning around in the right way.
“We’ve had more inquiries (from industrial prospects) in the last 60 days
than we’ve had in the previous year. We’ve got to change and we will. To me,
economic development is anything worthy that generates dollars. We will have to
grow within ourselves. We have a younger generation and we are expecting
Richmond County recently hired an aggressive economic developer in Ron Munnerlyn.
He came from across the county line in South Carolina, but knows the area and
knows that the leaders here are dedicated to economic rebirth.
Richmond Chamber of Commerce President Bennett Deane, a Rockingham city
councilman, also fits the young set of leaders, with several generations of
family history in the county. County manager James Haynes came to the county
with both private industry and public service experience.
This entire crop of new leaders all point to partnerships with each other and
from private industry in their plans to move ahead. A new economic team was
formed six months ago, comprised of public and corporate officials, which meets
regularly to discuss and plan change and progress.
One local leader from an earlier generation with continuing influence is G.R.
Kindley, a 20-year mayor of Rockingham and 10-year member of the N.C. Board of
Transportation, where he is vice chairman. Kindley has been and still is a
dominant player in the progress of the county and region — especially with
highway improvements — because of his political connections and influence with
state leaders. His experiences mesh well with the new visionaries.
“I think we’ve reached a turning point in the county with a lot of
infrastructure in place,” says Kindley, who calls himself a goodwill
ambassador, a term that people in this community endorse. “We are now at the
point of being progressive and are doing what is needed. We have been upgrading
roads and industrial parks. We’re sitting at the crossroads of major highways
that will serve the people well. Working hard can make a difference in
people’s lives and we’re doing that.”
Governments Upgrade Services
Rockingham, as the largest town in the county and the county seat, has led the
area in community improvements to better serve citizens and businesses. In the
last decade, Rockingham has invested more than $8 million in upgrading the
municipal wastewater treatment capacity that now serves must of the county’s
industrial plants. The city has developed an industrial park of almost 200 acres
(with water and sewer lines) that has added three new companies in recent years.
County government and the City of Hamlet also have joined in the infrastructure
advancements in the last few years.
The county greatly expanded its water capacity in the 1990s at a cost of $9.4
million. More recently, the water facilities expansion increased the capacity to
28 million gallons a day and included a new 750,000 holding tank, a pump station
and additional lines. Total cost of these improvements have been almost $24
million, some covered by private donations from Carolina Power and Light Co.
Hamlet has created two industrial parks, ready for use, in or adjacent to that
city five miles east of Rockingham.
These various enhancements added to the expanded highway system, some in place
and some just ahead, put Richmond County on the cusp of much better economic
days. It’s as if the fuse has been laid around the county’s industrial
sites, just waiting for someone to light the match to set off the economic boom.
“We have been in the transition with the slump in textiles and we’ve been
hit as hard as anybody, most of it not our fault,” Richmond’s economic
developer Munnerlyn says. “But we’re now sitting on go. The plans are in
place. We are marketing ourselves as a region and doing very well in this
respect. It’s like someone opened the spigot in the last few months. Things
are picking up. It’s very encouraging and I am confident that we’re on the
right track. We’re equipped to serve new industries with training and
The chamber’s Deane is in lockstep with that. “We were obviously concerned
with the economic slump, but we’ve become proactive and we’re now well
established for the turn around,” he says. “We have available buildings and
available sites among our many assets. We can give customized training through
the community college, for whatever is needed. We’re the hub of a
transportation network. We’re more commercially developed than some
neighboring counties and are primed to emerge as a major distribution center
with the industrial parks. Times have been hard on us in recent years, but we
are primed and in place to move forward.”
County Manager Haynes adds to what Munnerlyn and Deane voiced. “We’re as
prepared as any county could be to move on and we’re getting there,” he
says. “We’ve got good, hard-working people who want to do well. We’ve
moving from heavy tobacco growing to other crops and moving from heavy textile
employment to service industries through consolidation.”
Richmond has held firm on its tax rate of 82 cents per $100 in property values
for the last six years, even as the economy dipped and Medicaid costs climbed.
The recruitment of several new industries and the addition of a valuable
Progress Energy (former Carolina Power and Light) electrical generating plant
have augmented the tax structure, even with the economic downturn. The Progress
Energy facility added $350 million to the tax base.
And ironically in light of the textile slump, one growth spurt has been at the
Burlington Industries plant. Even though the parent company is on hard times,
the Burlington plant in the community of Cordova has added modern equipment and
workers where weaving for fabric is running full steam ahead. Burlington
Industries is the county’s third largest employer with more than 700
Richmond is still dominated by manufacturing and production companies, even as
the mix changes. The leading employer, behind the public school system, is
Perdue Farms Inc., a poultry processor, with 1,130 employees. Third is Sara Lee
Hosiery, which also recently expanded. Next is Burlington, followed by First
Health, they by CSX, the rail service company with a home base in Hamlet.
And it’s not just the people of Richmond who contend the area is ripe for
industrial and business growth. Site Selection magazine last year chose the
county as one of the top 100 small towns in America to start or expand a
As part of the plans to prepare for the future, Rockingham has adopted a land
use plan to carry it through the coming decade.
Community College Resources
Stepping up to the plate to help in all these efforts is Richmond Community
College, where a variety of course offerings are available to workers who need
retraining or businesses with specific needs. “I see a bright future,”
college president Dr. Diane Honeycutt says, “and we want to be a part of that.
The potential is great.”
RCC opened 40 years ago and has steadily expanded and improved as economic
conditions and needs changed. It is now a $14 million annual enterprise that
employs 144 people and serves more than 7,200 students, most from Richmond and
Scotland counties. The school has 2,000 fulltime students and offers four-year
degrees through on-campus programs by Pembroke State University and Gardner Webb
Providing leadership for the college for nearly 20 years was its late president,
Joe Grimsley, who moved to Richmond after serving in several capacities in the
first two Hunt administrations. Grimsley was credited with significantly
strengthening the college and its large role in shaping the county’s economy.
The college designs courses to help industries retool and has created a Small
Business Center along with literacy training and developmental education
classes. More than 100 nurses are in training to serve the county’s two
hospitals or medical facilities in neighboring counties.
RCC provides more than $2.4 million a year in scholarship aid, including some
$85,000 a year in private foundation financial resources.
There is also faith in the revival of the county in the financial community. A
new local bank, Longleaf Community Bank, has just been chartered and was
scheduled for an August opening. “We feel the prospects here are promising,”
says John Bullard, bank president. “We have an aggressive economic development
board and staff. We have a new city hall. We have two interstate corridors.”
Bullard’s bank has 700 individuals who are optimistic enough to invest in the
new financial institution. More than 400 of them are residents of Richmond and
Richmond County’s public school system has gone through hard times just like
the rest of the county because of shortages of resources, but there are bright
spots there, too, both now and in its history. Richmond 20 years ago was the
first county in North Carolina to receive federal funds to begin the Tech Prep
program with a focus on students not destined for four-year colleges. The
county’s high school, Richmond Senior High, now partners with Richmond
Community College where students can take college courses via computer
networking from the high school campus.
The school system, with 18 schools, also provides a job-shadowing program for
students who want to learn job skills, a program financed by the school system
when federal funding ended. Student test scores in Richmond are below state and
national averages, but Superintendent Dr. Larry Weatherly attributes the reason
to parents with limited skills.
“You just can’t compare this county to a wealthy county,” Weatherly says.
“We do very well compared to school system with our same demographics. We do
well with what we have.” The system’s student enrollment is about evenly
divided between whites and minorities and many come from homes where parents
lack a high school education.
The county, however, has deep pride in its high school and its athletic
programs. Graduating seniors, more than two-thirds whom will go on to some form
of higher learning, last year received $1.4 million in scholarship aid,
including almost $600,000 in athletic scholarships. “This provides educational
opportunities for students who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to continue
their education,” Weatherly notes.
Richmond's Biggest Strength
new city hall opened in April
spirit adds up. And in Richmond County, this means the numbers are high. Whether
it’s something as simple as adding a canoe trail along parts of the Pee Dee
River or as complex as building multimillion-dollar highways, preserving
historical landmarks or revitalizing a downtown, the community spirit is
As the folks here like to say, while going places is easy, coming home is a
pleasure and family values isn’t just a catch phrase, it’s a fact.
It is also a fact that it is easy to go places from this county in the heartland
of the Carolinas. Several of the state’s major highways lead through Richmond
and residents can get to the beaches and any of the three major cities or
airports in the state in less than two hours. Richmond, in a sense, sits in the
middle of everywhere and the community is pumped for economic enhancement.
Companies wanting to expand or come to the county have a lot of low hanging
fruit to pick.
Among the benefits of living and working in Richmond is the quality of
healthcare. Two high quality hospitals offer care — both treatment and
prevention — beyond what many communities its size can provide. These
facilities add significantly to the physical well-being of the community as well
as the economy.
FirstHealth, a nonprofit corporation based in neighboring Moore County, took
ownership of Richmond Memorial Hospital two years ago and has expanded services
and facilities. FirstHealth has pumped more than $14 million into capital
projects and this year added a cutting edge fitness center.
“We are a full service hospital,” says hospital administrator John Jackson.
“We are doing the best we can to serve the citizens. We have a 50-year
tradition at FirstHealth of offering several community benefits programs to the
betterment of area residents. We’re excited with the health and fitness center
that will expand the number of medical programs available to this community and
the development of the hospital campus as a major focal point for comprehensive
healthcare services for people of Richmond County.”
The hospital has beds for 159 patients (including 51 for long-term care and 15
bassinets for newborns), a medical staff of 40, employs 750 people in the county
with an annual payroll of $22 million, and runs a $30 million foundation to
serve the region.
FirstHealth also adds to the community spirit as a supporter of local schools
through a student-mentoring program and to the local community college as a
major donor to the nursing and allied health programs.
Sandhills Medical Center in Hamlet is smaller, but nonetheless a community
partner. It is owned by Health Management Association out of Naples, Fla., but
administrator Dan Buckner stresses that “we go out of our way to keep
ourselves local.” The hospital, with a relatively new $30 million physical
plant, has an annual payroll in Richmond of $20 million with a staff of 200 and
64 beds. Sandhills last year contributed more than half a million for charitable
purposes and paid more than half a million in local taxes.
“We are a very viable part of this community,” Buckner says. “I think it
is an advantage that our resources can be used and kept here. Our profits are
returned to infrastructure and to service in the community.”
The community spirit also thrives in the benevolence from local foundations with
combined resources of more than $45 million. The Cole Foundation, with $20
million, and the Richmond Community Foundation, with some $25 million, serve a
series of health related issues. “I doubt there is another county the size of
Richmond in the state with two large charitable foundations like these,” says
Neal Cadieu, former newspaper owner and now volunteer and civic booster with the
county historical society.
Much of this spirit dates back to the formation of the county in 1779 when early
settlers carved their county along the banks of the Pee Dee River and
established the area that developed slowly, yet orderly, first from agriculture
and later from the evolvement of textile and railroad trade.
“This is the kind of community where you can know your leaders as well as your
neighbors,” comments Richmond Chamber President Bennett Deane. “It is safe
and friendly and people can still do business with a handshake.”
With all the change of the last 200-plus years, the one constant has been the
community’s spirit. It remains a strength. — Ned Cline
Options from the Speedway to Broadway
it’s variety entertainment you want, make Richmond County your first stop. The
range is from the roar of raucous racing engines to the serenity of a relaxed
evening of musical fun or stage shows.
North Carolina Speedway has been a staple venue for auto race fans since the
first race in the fall of 1965. The track, once locally owned and now part of
International Speedway Corp. of Daytona, Fla., is both a pleasure for fans and
an economic stimulate for the county. With two races each year for decades, the
speedway has represented an annual $50 million infusion of capital from the
thousands of fans and related businesses.
Unfortunately, the speedway has become a victim of its own success in the
Southeast where it started as the popularity of NASCAR is causing speedway
owners to look to larger facilities outside the state to accommodate crowds
beyond the 60,000 capacity here. Thus, Richmond wasn’t surprised when NASCAR
officials announced in June that this year’s November race will mark the last
time the venerable track plays host to two events (it will keep its February
race). So local officials and speedway officials are searching for ways to
utilize facilities for other forms of entertainment to sustain the economic base
the track has long provided. “We’re always looking for ways to better use
this facility,” general manager Chris Browning says. “We are accepting
efforts to get ideas on how to serve the area better. We have a good
relationship with local officials and want to be good corporate citizens.”
Across the road from the speedway is Rockingham Dragway, one of the nation’s
hottest drag racing facilities. It has been a staple here for 29 years and
affords fans and participants a year-round program. More than 90 events were
held there last year, bringing in more than $5 million in financial benefits.
When engines aren’t roaring at the dragway, musical entertainment is on the
menu, thanks to the entrepreneurship of owner Steve Earwood. Several years ago,
the dragway hosted a Lollapalooza concert and last year the heavy metal band
Metallica performed there. “Despite predictions of gloom and doom, both
concerts came off without a hitch and were successful,” Earwood says.
Across the county there is a different kind of culture — Cole Auditorium on
the campus of the community college. It is a $7.5 million facility, built
primarily with private money raised by citizens with help from the largess of
the textile Cole family. The auditorium, as fine as you’ll fine in large
metropolitan cities, has entertained citizens with Broadway shows and musical
events from bluegrass to pops concerts. The auditorium last year was booked for
177 events that drew more than 40,000 people. In its four years of existence,
the auditorium has hosted 700 events attended by more than 135,000 patrons. For
stage shows, the facility can seat almost 1,000 and serve up to 750 at
“There has been a tremendous response from the community for our productions
and to the facility itself,” says director Jo Ann Bruce. “This shows strong
community support for the arts. This facility allows our citizens to stay home
and still have quality entertainment. And thanks to the support of the DeWitt
family contributions, we have kept the quality high and the ticket prices low.
This facility and its quality are major assets to our community for the
enjoyment of our citizens.”
A separate cultural center is the Richmond Community Theatre, in its 27th year
of operation, with the first director still in charge. The theatre has staged
more than 100 productions with audiences reaching a high of more than 80,000.
Theatre Director David Arial has worked to prove that communities like Richmond
can appreciate cultural experiences once they have an opportunity. “My
experience is that once the exposure is present, theaters flourish in
communities like this,” Arial says.
There is an arts complex in historic downtown Rockingham. The Richmond
Historical Society has invested approximately $250,000 in buying and restoring
the John Wall Leak home and gardens near the center of Rockingham. The home
predates the Civil War by more than a decade.
History of the City of Hamlet, built and sustained for generations by the
railroad industry, has been preserved with the relocation of the original depot
that has been the town’s focal point for more than 100 years. The depot,
donated to the city by CSX, is now a museum and one of the most photographed
train stations in the country.
The Rankin Museum in Ellerbe has a potpourri of historical memorabilia. The
Sandhills Game Preserve in Ellerbe has thousands of acres of game lands for
History is also being preserved at the former Ledbetter Mill site that is being
saved and converted into luxury condominiums to be known as Carolyn’s Mill.
Environmental tourism is also growing in the county. Development of Blewett
Falls lake for recreation is high on the agenda of local leaders.
Richmond County may not have invented the state’s tourism slogan of “Variety
Vacationland,” but it has been a regional distributor. The variety here has
served residents and visitors well. A rich past is geared toward an even richer
future. — Ned Cline
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