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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 County:
Community Spirit Richmond's Biggest Strength
Entertainment Options from the Speedway to Broadway
Community Profile

Calm Before
the Storm

Richmond County has quietly laid the
building blocks for an economic boom
and confidently expects success

When 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 best.

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 years. 

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 other crops.

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 stronger future.

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 county.

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 results.”

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 services.”

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 employees.

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 business.

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 University.

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 neighboring counties.

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.

Community Spirit 
Richmond's Biggest Strength
Left: Rockingham's new city hall opened in April

Community 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 pronounced.  

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

Entertainment Options from the Speedway to Broadway

If 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 receptions.

“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 sports hunting.

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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