Carthage Applies to Become a STEP Town
Carthage is following the example set by Robbins and will apply to be one of the next STEP towns.
STEP (the N.C. Small Towns Economic Prosperity Program) is an initiative of the state Center for Rural Develop-ment.
The center will enroll 10 new towns this year. The program helps struggling towns with populations of less than 7,500 develop and carry out plans for reinvigorating their economies. The application deadline is Feb. 10, and at Tuesday’s meeting, the Town Board of Commissioners agreed to apply.
Town Manager Carol Sparks had already started work.
She has been collecting supporting letters from individuals and institutions. Heading up the effort along with Sparks and the town staff are Nancy McKenzie and Tim Emmert, of the town’s appearance committee.
One big supporter is former Robbins Mayor Theron Bell. She and McKenzie made presentations to the board at the meeting, with McKenzie outlining the history of the old town that draws its name from the ancient city that once challenged Rome.
“Carthage has a rich history dating back to the Revolutionary War,” McKenzie said. “In 1854, the Fayetteville and Western Plank Road was built. It ran from Fayetteville to Salem.”
That was the longest wooden road ever constructed anywhere, she said. She reminded the board that Carthage is an ancient term for “new city.”
“Our city stands on a high hill,” she said. “Let’s work hard to make it an inviting town.”
McKenzie asked the board to approve applying for the STEP program.
Bell set up large displays showing how her town brought residents and neighbors from the surrounding upper Moore County area in to work together through the three years of the STEP program.
Robbins was a real test case for the Rural Center’s effort — one of the first chosen in 2006 when STEP was launched. Since then, 56 communities have joined the NC STEP program. The town’s success has been hailed as a prime example of STEP, cited by the center as a model for other communities across North Carolina.
“NC STEP — what do you have to have?” Bell asked. “You have to have a dedicated, passionate and obsessed leader. You are in for the long run. Save some of your energies for a little later.”
She brought a loaner copy of the application book Robbins submitted in its successful bid. The thick spiral-bound book bore an image of hardwood trees on its cover as an emblem of the foothills section of Moore County around Robbins.
“The application is a lot of work, but well worth it,” Bell said. “You are building your community. That is a big thing, because we all live in isolated pockets in our towns. If you are building community, you have to bring in all aspects, all races and all ages.
“All ideas have potential. You can’t knock someone’s idea because it may be exactly what you need as a town to bring people together. You should think of the big picture — think they are going to give you $1 million — then scale back.”
Bell introduced Cynthia Reeves who, she said, had been the key worker in formulating the Robbins STEP program “RobbinsAlive!” in an organized written plan.
“We carried it around with us for three years,” Bell said. “It became our Bible.”
She pointed to Mark Garner, a former Robbins commissioner.
“Of course Mark is the one who found a little piece of paper about NC STEP — here in Carthage! — on your sidewalk and brought it to Robbins,” Bell said. “That’s where it all started. It’s you all’s fault (laughter), OK? That is what started us on our journey.”
Bell presented Carthage with a photograph of the county seat in earlier times, read a letter she had already sent to the center in support of the town’s application, and said she had told the center’s Art Jackson — who runs the program — that Carthage was a sister city to Robbins and more than deserved to be included.
“I got an email back from Art: ‘Glad to hear you are helping Carthage with their application; keeping my fingers crossed for them,’” she said. “That’s a positive step.”
‘We Are They’
A packet distributed to the commissioners showed what Carthage could expect if selected.
“NC STEP is designed for municipalities with fewer than 7,500 people, either within the state’s 85 rural counties or within urban counties defined as economically distressed by the N.C. Department of Commerce,” the center information said. “Towns are chosen primarily on economic need, capacity to grow and commitment.
“As part of the application process, each town commits to forming a community leadership group to participate in the development and implementation of local projects as well as in broader demonstration activities, such as training programs, site documentation and evaluation. Each leadership team includes a local elected official and a representative of town administration.”
If chosen, Carthage would initially receive a $25,000 planning grant that could be used for studies, travel and other activities in the beginning. Coaches — provided by the center — would guide the town along the way. The town would then be eligible to receive up to $100,000 in grants to implement priority projects developed through the program. It would also get priority consideration for other Rural Center grants.
“You can’t do a lot with $100,000,” Bell told the board. “It is the community building that is worth $3 million or $4 million.”
Key to STEP is bringing in participants from a wide area, not just residents but from every section around the town, she said, with the aim of developing new leaders.
“As Mark Garner used to say, ‘We are They,’”she said. “The mills in Robbins had gone. We had to re-educate ourselves. You have to be flexible, find something else to do.”
Garner explained his oft-quoted phrase.
“As Theron said, the mills had gone,” he said. “We saw this as an opportunity to make something of ourselves. One of the challenges we faced was to redefine ourselves. We are not a mill community anymore.
“That’s where that ‘We are They’ thing came from. People, talking among themselves, would say, ‘When are they going to do that?’ — ‘they’ being the board. They thought the board or the mayor were just supposed to make all these things happen.
“During the application process we realized that it’s not you all — it’s all of us. That’s where ‘We are They’ came in. We tried to separate NC STEP from the town of Robbins. It was a community-driven event. That’s one of the bigger things we learned.”
‘Bring Us Together’
In Robbins, communitywide meetings brought people into the process who had never felt included in decision making.
Many things came out of this reassessment Robbins made of itself. The town changed its form of government and hired its first town manager. It set its goal at making Robbins a destination for adventure (kayaking, hiking) and cultural (potteries, a reborn town theater) tourism. It began to collect artifacts for an area museum Robbins hopes to put in the Old Elise Depot.
All this, Garner and Bell stressed, came from an inclusive effort that brought a wide range of interested people to the table.
“Two nonprofits came out of STEP,” Bell said. “Foothills Outdoors does a tremendous service to our community with outdoor recreation. It is an ongoing thing. Jan. 28 — I am putting in a plug — at 11:30 a.m., the theater group will be the charity that benefits this year. Several of the theater group will jump into Bear Creek dressed as characters from ‘The Wizard of Oz.’
“Community events like these bring us together. It has been tremendous for the youth. You’ve got to have those young people. I am praying it will continue in the future.”
Contact John Chappell at email@example.com.
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