Carthage Makes Case to Be STEP Town
Carthage is following in Robbins’ path in hopes of winning the chance to take advantage of state-sponsored support for economic development.
The county seat is one of a number of towns and community clusters across the state vying for selection by the North Carolina Small Town Economic Prosperity (STEP) program of the state’s Center for Rural Development. It brings training, coaching and money to help a number of such towns every year.
Robbins was one of the first. Carthage hopes to win one of this year’s coveted slots.
“The Rural Center had 37 applications,” Town Manager Carol Sparks said. “They cut that number down to 20 finalists, and we made the cut.”
Of the 20, the state will eventually choose 10 communities.
Art Jackson, who heads the program for the Rural Center, visited Carthage Thursday to meet with Sparks and a number of local business and community leaders as well as take a closer look at Carthage.
“You all know North Carolina is a state of small towns,” Jackson told the group as they assembled around a table in the fire station. “Back in 2004, the legislators asked the Rural Center to see if there was something we could do. Small towns were falling further and further behind economically. Rural small towns are having a hard time making it.”
Jackson said he was impressed with the diversity and the number of people who pulled the meeting together on short notice. The group included state Sen. Harris Blake, Carthage Mayor Lee McGraw, car dealership owner Tommy Phillips, Town Commissioner Milton Dowdy and other business owners and government leaders.
“I think he got an idea that everybody he talked to has a passion for Carthage, both its history and its future,” Sparks said later. “We went through every area of town, and he saw there is a dire need here. We just rode down different neighborhoods.
“He’d driven through before, but never had the opportunity to see areas like those annexed after we got the grant to extend water and sewer.”
There are parts of Carthage, not far from its historic district with restored mansions and the Courthouse Square, with rundown houses and dilapidated buildings.
Even in the downtown area, many storefronts are empty. At one time Carthage bustled with stores, theaters, shops and factories.
“We had two five-and-dime stores uptown — Mack’s and Pope’s — and two movie theaters,” McGraw told Jackson. “It was a whole different uptown. We had two grocery stores; we had two drugstores uptown — and many other things.
“Towns change, and we need to change. We have our uptown moving again. I ran for mayor to see things like this. This is awesome. This is absolutely awesome. I love this town. This is exciting, and I am glad you are here.”
While Carthage is the county seat of one of the more prosperous North Carolina counties, the town itself perches on the edge of an economically blighted northern Moore section.
“The people of Carthage are all passionate about Carthage,” Sparks said. “We have something going on all the time. People here are really dedicated. One stumbling block is the tier system. We have to prove a certain level of poverty here in Carthage. They look at the wealth of the southern part.”
Because of the state’s tier system, Carthage faces the same uphill struggle Robbins previously had to overcome for inclusion in STEP. Residents in that part of the county find chances for state help they would otherwise qualify for getting blocked by being in the same county as the richer Sandhills with its golf resorts and wealthy retirees.
“He said they had a problem with Robbins being in that tier,” Sparks said. “It’s not really fair when you have a county as large as Moore — with the southern part being a more affluent area.”
Carthage Fabrics closed operations during the banking crises. Earlier, Klaussner Furniture, and before that, Cross Creek Apparel, had shut down.
“At one time they had around 300 employees,” Sparks said. “There were around 250 working at Carthage Fabrics at its peak, and only 100 by the time it closed. All those jobs were lost, and they are not coming back.”
More jobs were lost recently. Over the past three years, 44 Carthage businesses closed and 316 jobs were lost. That same period saw 34 new businesses open, but only 91 new jobs created. Some 2,137 people live in the county seat — just under 2.5 percent of the population of Moore County.
Older, deteriorating buildings ring the historic courthouse in the middle of town where property owners failed to keep them in good condition, according to the town’s STEP application.
The town must provide services and protection for county buildings and operations without any compensating tax revenue — an ever increasing burden. The tax value of untaxed public property in Carthage has risen from $70 million to an estimated $100 million in the last two years, according to the town manager. Sparks and others are collecting figures to substantiate the town’s particular economic plight.
At the meeting, Jackson was pleased to hear Phillips tell about the town’s Century Committee and the work it has already done trying to build the town’s economy.
“We organized in 1992 with the idea of trying to bring jobs to Carthage,” Phillips said. “We have reorganized recently, and we have a pretty open agenda to support economic development. I am a lifelong resident of Carthage, and we are concerned for the future of Carthage. We are supporting the Buggy Festival to the amount of $5,000 this year. That is already a proven program, not experimentation.”
Several others were members of the Century Committee.
Jackson explained how STEP first makes a $20,000 investment in each STEP town. After a plan has been worked out, a larger $100,000 implementation investment is made available.
Phillips sees STEP as a process that could help Carthage in greater ways than financial aid.
“We want to set a pace here and a direction through our strategic plan that won’t just be a two-year thing,” he said. “Many of us — as you’ve heard described — are kind of here forever.”
Contact John Chappell at email@example.com.
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