Robbins Makes Plea to Ellmers for Help
The mayor of Robbins asked U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers for help Thursday.
The congresswoman stopped in to visit with Mayor Lonnie English and Town Manager/ Police Chief Jeff Sheffield and hear firsthand about the town's struggles.
They sat down over glasses of tea at Eden's Garden Cafe. Commissioners Kevin Stewart and Terri Holt - who had opened the cafe after restoring a downtown building - sat in on the nearly two-hour discussion. Ellmers was accompanied by her chief of staff, Al Lytton.
"This town has an unemployment rate of about 20 percent," English said as they stood outside on Salisbury Street. "One of the things we were pushing to try to do is this HubZone. I've been trying - and Pat (Corso, executive director of Partners in Progress) - to push-push. You know, push until something happens."
"That's the only way anything gets done," Ellmers said.
Ellmers said she has spoken about this before with Corso, who had hoped to be at this meeting but was unable to attend because of a family illness.
"Try to get HubZone right now," English said. "That's the only thing we feel we've got available to us that we can really make something happen for our town."
English referred to a program of the U.S. Depart-ment of Commerce that favors depressed and hard-hit areas by giving preferential treatment in the competition for federal contracts. Other neighboring counties have qualified, and so have districts in places such as Siler City and Sanford.
Robbins was caught in a bureaucratic tangle waiting for publication of 2010 census results. English wants Ellmers to help the town cut through that.
"We lost all of our textiles just about," he said.
Last October, Robbins lost more than 50 jobs when American Growler shut down production in Robbins. People living in Moore County who found themselves out of work could not follow their jobs to Star, because HubZone rules forbade it.
"They had a place in Montgomery County and are still working their people there," English said. "They had HubZone and are still working their people there, but here they had to stop. That is one of the reasons I'm glad you've come. That is one of the big things we wanted to talk about."
Ellmers said, "We will do what we can do."
English told of attending land-use meetings and thinking about all the usable, empty buildings in the northern part of the county in and around Robbins.
Right now the town is working on clearing debris from the remains of the old mill that burned in 2008. He's been working with the site owner and has hopes of obtaining a grant to help with cleanup.
"To me, it's just an eyesore for the whole town," the mayor said. "To me, it looks like a war zone. As far as I'm concerned, grass could grow there. People would say, 'They've planted grass there, I'll clean up my yard.' If we clean up that mill, it is going to make people take pride."
"People do start to," Ellmers said. "It has an effect."
An attractive town attracts business and businesses, they agreed.
"I'm a realist," Sheffield said. "If we could be designated a HubZone, they can get a break to come in."
'Survive and Thrive'
The town's plight has attracted international attention, English told her.
"BBC came down," English said. "Two children who grew up here and whose parents grew up here went around with them and talked with them. They talked about what used to be here. We had USA Today come and do a story on the town. PBS did a story, too."
The figure of 20 percent unemployment doesn't include many who have given up, Sheffield said.
"The only way Robbins is going to survive and thrive is by acting as a community," he said. "People say we've got to get places like Walmart. You don't need to get Walmart; you need to make the products that Walmart sells.
"If you are going to create jobs for the people here and in the surrounding area, that's how. That's how we are going to survive and thrive, overcome what we are in right now."
Sheffield told Ellmers how the town has just started drilling a series of five test wells, seeking a water source that will enable Robbins to be self-sufficient and lower its high water rates, the highest in Moore County.
Ellmers asked why the town has to purchase water from another county.
Sheffield and English explained how the town had shut down its outmoded plant when the cost of water treatment there meant higher rates than reselling Montgomery County water. Once closed, restarting would mean bringing it up to meet current codes. That would cost nearly $5 million, which was prohibitive.
"I felt like if they kept it open, pumping a little through it, maybe it could have been grandfathered in," Sheffield said. "Now it is going to cost an arm and a leg to get it back on."
Well water would only need chlorination for transport and storage, and that could be done at the well head.
They wanted Ellmers to understand Robbins is working on its own but could use help breaking some walls.
English said he understood from Corso that consideration of the town's economic status - well within the area target by the HubZone plan - needed only a single signature in Washington.
"I'll go to Washington," English said. "I am ready to go now."
Ellmers said there is a lot of discussion in the House about leveling the playing field these days.
"It seems to me that's really what you are looking for," she said. "You are just looking for a little bit of a leg up so you can improve yourselves."
Sheffield explained how the town had been told back in 2010 that it qualified for HubZone but would have to wait for that census data to come in and be published.
"So now it is an issue - now that the census information has been processed - now you are waiting on government bureaucrats," Ellmers said. "I totally understand that."
English mentioned other towns with HubZone designations for sections inside them - towns larger than Robbins.
"Our population would probably go up if we get it," he said.
He handed Ellmers a number of documents detailing the town's effort.
"It costs nothing, except somebody's signature, to make it happen," English said. "It would help us. Always remember. I've got my bags packed. I am ready to go to Washington, D.C."
Ellmers thanked English and the others and promised to do what she could, and left with her chief of staff, heading up to Salisbury to have a look at the remains of the old Robbins Mill and its tall brick smokestack standing tall over a field of rubble.
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or jfchappell @gmail.com.
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