The Pilot recently identified “growth” as the 2017 Newsmaker of the Year.
Having heard that the area was inundated with growth from the time I first arrived here in 1988, I have often been skeptical of claims about growth. As Southern Pines town manager, I often pointed out that the town’s growth rate in the 1990s was actually lower than the state’s average during that same decade.
And while Southern Pines’ growth rate remains moderate, something has definitely changed as relates to growth in Moore County.
The Pilot articles explored various possibilities that might account for growth. Among those were a new type of retirees who want to be close to their children in the Triad or Triangle but not too close, choosing to settle here.
No definitive numbers were presented on this trend. So, while anecdotally it maybe of interest, it is hard to say that this represents a significant component of growth in Moore County.
We have, after all, had retirees coming here for many years for the golf aspect of our community. There are hard statistics showing a notable decline of millions of golfers nationwide, which would suggest that there would be fewer retirees seeking a golf community, since there are so many fewer golfers of any age.
So one could speculate that, if anything, the retirees seeking to be close to their kids might offset the reduction in golfers in retirement — and that retirees thus may not actually be contributing anything new to growth rates in Moore County.
Another trend cited was growth in the health care industry. At the roll-out of Partners in Progress new economic development plan, the presenters highlighted the change in our local economy from one with 30 percent employment in manufacturing during the 1980s to one today — where the 30 percent employment is in health care, with much lower numbers employed in manufacturing.
So even if there has been growth in health care employment, it appears that that may have only offset the decrease in manufacturing employment, and thus may not be contributing to the growth in Moore County.
Another trend cited involved people choosing to live here and work in the relatively nearby metro areas. While numbers of these commuters were identified, no numbers were cited that would allow us to conclude that the number of commuters now is significantly higher than in past decades.
Likewise, the trend toward people who can work from home and live wherever they like was mentioned as a contributor to our growth. But it is hard to determine whether the numbers of these types of people are notably greater now than in the past.
Another emerging trend cited was “the uptick in young adults who grew up here, moved away, and who are now returning.” While this may be true, that trend does not necessarily mean that they are contributing to an increase in growth. They may simply be replacing non-natives who previously moved to the area for employment.
The one area mentioned in the articles for which there was cited solid evidence of growth is in the military-affiliated population. The articles note the percentage of new homes in Pinehurst (52 percent), Aberdeen (62 percent), Southern Pines (76 percent), Carthage (83 percent), Whispering Pines (96 percent), and Vass (100 percent) that were purchased using VA loans in 2016.
So while the other contributors to growth may not actually be having an impact on increases in the growth rate, the military-affiliated population certainly is generating new home construction and leading to greater growth.
There are a couple of aspects of this that I find troubling. I spoke recently with one of the largest developers in Cumberland County. His family has been developing new home lots there for decades. He said that the number of new home permits being issued there has plummeted compared to all past years.
This suggests to me that our increasing rate of growth is not being generated by a growing local economy, but rather by military migration from other counties. This is problematic on a couple of levels.
First, if your county’s population is growing because of new primary employers, then the tax base is increasing not only from new homes, but also from new buildings being built for these new employers. The military influx is only generating new homes as their employment is based in another county.
And lower-cost homes are being built for the military market. What is the matter with that? Instead of adult couples without children moving to the county to live in $400,000 homes, we now have families with multiple children moving here living in $200,000 homes.
These new homes do not generate the property taxes necessary to educate these children nor to build new schools in which to educate them. There is federal money available to local schools to offset some of the operating cost, but military families have to identify themselves as such to the schools, and a number refuse to do so. As more military families move in, property taxes will increase to support expanding schools.
Another change will be the quick obsolescence of all these new neighborhoods being constructed. There is a bias among military buyers for new homes. When I worked in Fayetteville, I saw firsthand the decline of many neighborhoods as demand for their older homes fell over time.
And with that decline comes numerous social pathologies. Fayetteville is the 18th-worst city in the country for opioid abuse. Fayetteville has the 14th-highest rate of property crime in the nation among the largest 300 cities. Cumberland County is one of the worst U.S. counties in helping poor children up the income ladder.
I am not sure that our increasing rate of growth is as broad as suggested nor does its singular driver bode well for our community’s future.
I believe we need significant moral and financial support for the new economic development plan to ensure a diverse and well balanced local economy and a prosperous population.