Much has been written about the demise of small-town America. I am not a reporter, but like to think I am pretty observant. And I think our local towns and villages are not only surviving, but we are actually thriving.
Big cities sprawl and swallow outer towns and hamlets. What was once farm country has become condo and townhouse land. Shuttered industries are sent off to foreign lands or become functionally obsolete. Cheap labor trumps loyalty to the workforce at every corporate meeting.
Most of this is occurring in the “Rust Belt,” where Northern cities relied on industries like auto manufacturing, steel and coal. Cars have left the country, China produces steel, and what little coal is still mined is done by heartless machines and not by brave souls.
My friend Frank visited last July to be a guest preacher at Emmanuel Episcopal Church. We met almost 20 years ago, when I was a parishioner at his church in Washington, D.C. After we got him settled in his rooms at Pine Needles Resort, I gave him the best Visitor Bureau tour I could think of.
We stopped by the church, with its snazzy new organ. We drove through Horse Country and by a half-dozen idyllic golf courses. He took in the grandeur of the Carolina Hotel and the croquet courts at the Member’s Club across the way.
We saw the Mayberry-like streets off the main drag in Aberdeen. I managed to miss the strip malls and fast-food joints along U.S. 1.
We drove through Southern Pines, and I proudly proclaimed my love for the bustle-free feel of a three-block area we call downtown. As I pointed out the cheese shop and the Wine Cellar and he admired a perfectly restored antique car, Frank had one question.
“I see wealth, but no industry,” he said. “What do people do around here?”
I was embarrassed that I had moved to Eden, while Frank, though existing quite comfortably, was still living amid the struggles of the poor, the hungry and the homeless.
The answer is that many of the folks who live here are retired. They work at reaping the benefits of a life well lived and to a certain degree of success. Consequently, our primary industry is hospitality and its byproduct, tourism. We do golf, and we do golf very well.
We also have great medical care here, dominated by FirstHealth, Pinehurst Medical and Pinehurst Surgical. I have spent a fair share of time with elaborate medical procedures, and I am quite confident Moore Regional Hospital and all that work there are as good as any.
I have lived here less than 10 years. And in that time, the options for first-rate dining have increased demonstrably. Exquisite dining here may not equal New York or San Francisco, but we have great places to choose from.
In those wonderful 10 years, we have seen a great influx of military from Fort Bragg, preferring this area to alternatives that are less “military” and more small-town. For soldiers starting young families, the honky-tonk attractions of Fayetteville don’t hold a candle to what is offered on the other side of the base.
Of course, there are the equestrian folks. The horse industry provides hundreds of folks with employment and thousands of folks with a joyful lifestyle and provides much of the character of our local communities.
I thought of all those things this past Thanksgiving, beginning with our annual Blessing of the Hunt and ending with a free showing of “The Last Waltz” at the Sunrise Theater. I didn’t cook this year, and my family and I joined our good friends Eric and Helen for a fabulous spread at the Pinehurst Member’s Club. It could not have been a nicer way to spend the day.
It was Black Friday that made me think of all these things to be thankful for. Downtown Southern Pines was a madhouse on that sunny Friday. We don’t need chain bookstores and franchise eateries. We don’t need mega-theaters or national car dealerships and hardware stores.
We have our own independent bakeries, bookshops, hardware stores and single-screen movies. Many others will try to recreate what we have always been: a small town with a soul — and anything else we could possibly want.
Chris Larsen, who formerly worked in public relations and lobbying in Washington, lives in Southern Pines.