By Catherine Pritchard and David Mildenberg
Photos by John Gessner
Fayetteville’s downtown brims with leafy trees, loft apartments, busy local restaurants, an art-house movie theater and one of North Carolina’s most historic buildings, the 185-year-old Market House. The scene consistently surprises out-of-towners, says Ralph Huff, the region’s largest homebuilder. Many visitors arrive with a negative image of the city based on perceptions of crime, unplanned sprawl and a transitory military culture, prompting Huff, 67, to evangelize relentlessly. “Never does someone come to Fayetteville to see me that they don’t get a one-hour tour of downtown,” he says. “And never do they come away with the same opinion of Fayetteville that they had when they came.”
Business leaders in the state’s sixth-largest city know it has a branding problem rooted in years of slowing growth and a reliance on the region’s massive military installation. In a September presentation, Robert Van Geons, the area’s main economic-development executive, noted the message externally is, “We are better,” while within the community, it is “We are better than you think.”
After Cumberland County’s population grew by more than 25,000 in each of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, the pace has slowed over the last decade and a half. From 2000-16, Cumberland added about 25,000 people, while 45 minutes north in much-smaller Johnston County, the population expanded by about 70,000. Fort Bragg, the area’s dominant economic force, has benefited from federal consolidation of Army operations, but Fayetteville has struggled to attract new employers not affiliated with the military and replace manufacturing jobs in textiles and other traditional industries.
To stimulate growth, more than 100 business, government and institutional leaders are backing efforts to make the city more inviting to visitors and residents. Called Vision 2026, the group has endorsed plans to build a baseball stadium in downtown Fayetteville that will host a minor-league team starting in 2019. It’s also pushing for a performing-arts center over the next decade. (Fervor for a proposed Civil War museum has cooled amid the raging controversy over Confederate-era statues.) Such projects are viewed as vital to persuade more young workers of Fayetteville’s attractiveness and prompt potential employers to take note.
“At one time, people moved to where the jobs were,” says former Mayor Tony Chavonne, a Fayetteville native who is a key civic booster. “Now, people go to where they want to live, and the good jobs follow them to those communities.”
John Malzone has brokered commercial real-estate sales and rentals in downtown Fayetteville for nearly four decades. He has seen it wax, wane and slowly rebound. He’s optimistic about prospects for the Houston Astros-affiliated minor-league team, a new hotel and a mixed-use redevelopment of the historic Prince Charles Hotel. “I told my wife: ‘If I die, do not sell our property,’” Malzone says. “I’m down to four buildings, and three are downtown. Those are going to be tremendous income sources for us.” The baseball stadium will prompt much more night traffic, he says. “Then you’re going to see the national [retailers] start to come in. They’re going to want to open places.”
While the central business district charms, leaders have no illusions about the challenges in accelerating Fayetteville’s economy. “Our problem is a deep-seated problem of decades of poor leadership,” Huff says, without pointing a finger at any individual. He cites decisions to site the county jail on valuable downtown land that was a prime location for an arena or baseball stadium. The city’s 10,000-seat Crown Coliseum is about 4 miles from downtown. Huff also criticizes the county commissioners’ frosty response to Mississippi-based Sanderson Farms’ plan to add a 1,000-employee poultry-processing plant on the city’s outskirts.
County officials eventually agreed to offer incentives to Sanderson, but the company by then had decided to put the plant in neighboring Robeson County, just a few miles from the county line. It opened earlier this year. “It was an absolute mistake,” Huff says, costing the county substantial tax revenue.
The thorniest problem, Chavonne says, is uniting the community behind a common goal. A former general manager of The Fayetteville Observer, he calls the city a confederation of varying groups who live in the same geographic area but lack common roots or ideas. It’s a typical issue for communities reliant on the military for economic sustenance. Fort Bragg, which sits on the northwest side of the city, is the world’s largest military installation by population, says Van Geons, CEO of the Fayetteville Cumberland County Economic Development Corp. About 53,700 troops are stationed there, complemented by about 14,000 civilians. The post, full of conveniences that make it a self-contained community, also supports another 260,000 people, including military families, contractors and retirees. Overall, more than half of the Fayetteville area’s total employment base of 130,000 is either military jobs or civilians tied to Fort Bragg. Wal-Mart and Goodyear Tire & Rubber Inc. are the only private employers with more than 1,000 employees, according to a county report.
Fort Bragg’s importance expanded over the last decade as it welcomed the headquarters for Forces Command, which controls 10% of Army forces, and the Army Reserve. The change followed the 2005 decision to close Fort McPherson in Atlanta, prompting hundreds of high-ranking soldiers and senior civilian employees to move to the Fayetteville area. Fort Bragg was already home to the Joint Special Operations Command, which planned the raid that killed Osama bin Laden; the 82nd Airborne; and other famous divisions.
Van Geons arrived earlier this year after holding a similar post promoting Salisbury and Rowan County for nine years. While Salisbury was midway between Charlotte and the Triad, Fayetteville is the metro area of its region, he says. Its population would make it the largest city in 15 states.
“We obviously stack up well as a logistics center because of [Interstate 95] and our proximity to ports,” Van Geons says. “We really want to leverage our workforce from Fort Bragg, because as long as we have so many great, smart people coming through here, we need to take advantage of their connections and relationships.” Virtually every major defense contractor has employees at Fort Bragg, many involved in advanced manufacturing. It’s not like 25 years ago, he says, “when local companies sewed patches on uniforms.”
Because of the transitory nature of military service and ample credit provided by Veterans Administration lending, housing has traditionally been a reliably strong economic sector in the region. About 15,000 soldiers move in or out annually with a third buying a home, a third selling and a third renting, says David Ray Evans, a Fayetteville real-estate agent.
In the last decade, however, Fayetteville’s housing market languished along with its population growth, while home sales and development caught fire in neighboring Harnett, Hoke and Moore counties. Swaths of new subdivisions have sprung up along rural highways leading to Fort Bragg, and those counties have grown more rapidly, adding about 28,000 people between 2010 and 2016.
Moore County, a golfing mecca, “used to be a retirement market. Now, it is a military market,” says Huff, who entered the county 10 years ago and is its most active builder. “All of the military people who live on that side of Fort Bragg are choosing to live in Moore instead of Cumberland or Hoke.”
With growth lagging homebuilders’ expectations, prices have stagnated, contributing to a lingering foreclosure problem in Cumberland. Borrowers walking away from their mortgages have become rare in many North Carolina cities, but foreclosures still made up about 17% of Fayetteville’s home sales in the first half of this year, after peaking at 25% a few years ago, Evans says. The Fayetteville metro area had the sixth-highest foreclosure rate among U.S. cities in the first half of 2017, according to Realtytrac.com.
Meanwhile, the assessed tax value of residential properties in the county declined an average of 4.9% this year, county officials say. The drop stems from many factors, including continued effects of the 2007-09 recession, more competition from other counties and less benefit than expected from the relocation of troops and civilian workers from the Atlanta post.
Fewer high-salaried people moved to Fayetteville from Atlanta than expected, causing an oversupply of housing, Huff says. By then, the recession had hit Atlanta hard, making it difficult for many to sell homes there. If they made the move, many chose to rent instead of buy. “What we thought was going to happen over four months may or may not have happened over five years.”
Poor business decisions also contributed to the problem, he says, citing an Atlanta-based builder who caused property values to plummet in 2009 by selling newly constructed 3,000-square-foot homes for $200,000. That had been a typical price for new 2,000-square-foot homes. Huff responded with a similar-style home that quickly became a key profit center for his company.
Annual new home construction in the Fayetteville area leveled off at about 1,360 homes in 2015-16 after topping 2,000 over the previous decade, Evans says. With fewer new homes on the market, sales of existing homes increased from about 4,700 in 2013 to 6,300 last year. “We are incredibly stable because Fort Bragg is so good to us, but we’ve got to attract some more jobs from other places.”
Twenty-five years ago, Fayetteville’s downtown was a sea of boarded-up buildings, livened by a handful of businesses, including a few strip clubs and dive bars. It gave impetus to the derisive sobriquet “Fayettenam,” which originated during the Vietnam War years when unhappy draftees crowded the center-city entertainment district.
The city made concerted efforts to encourage private redevelopment and rousted the seedier businesses to make way for new municipal offices and the Airborne & Special Operations Museum. Downtown slowly turned around and these days has plenty of small shops and restaurants. No one argues, though, that the city’s commercial center is 5 miles away, in the Cross Creek Mall area along busy Skibo Road.
“There are pockets of great success,” Chavonne says. “You could stack the mall up against anywhere. And we do have a downtown that’s coming back. But it’s a complicated model. It’s very different, very diverse and there’s not really a lot to hold it together.”
Mary Holmes, who heads the Cumberland Community Foundation, says the city has plenty of reasons to be proud. Last year, voters approved a $35 million bond issue to invest in parks and recreation projects.
While Fayetteville is the largest N.C. city without an art museum, “our arts infrastructure is strong,” she says. “We have definitely got the best botanical garden in the state, hands down, no question. We have the best community symphony. The Cape Fear Regional Theatre is just fabulous. We have a national award-winning library, and downtown is really a fun place to go now.” The city also is home to historically black Fayetteville State University, Methodist University and Fayetteville Technical Community College.
A 2012 study of philanthropic giving showed Cumberland County residents at every income level were more generous than counterparts in richer communities in the state. “If philanthropic engagement is an indicator of community health, then we are very healthy,” she says.
Huff, a UNC Chapel Hill graduate who moved to Fayetteville from his native Hoke County in 1990, embodies the ability to build a substantial business in the community. For many years, H&H has ranked among the nation’s 100 largest homebuilders, including 78th last year with $156 million in revenue, according to Builder magazine. About 40% of its business comes from Fayetteville, with the balance from five other Carolinas metro areas. He also co-owns Coldwell Banker Chicora Advantage, the real-estate company’s largest Southeast affiliate with offices from Raleigh to Myrtle Beach.
Fayetteville needs to come up with its own story, Huff says. Visitors with three hours to spare get “the World of Ralph tour,” in which he takes them through his companies’ projects, including downtown investments such as condos and townhouses across from N.C. Veterans Park. Having a welcoming attitude is “one of our greatest assets, because we do have somewhat of an inferiority complex,” he says. “We’ve got to fix that, and the city and the county need to work together with a vision and a purpose to make this a better place.”
While no one gets rich serving in the military, perceptions of low pay appear outdated. Company recruiters who visit the Fayetteville area looking to hire people who have just left or are considering leaving their military jobs figure that out quickly, says Scott Dorney, executive director of the N.C. Military Business Center, which promotes stronger commercial ties with the armed services.
He cites a corporal at Fort Bragg in the “E4” pay grade, who typically earns more than $40,000 annually after four years of service, he says. Corporals are akin to middle managers, supervising privates and reporting to sergeants. That total reflects both base pay, which is about $30,000, along with additional allowances for housing, food and clothing. Health care costs are also covered. “It’s a lot more money than many people think about,” Dorney says. “These guys don’t make $8 or $9 an hour.”
At the higher end of the scale, a lieutenant colonel typically makes more than $100,000 a year in wages and allowances. Like many private companies, the military is a pyramid with relatively few people at the top supported by large numbers of lower-ranking workers, Dorney notes.
Fort Bragg’s 53,700 military workers received a combined $2.9 billion in compensation in the 2015 fiscal year, or more than $54,000 per person, according to Army statistics. In addition, about 14,600 civilians working at the post for the U.S. Department of Defense received about $720 million, or about $49,000 per person. The civilians typically don’t receive similar housing or food allowances.
While private-sector pay has stagnated in the last decade, active-duty military workers have received annual raises approved by Congress that average about 1.5% over the last five years. President Donald Trump has proposed a 2.1% increase for 2018.
The result for Fayetteville is a stable middle class and economy that helps the area avoid economic peaks and valleys, says Andrew Ziegler, a political science professor at Methodist University who was in the military for 22 years. “Our economy typically hasn’t had a large number of manufacturing, assembly and high-tech industry type jobs,” he says. “But the infusion from the military enables you to sell a lot of cars and have a lot of restaurants in this area.”
With so much federal money flowing in, Cumberland County’s median household income of about $44,000 is comparable to Buncombe, Alamance and more urban North Carolina counties. The median income is only about 4% less than in Guilford County, where Greensboro is the county seat, and it’s 13% greater than in Pitt County, home to East Carolina University and little military presence.