Moore County attracts entrepreneurs and young families
Photo by John Koob Gessner
Appeared as a special section in the January 2019 issue of Business North Carolina.
By Kathy Blake
When Tom Pashley was a child, he and his friends talked of wading through Rae’s Creek near his Georgia neighborhood and following its trail through Augusta National to Amen Corner.
The mystique of elite golf defined Pashley’s surroundings. One of his buddies took lessons from Jack Nicklaus. Gary Player rented another friend’s house during the 1978 Masters and left tees, balls and gloves behind. A career among golf’s royalty was inevitable.
Pashley, 49, moved to Pinehurst in the late 1990s and, after a series of roles with its resort, became its president in 2014.
Like much of Moore County around it, Pinehurst Resort is becoming younger.
“We’ve definitely noticed the shift in demographics in Moore County. Younger families are moving to the area and adding a new vitality to the community,” Pashley says. “In response to this trend, Pinehurst Country Club has successfully created new events and activities targeting families. But we’ve also added a wide variety of programming to appeal to a wide audience.”
The resort’s swimming facility added a kids’ pool, water slide and game room in 2015. A new pub, The Deuce, is open behind the 18th green of Pinehurst No. 2. The Cradle, a new 9-hole short course, rests at the doorstep of the famous Resort Clubhouse.
A historic 1895 steam plant, once slated for demolition, and 1900s trolley that toted Pinehurst visitors from the Seaboard Railway Station are repurposed and thriving. Specialty businesses are opening. The resort has spa packages and wedding-reception venues.
Pashley and county leaders see the value of keeping one eye on history while moving forward.
“The Dedman family, owners of Pinehurst, consider themselves stewards of this national treasure,” Pashley says. “They’re intent to remain as relevant with today’s generation of golfers as Pinehurst has been with each generation since 1990. While we celebrate Pinehurst’s incredible history, we’ve rapidly evolved to offer new experiences and amenities.”
The median age in the town of Pinehurst is 60.6; in Southern Pines, it’s 50.7, and the county combined is 45. The northern town of Robbins checks in at 30.3 and Carthage, the county seat, is 38.1, according to public-data platform Data USA.
“The bottom line is most people in the state think of us as a retirement community,” says Pat Corso, executive director of Moore County Partners in Progress economic-development group in Pinehurst, who has lived in Moore for 32 years. “And all of that is a key component, but it’s far from the defining factor of who we are now.”
The majority of homes being built in southern Moore County cost between $200,000 and $400,000, he says, a decline from the days when most residential construction was aimed at affluent retirees.
“It’s more families,” Corso says.
Proximity to Fort Bragg to the south, along with the tourism and health care industries and educational offerings from Sandhills Community College, are tilting Moore’s population.
“Traditionally, this area has had an older demographic, in permanent residents and visitors, but there are factors contributing to perhaps a younger shift,” says Phil Werz, president and CEO of the Convention & Visitors Bureau of Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Aberdeen Area. Military families have been joined by people working remotely with companies based in the Triad and Triangle.
“They love the slower pace and quality of life in the Sandhills, plus, they feel their dollar goes a little further here, especially when purchasing a home,” Werz says.
Business owners across the county are capitalizing on opportunities.
“The dynamics have changed. With Fort Bragg, a lot of career military have moved up to the area,” says Mark Elliott, owner of Elliott’s on Linden restaurant in Pinehurst, Sly Fox Gastropub in Southern Pines and a coffee shop and catering business. “It’s nice. It’s the next generation of people coming in, and they want to raise their kids here.”
Elliott says he sees changes outside the golf communities as well.
“It’s just growth, plain and simple,” he says. “For instance, Vass was a town that almost disappeared when they did the U.S. 1 bypass. It just stopped. I’m an avid bike rider, and I’m constantly going through Vass on my bike, and you’re starting to see buildings now. It’s definitely more crowded, and it’s a younger clientele. And that attracts more people to do business.”
Linda Parsons, president and CEO of the Moore County Chamber of Commerce in Southern Pines, has seen the growth.
“We’ve seen an uptick in individuals successfully opening businesses throughout the county, which balances the growth of the larger big-box stores that have also moved into the community,” says Parsons, who has been with the chamber since 2005 and has led it since 2014. “If I could sum up what I believe we see in the business community, it’s a sense of vibrancy.”
Pinehurst/Southern Pines ranks No. 27 in a 2018 economic-strength ranking of micropolitan communities — cities with 50,000 or fewer residents with an urbanized area of at least 10,000. That’s a jump from No. 103 in 2017, according to economic-development adviser Policom Corp.
“The interesting reason for that is in the commuter patterns coming into Moore for jobs, recreation, culture, nightlife, shopping, retail,” Corso says. “It’s a composite of the factors that weigh into the calculation. So from that standpoint, we’re an anomaly in North Carolina and it makes us the No. 1 rural economy in the state. We’re also an anomaly in that we don’t have an industrial park, we don’t have a commerce park for manufacturing. All that is only 6% of our workforce.”
Yianni Kakouras, a longtime business owner in the northern Moore town of Robbins, says more interaction with the southern end is vital to uplifting his area, which lacks the infrastructure of its southern counterparts.
“If I have to buy, say, T-shirts, I have to commute to Asheboro or Aberdeen or Sanford. There’s nothing here, as opposed to when the mills were here. Things have been left alone for so long, it’s a financial nightmare,” he says. He employs nearly a dozen people at his restaurant and fitness center and wants to focus on helping children.
Parsons says the chamber is reaching out to others in Kakouras’ part of the county. “Over the last year, the Moore County Chamber has been working in partnership with the northern area of our county to help those in the business community. We held a program in March to start the discussion on ways we could provide them assistance,” Parsons says. “One idea that evolved from this was to bring networking events to their area. We’ve already started this and will begin rotating these between Carthage and Robbins in 2019.”
Moore County ranked No. 11 out of 100 in N.C. in 2017 for travel expenditures and brought in $491.28 million in domestic tourism revenue. But tourism isn’t the sole economic driver.
Health care is a major employer, accounting for 30.1% of the workforce in 2017, according to Moore Alive, an economic and talent recruitment entity. FirstHealth of the Carolinas is the county’s largest private employer with more than 3,000 employees at Moore Regional Hospital and locations in 19 other cities.
“I’ve been here a long time, and the hospital has been cutting-edge from the very beginning,” says John Krahnert, chief medical officer and founder of Moore Regional’s cardiac surgery program, who came onboard in 1990. The hospital was the region’s first to have open-heart surgery in the early 1990s and one of the first private hospitals to perform coronary stent surgery. “If you want to fast-forward, we started the Reid Heart Center [in 2011] to consolidate cardiac care in one building. Inside, we have two hybrid operating rooms as an option for surgeons to work together in a combined imaging room and operating room, so we could do open procedures and minimally invasive in the same room.”
FirstHealth also is a leader in robotics, with the da Vinci surgical robot “being incredibly successful” since its first appearance in 2012, Krahnert says. “We have evolved over the years from huge incisions to small incisions with robot technology.”
Part of FirstHealth’s program is connected to Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst.
“One of the big things we have on the horizon is, back in May, the voters passed a $21 million bond issue to help us construct an allied health training facility, a medical education facility, and that’s going to be huge for us,” says Germaine Elkins, SCC’s vice president of institutional advancement. “We recognize that FirstHealth and others have the demand for nurses, EMTs — it’s a high-demand area.”
The college instituted Sandhills Promise in 2017, which allows high-school graduates in Moore and Hoke counties to attend tuition-free after meeting financial and grade-point guidelines. The first group will graduate in May.
Moore County also needs networking and coworking spaces, where people can work remotely and collaboratively, Corso says. “You create ideas together; you may launch a company. It’s a little bit of, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ but it’s worked in major markets.”
Elkins emphasizes more local connections through the college. “A lot of people who have not qualified to do a regular curriculum can do a continuing-education course in fire technology, advanced manufacturing, welding, culinary technology,” she says. “Community colleges are in so many ways a reflection of the community. This spring, we’re starting trade programs in HVAC and electrical, and public safety is in high demand.”
Werz’s proposed Tourism Product Development Authority would allow for earmarking a portion of tax revenue to be used for creating entities to attract visitors.
“We are collecting examples from Asheville and other markets that have seen access in tourism product development,” he says, “so we can create our own system here.”
On Pashley’s office wall, a photo of hall-of-fame golfer Bob Jones inspires remembrance of the past while envisioning the future. Jones, who died in 1971 at 69, helped design Augusta National and co-founded the Masters.
“It reminds me of my roots in Augusta, but more importantly, I think about the qualities of his character,” he says. “Integrity was paramount to Mr. Jones. His famous quote about being celebrated for calling a penalty on himself during a tournament being akin to ‘thanking him for not robbing a bank’ sticks with me. The photo reminds me to try to be a better person each day. While we’re known for our golf, the resort has so much more to offer. … We look for opportunities to make each visit to Pinehurst more meaningful for guests, regardless of whether they golf.”
Robbins rises from the ashes
The inscription on Robbins’ roadside welcome sign says, “Moving Forward Together.” It’s a motivating phrase fitting for a town of 1,180, but for Robbins in northern Moore County, the meaning is deeper. More obscure than its counterparts 25 miles away, Robbins doesn’t have a golf course, country club or major industry to make it tick. In the 1990s, a poultry-processing center closed and in 2008, a massive fire destroyed the Milliken textile mill, putting 1,100 out of work.
The 286,000-square-foot mill, where Robbins native John Edwards once stood to announce his presidential bid, became a pile of ashes on Kennedy Street.
“For many, it was our history — or future — that went up in smoke that day,” says David Lambert, 30, town manager since 2016, who grew up in Robbins.“We were uncertain how to move forward. People lost hope in our community.”
Lambert has deep roots in Robbins. His father became principal of the elementary school. His grandfather was a business owner. He and his wife are raising two young sons in Robbins. A graduate of UNC Greensboro, Elon University’s law school and UNC Chapel Hill with a master’s in public administration, Lambert has a phoenix-like vision for this town.
“Robbins is my home. I believe that it has something worth saving,” he says.
Robbins is a 1.3-square-mile Tier 1 community in a Tier 3 county. The population, Lambert says, is 51% Hispanic. Because Moore County is listed as Tier 3, he says, Robbins is disqualified from types of aid earmarked for poorer communities.
“It’s a beautiful place; rolling countryside. Agriculture is a big piece, but a lot of their population was manufacturing based,” says Pat Corso, executive director of Moore County Partners in Progress. “They need new business stimulation, or people interested in starting a business. It’s hard to attract people because there’s no infrastructure, no natural gas, no main roads, so we have to develop thoughts and ideas that would help the community redefine itself.”
Lambert says Robbins would benefit from improved housing options, child care choices for the younger workforce, higher-paying jobs in manufacturing and service industries, and quality-of-life improvements.
Investing in infrastructure is one of his top goals, along with making Robbins a destination for outdoor recreation and tourism, as a nexus between Moore’s golf-centered communities and the N.C. Zoo in Asheboro. The headquarters of well-known Seagrove Pottery is 13 miles from Robbins, up N.C. 705.
“There’s a very big difference in both ends of the county, and a very big difference in the 11-county primary and secondary areas we serve,” says John Krahnert, chief medical officer and senior vice president of Pinehurst-based FirstHealth of the Carolinas, which operates a family medicine office in Robbins. “So we have to balance the latest, greatest shiny technology with taking care of our disadvantaged patients. People aren’t going to worry about paying for their health if they’re also worried about eating or where they’re going to stay. We have to figure out how to solve those problems. Pinehurst is a lot different than, say, (Robbins’ neighbor) High Falls.”
FirstHealth offers healthy living classes in some communities and other incentives, such as community gardens.
“We have to change the narrative,” Lambert says. “The question isn’t ‘How will Robbins survive?’ Instead, it is ‘What specific steps do we need to take to make Robbins thrive?’”
He says the town is focusing on small wins. The mill site is being cleaned up. A greenspace has been created downtown. A transition in ownership has led to the restoration of downtown buildings, and new businesses — including a hotel — are planned. Situs, a financial underwriting company with offices in major U.S. cities and Europe, has opened a branch in Robbins. Flair Enterprises, a division of Calgary, Alberta-based Minhas Furniture, opened an upholstery factory near Robbins in 2017.
“Our success, just like the mill site, will not happen by doing nothing. It will only occur when we roll up our sleeves and help ourselves,” Lambert says. “We certainly want to recruit large businesses to bring life to many of our vacant factory buildings, but we also are focusing on entrepreneurship development.”
A business incubation/entrepreneurship hub would benefit the town, as would a microloan program or 90-10 loan to help provide capital to those looking to start a business, Corso says. “You have to be more creative, because you have fewer resources.”
Attitude also factors into the Robbins equation.
“I fully believe,” Lambert says, “that once we, as a community, decide that we are no longer content with being passive with our economic future, we will see even greater things happen.”
Moore County business: A tale of three cities
In Moore County, where a half-hour drive can illustrate the difference between wealth and want, three business owners have succeeded in enterprises as diverse as the towns where they live.
Business startups are vital in all sectors of Moore, where a potpourri of health care, higher education, military transitions, leisure and private investment co-exist. “I think the key is we’re an interesting anomaly as a county. We have something that is appealing here and is a reason why talented folks should consider being here, as opposed to an urban lifestyle,” says Pat Corso, executive director of Moore County Partners in Progress Economic Development.
Here are three success stories.
When Yianni Kakouras was 5, his father bought a restaurant in Robbins and commuted 80 miles one way from Charlotte to work. “And every time I had a chance to go with him, I’d go. And when I turned 14 in high school, I started to work there,” Kakouras says.
Robbins, population 1,180, is a 1.3-square-mile town in northern Moore County with an average annual household income of $22,336. Kakorus calls it laid back. “We kind of sustain ourselves,” he says. “We by no means have the kind of money that flows through other towns. The handshake still means something. It keeps you humble.”
Kakouras, 30, lives in Robbins and runs the restaurant — Carolina Fried Chicken and House of Pizza — and a gym, Flex Fitness, that he bought five years ago. His father, Pete Kakouras, also owns Pete’s Family Restaurant in Carthage.
“Robbins is a good place to invest,” Yianni says.
The restaurant serves two menu pages of belly-filling meals and is a place to get a good job among neighbors.
The gym is more than a location to work out.
“The restaurant makes a profit; the gym, not so much. But it pays the bills and provides jobs. I’m trying to provide a service for the town,” Kakouras says. “There are people who used to hang out in the parking lot after hours, and now they’re in the gym lifting weights.”
Robbins, he says, has changed since a 2008 mill fire cost jobs. “We’re trying to look for the next big thing, but what’s going to stick? If something would come here it would give people hope, and they wouldn’t have to live so frugally,” Kakouras says.
Twenty-six miles south of Robbins in Aberdeen, a paying hobby emerged from the sound of Louisiana music.
Janet Kenworthy, a 61-year-old grandmother, saw a necessity while working a New Orleans shelter kitchen after Hurricane Katrina: “People warmed to each other through dance. Music is absolutely essential to humanity.”
Kenworthy started The Rooster’s Wife as a series of house concerts. She used postcards for invitations and took up donations for musicians who performed in her home. The business added outdoor concerts before Kenworthy, a 27-year resident of Aberdeen, and her mother, Priscilla Johnson, bought and renovated an old fabricating building downtown and moved in 2009.
She welcomes audiences ages “zero to 99,” she says, but it’s mostly her peers.
“The 20 to 35 [group] are the hardest to attract because they haven’t paid for their music in their lives, and I firmly believe that art should be supported. So it’s extremely important to me to support the community of live music,” she says. “We get music lovers of all ages, but the basic demographic is the 40s to 60s.”
The median age in Aberdeen is 34.4.
“When we were outside, we had the younger people because it was less expensive,” Kenworthy says, “and we’re offering things to appeal to a younger audience, like a Friday night show that’s cheaper and an open mic night once a month.”
Cover for The Rooster’s Wife can run $50 when she brings in Grammy Award winners, such as country music’s Asleep at the Wheel or musician Howard Levy.
“We are maintaining. We are still here,” Kenworthy says. “One thing I like about live music is it will never be performed the same way again.”
Nearly 20 N.C. farms, from Carthage to Carrboro to Bear Creek and Eagle Springs, dot the list of places where ingredients are gathered for Mark Elliott’s upscale restaurants in Pinehurst and Southern Pines: Peaches, naturally, he says, and sweet potatoes and herbs along with homemade goat cheese.
“I have a guy called Tomato Joe. I’ve known these farmers for years,” Elliott says. “And once a week, we bring in our milk, our cream, our buttermilk. It’s nice to be able to tell their story.”
Elliott, 50, who was in the Best Chefs America book in 2013 and winner of Best Dish N.C., owns Elliott’s on Linden, opened in 2000; The Sly Fox Gastropub; Elliott’s Provision Company; and a catering business. He employs more than 60 people and, because of his immersion in the land of high-dollar golf, makes a strong profit.
Some of which he gives away.
He donates to schools, mainly. “Anything I can do to change somebody’s life in education, it’s a big deal to me, so I’m constantly supporting schools,” he says. “It’s things to help people get ahead in the world.”
His restaurant crowds, he says, have changed with the times.
“It’s evolved. The whole area has evolved. It was a retirement community, but it’s nice to see youth come into the area,” he says. “So naturally, I’ve evolved with the food.”