Town square: Feel the Bern
By Kevin Maurer
George Oliver strolls down Middle Street in downtown New Bern. It’s a beautiful fall day, and Oliver, a local lawyer, greets each passerby with a hello. Not an “I don’t know your name” hello, but the kind you’d offer a friend, because he seems to know everyone.
Up ahead, Laura Overman sees Oliver and stops to chat. They each renovated houses in downtown New Bern, where Overman was a pioneer in the early 1980s kickstarting the renaissance of North Carolina’s Colonial capital. “She was one of the first people down here,” Oliver says.
Overman smiles at the memory. “It used to close up down here around 5 p.m.,” she says. “But people took a chance and moved into the old houses.”
Sitting at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers, New Bern played an important role in North Carolina’s founding, a history that is enacted by volunteers dressed in period costumes for thousands of schoolchildren every year at Tryon Palace. With tree-lined streets of historic homes and churches, many established before the Civil War, New Bern looks like a Southern town straight from a movie set. But New Bern has moved beyond tourism and is doing better economically than most midsized North Carolina cities away from big metro areas.
“Everyone is paddling in the same direction,” says Timothy Downs, director of Craven County Economic Development. “We have good manufacturing, tourism, health care. We have a diverse economy. We have the quality of life. Very few places in the country are like downtown New Bern.”
BSH Home Appliances and Moen have promised to bring more than 500 manufacturing jobs to the area in the next five years. Ohio-based Moen has been making faucets in Craven County since 1983 and has 700 workers assembling more than 75,000 products per day. The company opened a components warehouse in May that added about 100 jobs. BSH, a subsidiary of Munich, Germany-based BSH Hausgeräte, plans to add 460 jobs. The maker of sleek appliances with brands including Bosch and Thermador was awarded a state incentives package worth nearly $4.1 million if it meets job- creation and investment milestones.
The new jobs will boost the tax base by $20 million annually, Craven County officials say. The median family income of $45,762 is expected to rise by almost 25% to $56,233 by 2018. Median income in neighboring Lenoir County is about $36,000.
The grocery wars also signal the town’s rising prosperity. Publix Super Markets Inc., which is expanding rapidly in North Carolina, wasn’t looking at New Bern at first because the Florida-based chain didn’t think the market could support it, Oliver says. But after the company saw Harris Teeter’s success, Publix opened a supermarket across the street. Now, the Matthews-based rival, a subsidiary of Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., is moving to a new, larger store.
Oliver’s bankruptcy law specialty puts his thumb on the pulse of the New Bern business community. “I do reorganizations for mom-and-pop businesses,” he says as he walks along the Neuse River. “I keep people in jobs in northeast North Carolina. It is really satisfying.”
For a guy who meets folks at their worst, struggling to keep their businesses afloat, he is upbeat about the city’s economic outlook. Dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt, no tie, Oliver, 42, looks more like a tech CEO than a small-town lawyer. He serves on several national and local boards, including New Bern’s Historic Downtown Residents Association, and is active in community theater. He plays mandolin in his family’s band, Strung Together.
A graduate of UNC Chapel Hill’s law school, Oliver moved to New Bern from Asheville in 2001. Originally from Morehead City, he married his high-school sweetheart and moved to the mountains, but with the birth of the first of three children the couple returned to eastern North Carolina. New Bern was the midpoint between their two families.
It’s a weekday morning, and the streets are active with foot traffic. People are out strolling, getting breakfast at Baker’s Kitchen or heading to work. At night, business at the local restaurants and bars is brisk, especially in the summer, giving the small town an urban feel.
New Bern could have been a one-hit wonder of history. It was the state’s first capital from 1747 to 1794, though the governor didn’t have his own building until completion of Tryon Palace in 1770. During the Battle of Lexington, Gov. Josiah Martin, North Carolina’s last royal governor, was a virtual prisoner in the palace, surrounded by hostile Patriots.
A century later, New Bern pharmacist Caleb Bradham invented Pepsi. On the brink of World War I, Bradham bought huge stocks of sugar, fearful that prices would surge. Instead, prices dropped, and Bradham, facing bankruptcy, sold the trademark to Craven Holding Corp. Now based in New York, PepsiCo Inc. had revenue of $63 billion in 2015. In New Bern, tourists snap up T-shirts proclaiming, “Friends don’t let friends drink Coke.”
After walking around downtown, Oliver drives down U.S. 70, explaining how the city sprawls several miles to the south and west. While about 30,000 people live in New Bern, the city’s reach extends farther than that. It serves as a bedroom community for contractors and service members based at Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station in Havelock, about 19 miles away. It is also a popular community for retirees. Craven County has about 104,000 residents.
Oliver used to live in a neighborhood off U.S. 70 before he moved downtown. It’s just before lunch and the traffic isn’t thick yet, but it gets heavy in the mornings and the evenings. Oliver’s current house faces the Neuse River. So close, he can walk out his front door and drop a stand-up paddleboard into the water in fewer than 50 steps. But moving downtown didn’t alleviate all of his traffic issues.
“Everything takes twice as much time,” Oliver says, “because you are going to see people out on the porch.”
And Oliver isn’t one not to say hello.
Photo provided by New Bern Convention & Visitors Bureau