Town square: Rocky Mount looks to the Carolina Connector to push positive growth

 In Town Square

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By Jim Pomeranz

It’s just after noon, and The Prime Smokehouse on Thomas Street in Rocky Mount is about two-thirds full. It’s a relatively slow day for the restaurant that Ed Wiley opened in 2013 after city leaders sought something to attract people downtown. “We’re usually packed by now, and there’s a line outside,” a waitress says. For a good reason: The aroma of smoked meats fills the air more than a block away. Inside, the sound of soft jazz music melds with the scent of smoked pork, beef brisket, chicken and sausage. It’s soothing enough to make an afternoon of it.

But today, there’s no time to dally because Norris Tolson, CEO of Carolinas Gateways Partnership, is eager to discuss business prospects in Rocky Mount, a city of about 56,000 split between Nash and Edgecombe counties. Expansion is clearly needed: There’s little activity downtown aside from Prime this weekday afternoon. It seems no one is home, and many storefronts appear empty.

“If you were to come back here five years from now, you will see a totally different Rocky Mount,” says Tolson, 77, a former head of the state’s commerce, transportation and revenue departments. “I believe we are on the leading edge of growing again. We have some pretty aggressive plans to revitalize our economy, and that’s crucial to keeping people here to live, work and play. The Carolina Connector is going to help with that. The Rocky Mount Mills project is going to help with that. The new community center will help with that.”

The CSX Carolina Connector Intermodal Rail Terminal, to be built 6 miles north of downtown and across the road from North Carolina Wesleyan College, sparks much optimism. The $270 million project being built by the N.C. Department of Transportation and the Jacksonville, Fla.-based railroad giant will receive, sort and disperse freight by rail and trucks. The impact is potentially enormous, with an expected 300 permanent jobs and as many as 13,000 at logistics and distribution companies tied to the site, according to project promoters.

“I am absolutely convinced,” says Tolson, “that the Carolina Connector will literally change the landscape here and in surrounding counties to the point where 10 years from now we won’t be able to recognize the total impact. There’s opportunity that we haven’t even uncovered yet. I am convinced businesses are lurking in our future, but we don’tknow what they are.”

About a mile from downtown on the Tar River is Rocky Mount Mills, one of North Carolina’s first textile businesses when started almost 200 years ago. It’s where the Goodmon family envisions a development akin to their celebrated American Tobacco Campus in Durham. The Goodmons, owners of Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting Co., plan 300,000 square feet of office, restaurants, a brewery incubator and more than 100 residential units. “Rocky Mount Mills is an opportunity to transform an abandoned mill not only into a gateway into Rocky Mount but into eastern N.C.,” says Michael Goodmon, Capitol’s real-estate development chief.

Residential construction came first, with 50 old mill houses renovated in the last three years into attractive single-family homes, ranging from 850 to 1,400 square feet. With all but a couple of homes under lease at monthly rates of $1,000 to $1,400, the new neighborhood is bringing back life to an area in need of repair. Five more homes are being renovated, and 50 loft apartments inside the mill are planned for 2018. Koi Pond Brewing Co. and a tasting room for Tarboro Brewing Co. are open, but more breweries could be on the way. A partnership between the developers and Nash Community College is starting a business incubator that will offer a degree in brewing, distillation and fermentation.

Ground was broken in March on a $41 million, 175,000-square-foot multipurpose center, a block from Prime. The city hopes the community center will attract athletic events, small conventionsand school graduations. Rocky Mount will own the building, which will be managed by Sports Facility Advisory/Sports Facility Management, a Clearwater, Fla.-based company that works with dozens of municipalities nationally. City manager Charles Penny says he expects the facility to have positive cash flow within four years of its opening. Others are skeptical, citing a 2013 study paid for by the city that projects a decade of deficits.

The new enterprises complement the city’s significant strengths, including its proximity to the fast-growing Triangle — Rocky Mount is about an hour’s drive from Raleigh — and a solid pool of large employers: Pfizer makes IV solution products, QVC operates a distribution center, The Cheesecake Factory bakes products for its East Coast restaurants and food distributor McLane Co. trucks goods nationally from its local base, having acquired Meadowbrook Meat Co. in 2012. Food has always been important to the town that birthed Hardee’s restaurants. Family-owned Boddie-NoellEnterprises remains the hamburger chain’s largest franchisee with 330 stores in four states.

Attracting white-collar jobs is proving more difficult because the city’s once-thriving banking industry is now much smaller. PNC Bank, the successor to Royal Bank of Canada, Centura Bank, Peoples Bank and Planters Bank, moved its state headquarters to Raleigh. It retains a 300-employee operations center downtown after leaving a 28-acre campus, originally built by Hardee’s, that included six separate buildings, 220,000 square feet of space and 600 parking spaces.

In August, Raleigh real-estate investor Scott McLaughlin of Strategic Connections and his partner, David Hicks of Zebulon, paid $1.35 million for the site. “Where can you put 600 employees to work in 90 days?” says McLaughlin. “We feel like Rocky Mount is undervalued and think it’s a good investment.”

Tolson was a key player in recruiting CSX, which chose Rocky Mount after Johnston County officials turned down the railroad’s favored site near Selma. When CSX officials visited, Tolson catered lunches from Prime, and in the evenings, CSX visitors frequented the restaurant, getting to know the people and the lay of the land.

Prime wasn’t the primary reason CSX chose Rocky Mount, but the smoked meats and Cajun gumbo must have helped. The streets in downtown Rocky Mount may look rolled up at times, but paving is underway, slowly but surely.

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