In Town Square

By Bryan Mims

Out here among the hills of sand, the North Carolina Motor Speedway’s grandstands rise out of the longleaf pine scenery like a shrine to when stock-car racing was mostly Southern and unvarnished by the modern-day corporate engine. But the track known as The Rock doesn’t roll like it once did. The one-mile oval is quiet and hasn’t hosted a top-level race since 2004. Gone are the high-octane names of Richard Petty, Junior Johnson and other knights of racing who rumbled the track for decades.

The speedway thrust Rockingham onto the map when it opened in 1965. For almost 40 years, The Rock was up there with Charlotte, Daytona and Talladega as a key NASCAR port of call. But the circuit has moved on to bigger markets.

While a nearby dragway remains among its sport’s most active venues, Richmond County and its largest city know their future can’t rely on the pedal-to-the-metal pace of motorsports. The better long-term bet is energetic folks such as Ashley-Michelle Thublin, 26, who came to town two years ago for a job as public information officer for the local public schools, the largest employer in the county. Eager to describe the cool stuff her “kiddos” are doing, her wide smile and ebullience can destroy a bad case of the blahs. “Everyone was just so welcoming,” she says. “They said, ‘We are 100% behind our students.’ And everyone was just so friendly. OK, I could move here. I just loved it.”

Arriving without knowing anyone, she plugged into the community through the Richmond Young Professionals, a group of millennials who meet regularly to talk, have fun and volunteer. “It is just bang-up amazingness for me,” she says. “We have bankers, we have architects in there, we have nurses.”

Thublin took an unusual path to North Carolina. She grew up in Dublin, Ga., a city of about 16,000, then went to New York University to study journalism and history. While in Manhattan, she interned at The New York Times, ABC Sports and Good Housekeeping magazine, originally planning to be a television sports reporter. During a visit home in her senior year, she learned that the Dublin superintendent wanted a public-relations person. After stopping by a kindergarten class, the glamour of TV suddenly lost its luster, and she took the school job.

She spent a year and a half in Dublin, then in 2015 jumped to Richmond County, a rural area with median household income of about $33,000, a hollowed-out manufacturing sector and a 30% poverty rate. Its population is little changed from 35 years ago and declining, along with about half of North Carolina’s counties. Donald Trump won 54% of the vote in November.

Despite obvious challenges, the school district is showing great promise, says Thublin, who in December was named one of the nation’s top public-school PR practitioners under age 35 by the National School Public Relations Association. Its students just registered the highest ninth-grade math scores in county history, the graduation rate is at a record 81% and 14 of 16 schools showed educational progress in the state’s most recent report card. While Rockingham can’t afford to match the salary supplements paid to teachers in wealthier counties, “We have a ton of young teachers who are doing great work,” she says.

Many younger people live about 30 minutes away in Southern Pines, which offers more housing and entertainment choices, she says. Thublin rents a three-bedroom Rockingham house for $600 a month. “In New York, I’d probably be spending $800 a month in a tiny apartment in a super shabby neighborhood, and it would take 90 minutes to get to my job every day.” She says she’s in no hurry to move to a bigger city.

Richmond, stung by the textile industry collapse in the ‘90s and early 2000s, has had some notable economic-development successes in the last year. Poultry giant Perdue Farms Inc. is the largest private employer with 1,100 workers, according to Martie Butler, the county’s economic developer. Perdue  is investing nearly $11 million in its Rockingham plant and hiring 30 employees over the next three years.

The biggest expansions last year involved cabinet maker RSI Group, which is investing $18 million and adding 175 jobs, and food packager Direct Pack Inc., which is investing $13 million and adding 100 jobs. Other big private employers include CSX Corp., with more than 400 workers; Plastek Group, 282; International Textile Group, more than 250; and Big Rock Sports LLC with 250.

Rockingham is trying hard to make its downtown district more appealing. In 2013, Charlotte’s Discovery Place science museum opened a branch in Rockingham, its metallic, glassy exterior adding a burst of modernism to the brick storefronts. Across the street is Pattan’s Grille, which opened in 2015 and is a gathering spot for Thublin’s crowd. “Home of the Pee Dee River Swamp Sauce,” Pattan’s is the place for chopped barbecue, beef brisket and pulled-pork tacos paired with a pinot grigio or moscato.

Just down Hancock Street is Henry’s Uptown Café, which opened seven years ago. Terri McCroskey, a bubbly, 51-year-old waitress in a chic newsboy cap, greets everyone with a “Hello! Welcome! Make yourself at home!”

Over a lunch of a hand-pressed angus burger on bread baked by owner Henry Antos, with fries that he slices, McCroskey is optimistic about downtown. “Things have begun to spruce up,” she says. “It seems like there has been a renewing of the energy downtown.”

A few tables over, Richmond County Chamber of Commerce President Emily Tucker is having lunch with two friends, both under 30. She says downtown Rockingham is adding a bakery called Kool Kakes and a soon-to-open coffee shop, Rock City Java. There’s also a dance studio, Bold Moves Dance Co., owned by Holly Littlefield-Bowers, who returned to her hometown after college to pursue her dream of being a dance instructor.

“Rockingham downtown used to close the streets up at 5 o’clock,” Tucker says. “Businesses are starting to reopen downtown. They’re redoing and remodeling. It’s pretty awesome.”

While throngs of NASCAR fans no longer make the pilgrimage to the asphalt oval outside town, the race is on to attract newcomers of all ages. Join the young professionals for a meet-and-greet over beer and billiards, and you might come away with the sense that Rockingham still rocks.

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