For those concerned about the fate of rural parts of North Carolina, our inaugural Trailblazers feature provides some hopeful signs. The section recognizes young, thriving business owners and professionals who operate in North Carolina’s smaller cities and towns. We sought nominations for the best and brightest under 40 who are showing significant business success and are striving to make a positive impact on communities that have fewer than 100,000 residents.
Success in North Carolina’s less-populated areas is important for the state’s future, and attracting and retaining young people is particularly critical. About 4.2 million of the state’s 10 million residents live in 80 counties that have fewer than 250 people per square mile, the metric often used in defining an area as rural. While population is surging in the Charlotte and Triangle areas, almost half of the state’s 100 counties have fewer residents now than in 2010, according to the nonprofit N.C. Rural Center. The outflow is expected to continue for another 20 years, officials at the Office of State Budget and Management say.
Rural North Carolina also has an older population, on average, than faster-growing urban areas, says Jason Gray, senior fellow for research and policy at the Rural Center. “In part, this is due to young people leaving to look for work, and in some cases it is because of older populations moving in to retire. … The counties that are losing population are seeing the biggest losses due to out-migration of 18- to 35-year-olds.” Meanwhile, small business startups and lending are lagging in many less-populated areas.
By bucking that trend, these Trailblazers are showing the dedication and passion to go the extra mile. Enthusiastic nominators introduced us to many young professionals who are bettering their hometowns. We narrowed the list to 22 leaders from across the state, from Saluda to St. Pauls. Each noted that there’s something special about living in a small community. Each offers the kind of energy needed to improve their communities, often against heavy odds.

So after two years, Bell transferred to the much smaller Brevard College, which offers a unique wilderness leadership and experiential education program. “It felt like this is where I belong, and this place — western North Carolina — just sort of instantly felt like home, and always has.”


Photo by Mike Belleme

Sara Bell was an architecture student at Auburn University when the rivers of western North Carolina first beckoned. “I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and I didn’t totally fit,” she says. While at Auburn, she learned to kayak on Alabama’s Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers, and by the end of her sophomore year, she was teaching kayak lessons. “That was pretty much all I wanted to do.”

So after two years, Bell transferred to the much smaller Brevard College, which offers a unique wilderness leadership and experiential education program. “It felt like this is where I belong, and this place — western North Carolina — just sort of instantly felt like home, and always has.”
Today, Bell, 37, owns and operates two businesses in Polk County that attract about 30,000 adventure-seekers annually. Based in a modern, barn-like structure surrounded by state-owned game lands, The Gorge is a 1.25-mile guided zip line canopy tour that Bell says is the steepest and fastest in the U.S. About 2 miles away in downtown Saluda, Green River Adventures runs guided inflatable kayak trips out of an open-air structure that originally was the town’s first gas station.
Bell came to Saluda after several years working for an adventure travel business in Costa Rica and at a residential treatment facility in Bennington, Vt., where she developed an outdoor-education program for “super bungled-up kids.” In 2006, she and her husband, Tim, returned to western North Carolina, and Sara agreed to help some friends run a school for avid whitewater kayakers on the Green River. When the school’s owners decided to move on to other ventures, Bell, then 25, bought the business, using savings for a down payment.
That same year, N.C. lawmakers passed a bill sponsored by former state Sen. Tom Apodaca that banned alcohol consumption within 50 feet of rivers in Polk County. “It had this instant cleansing effect,” Bell says. “Before, it was like this floating frat party. … There were beer cans floating everywhere.”
Spying an opportunity, Bell drafted a plan to expand the business beyond lessons for experienced kayakers. Green River Adventures opened in spring 2007, including kayak trips for all skill levels, waterfall rappelling and sales of gear, life jackets and other apparel. Then the recession hit, and the retail business completely dried up.
Fortunately for Bell, during the downturn many families traded long getaways for day trips closer to home, prompting her to shift the business model to focus on water adventure instead of retail. When Tim’s business making custom cabinets and furniture slowed during the recession, he joined the river outpost, where he runs daily operations. Sara oversees The Gorge, which she opened in 2013, and handles marketing, social media and finances for both ventures.
The businesses operate seven days a week from spring through fall; The Gorge also is open Fridays and Saturdays during the winter. In the peak summer season, they draw a combined 1,600 people a week, and a year-round staff of about 20 swells to more than 70, including college students, local retirees and others who have made outdoor recreation a career.
Bell has served on the boards of the Saluda Business Association and the Polk County Economic Development Commission. She is treasurer of the Green River Access Fund, a nonprofit that maintains access for paddlers.
The impact Bell’s businesses have had on the town of about 700 residents seems obvious. “The restaurants are crushing it, the retail stores are crushing it,” she says. “The biggest complaint in Saluda is that there’s not enough parking. I’m like, this is a fabulous problem to have.” 

Chris Cartwright

39, Prism Medical Products, Elkin
Cartwright started Prism as a one-man operation in 2006. The company, which sells specialty medical products such as wound dressings and catheters, has grown to nine distribution centers across the U.S. with more than 200 employees. Prism’s corporate office remains in downtown Elkin, where in June it hosted its inaugural 5K, the Throwing Shades Color FUN Run benefiting the Children’s Center of Surry & Yadkin and Ebenezer Christian Children’s Home. Cartwright earned a bachelor’s degree from Wingate University.

Cameron Cruse

30, R. Riveter, Southern Pines
Cruse and co-founder Lisa Bradley started a handbag company in Dahlonega, Ga., in 2011 with a mission of empowering military spouses, who craft each bag from recycled military materials. They’ve since expanded their line to include jewelry, scarves and dog collars. The company headquarters moved to Southern Pines in 2014, when Cruse’s husband was assigned to Fort Bragg. R. Riveter ranked No. 386 on Inc. magazine’s 2018 list of fastest-growing U.S. private companies, based on 2017 revenue of $2.3 million.

Jennifer Harriss

38, Destination Downtown Edenton, Edenton
North Carolina’s second-oldest town has a thriving center city, in part due to the leadership of Harriss, executive director of the nonprofit booster organization. The Rocky Mount native fell in love with the town after meeting Mayor Roland Vaughan at a conference. “I love the authenticity of Edenton,” says Harriss, who has a master’s in historic preservation from Goucher College in Towson, Md. Since Harriss joined the group 11 years ago, she has lobbied lawmakers to retain the N.C. Historic Preservation Tax Credit, which she calls invaluable for rural areas.

Lindsay Keisler

31, Catawba county Chamber of Commerce, Hickory
The Conover native became the first female president and CEO of the Catawba County Chamber of Commerce in February 2017. The UNC Charlotte grad, who has worked at the chamber for nine years, was named a 2018 Woman of Distinction by the Girl Scout Peaks to Piedmont Council, representing 50 counties. Community involvement includes the Carolinas Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, Hickory-Conover Tourism Development Authority and YMCA of Catawba Valley. “Volunteerism and pride in community is in my blood, and what drives my passion and lifework.”

Brandy Koontz

36, Koontz Law, Mocksville
The Davie County native returned to her roots after becoming partner at Mocksville’s Vogler Law firm, buying the firm in 2014. She has a master’s from Appalachian State University and a law degree from Charlotte School of Law. She returned to her stomping grounds “in hope of giving back at least a fraction of what I took away from the positive influences in this community.” Koontz has provided pro bono legal services to victims of domestic and sexual violence and serves on various local boards, including Davie County Smart Start, Just Hope and United Way.

Joanne Badr Morgan

37, Ward and Smith, Asheville
After earning a bachelor’s from UNC Chapel Hill and a law degree from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., Badr Morgan returned to her hometown in 2013 as an attorney at Ward and Smith, which has more than 90 lawyers in the state.  “I always intuitively knew that I’d end up moving back home. … The mountains always call you back,” Badr Morgan says. She has represented banks, real-estate developers, business owners, and various breweries, distilleries and wineries across North Carolina. She volunteers for the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club of Buncombe County.

Jon Neumann

36, Grove Stone & Sand, Asheville
By day, Neumann sells building materials as a vice president of Grove Sand & Stone, a division of Salisbury-based Hedrick Industries. But the N.C. State University graduate also puts enormous energy into community events. He organizes the annual Rock the Quarry Trail Challenge 5K and Kids Fun Run at the company’s Black Mountain quarry. The event raised more than $60,000 last year, benefiting the Black Mountain Home for Children and the Asheville Museum of Science, of which Neumann is a former board member.

Anna Oakes

34, Watauga Democrat, Boone
After working for a suburban Raleigh newspaper, the Caldwell County native and Appalachian State University graduate longed to return home. “I missed the mountains,” she says. In 2007 she joined Boone’s High Country Press and later moved to the Watauga Democrat, where she became editor in 2016. Oakes has received N.C. Press Association accolades for reporting, most recently for stories about her alma mater. She is active with the Boone Service League.

“Usually what you hear about Anson is that it is poverty stricken and there is crime,” he says. “But the fact is that about one person in 80 is involved in crime and it’s not really what we see. It is a fun place to live, and there are a lot of successful people here.”


Photo by Peter Taylor

Though he’s only 30, Logan Scarborough knows how to take a long-term perspective. He has to, because his chosen industry typically requires decades of patience, interrupted by periodic flurries of activity. Likewise, he knows his home area of Wadesboro and Anson County won’t turn around overnight after many years of declining population and lost jobs amid the textile industry’s collapse.

But Scarborough is making an impact. He started Plank Road Forestry LLC in 2011 at age 22 and has built the forestry-management business into a 17-employee enterprise. The company advises dozens of landowners and other clients in 100 counties in the Carolinas on how to maximize the value of their timberland. His wife, Ashley, 31, joined the business in January after working as an office manager at a local manufacturer.
He’s also focused on rebuilding Anson County, where he has deep roots. His grandfather started a hardware store there in the 1940s, while his father, Don Scarborough, has run a real-estate business since 1984. County seat Wadesboro is about 55 miles east of Charlotte. While the county has fewer residents today than in 1930, its western edge, including Polkton, where Scarborough lives, is growing.
“Usually what you hear about Anson is that it is poverty stricken and there is crime,” he says. “But the fact is that about one person in 80 is involved in crime and it’s not really what we see. It is a fun place to live, and there are a lot of successful people here.”
Through their work with Young Professionals of Anson, Rotary, church and other groups, the Scarboroughs are sparking positive change, says John Marek, executive director of the Anson Economic Development Partnership. “I am extraordinarily impressed with the devotion these young people have demonstrated toward their hometown, and the hard work and capital they have been willing to invest,” he says. “They are truly impressive.”
Timber is akin to investing in utility stocks, with long-term investors earning 5% to 7% annual returns over the last few decades, Scarborough says. Record lumber prices in the last year haven’t sparked higher timberland values. “Raw product prices haven’t changed dramatically, but the mill guys are making lots of money.”
Timberland investing often requires a 30- to 40-year horizon that follows a fairly similar formula: Trees are planted, then about a third are removed after 14 or 15 years to avoid overcrowding. Proceeds from sales of wood removed during deforestation typically cover the cost of seedlings, chemicals, labor and other inputs needed to get new trees growing.
Another seven to 10 years pass, and a second thinning occurs, taking out another third of the initial planting. Finally, after 32 to 40 years, depending on the trees’ genetics, the timber reaches maturity. Then, the trees are cut and sold to lumber companies, perhaps producing a windfall for patient investors who also hope that the value of their real estate escalates.
Over time, Plank Road helps its clients by marking trees needing to be removed, advising on herbicide applications, counting the number of trees in a plot and estimating market value. A key goal is ensuring that timberland owners receive top dollar for their properties rather than accepting a potentially low initial bid.
Spending all week in forests isn’t enough for Scarborough, who, like Ashley, is a graduate of N.C. State University. When he’s not working, Scarborough likes to hunt for white-tailed deer and ducks. He also spends some weekends attending timbersports competitions, where he uses an ax or chain saw to smash wood in the underhand chop, springboard chop and other categories. While some rivals devote full-time to the sport, Scarborough views the contests as a fun diversion. After all, it’s more time around timber.

“Being in the hotel business provided lots of chances for me to move, but I preferred to stick with this community, where I can have a bigger impact,” he says. “One of the good things about Rocky Mount is that the young professionals here are intimately involved in shaping the community.”


Photo by Christer Berg

Helping eastern North Carolina’s economy grow is David Joyner’s passion in business and life, sparked by a family tragedy. His younger brother, Jesse, 22, was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Rocky Mount in 2012; the shooter pleaded guilty and is serving as many as 18 years in prison.

“It gave me empathy for what people go through when there are breakdowns in society, and the indirect consequences of that,” Joyner says. “I saw the men who did the crime and realized they were a norm throughout our country. And it made me wonder about what was the most strategic thing I could do.”
Over the last two years, Joyner, 34, has run his own marketing and consulting company, working on projects and strategies for companies and tourism and economic-development groups. The business is progressing, he says, because of support from business leaders with whom he’s met at various functions and by knocking on lots of doors. “I’ve learned you have to show up to get in the right circles,” he says, while noting he typically is one of the few African-Americans in his profession. He cites Rocky Mount’s Boddie family, whose restaurant and real-estate business, Boddie-Noell Enterprises, hired him to help market its Rose Hill Plantation events venue, and the Goodmons of Raleigh, who own the Rocky Mount Mills development where he has an office.
Joyner grew up in Nash County, one of 10 children in a rural home that he says lacked indoor plumbing. His twin brother died of SIDS before turning 1. His father worked for the Rocky Mount utilities department. “It wasn’t a sign of poverty, but just a situation that you dealt with. It put a resolve in me.” Despite having limited resources, his parents “were steadfast in their love for our community.”
His family moved into the city when he was in sixth grade. After graduating from Rocky Mount High School, he attended Norfolk State University in Virginia on a partial music scholarship, playing trumpet. But he returned home after two years to help care for his ailing parents. “I was going to take a semester off, but then I started working and just stuck with that.”
He took a job at a local hotel and was eventually promoted to assistant general manager of the Gateway Convention Center and adjacent DoubleTree hotel in Rocky Mount. When the owner, Ohio-based Rockbridge Capital LLC, unexpectedly closed the center in December 2015, it eliminated the jobs of more than a dozen people, including Joyner. In response, he decided to start his own business.
“Being in the hotel business provided lots of chances for me to move, but I preferred to stick with this community, where I can have a bigger impact,” he says. “One of the good things about Rocky Mount is that the young professionals here are intimately involved in shaping the community.”
Over the years, Joyner has been involved on committees at both N.C. Wesleyan University and the Rocky Mount Chamber of Commerce, where he is vice chairman of business infrastructure and environment. He sees no easy answers to accelerate growth in rural cities but views programs to assist budding entrepreneurs and improve public schools as essential for success. Too few urban North Carolinians realize the lack of resources available for students in many rural school districts, he says. Working with influential leaders to spark positive change is motivating.
“We have a good opportunity in eastern North Carolina to recreate our economy completely, and I’m inspired by that,” he says. “I have an unwavering hope and sense of optimism. Whether the audience looks like me or not — we can fix this. We can turn this around.”     

Jesse Pope

37, Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, Linville
Pope oversees the tourism venue long run by iconic Tar Heel Hugh Morton, who died in 2006. Three years later, Morton’s family sold 2,400 acres for a state park while retaining 720 acres. The nonprofit drew about 300,000 paid visitors last year. Pope started in 2002 as a park ranger and became executive director in 2015. He oversees 100 employees, including 40 full-time. “I sit at Hugh Morton’s desk, and it’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly,” Pope says.

David Sauls

37, Southern Bank and Trust Co., Mount Olive
Since the Pikeville native joined Southern Bank in 2012, net income has more than doubled and shareholder equity has increased by 40%. It’s impressive for a bank operating mainly in small towns in rural North Carolina. A CPA who previously worked at Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP in Greenville, Sauls is senior vice president and chief accounting officer. His second job, he jokes, is as a church treasurer. Building close relationships and seeing businesses thrive in rural areas is “very important to me.”

Kelly Shiley

39, Mary Square, Apex
Shiley started creating Christian-themed decals and inspirational cards in 2010 as a way of dealing with severe postpartum depression. Rebranding as Mary Square in 2015, the women’s accessories and apparel line is now sold in more than 4,000 stores. With more than 40 employees, the company acquired Holly Springs-based jewelry company Bijou Southern earlier this year. Mary Square has doubled its revenue each year and donated nearly $100,000 to charities, including Operation Christmas Child.

Christie Thompson

35, The Market at Three Little Birds, Clayton
Thompson launched her business in 2015, selling home-decor items from three local vendors in a 1,200-square-foot shop. Last year, Three Little Birds expanded to a 10,000-square-foot space, with 60 regional artisans selling apparel, jewelry and other items. “The community is awesome, and the people want to shop local, but the options were limited at the time,” she says. “She has helped drive business downtown,” says David DeYoung, Clayton’s director of economic and community development.

Dalton Walters

32, Mimosa Insurance, Morganton
The Morganton native returned to his hometown of about 16,000 after graduating from Appalachian State University in 2008. “The people are great, the town is rich with history, and I’ve always believed in Morganton’s potential to be a place people want to visit,” Walters says. His leadership roles include the Burke County chapter of Habitat for Humanity and the Rotary Club of Morganton. In August, Walters became president of the Western Piedmont Foundation, a private fundraising group for the local community college.

Ben Webb

35, Fish Hippie/Old North State Winery, Mount Airy
The Mount Airy native started growing grapes in 2002 after studying viticulture and enology at Surry Community College. Purchasing a grape-growing and winemaking cooperative in 2007, he started Old North State Winery in a former hardware store in downtown Mount Airy, adding a restaurant in 2011. Webb also co-founded men’s apparel company Fish Hippie in 2010; the coastal-themed clothing is sold at more than 450 U.S. retailers. “Mount Airy is a great community, and I am thankful to live and [have] planted roots in such an amazing small town.”

Danny Wilcox

29, We Can So You Can Foundation, Boone
Wilcox is director of operations and fundraising at the We Can So You Can Foundation, a nonprofit funded in part by Appalachian Mountain Brewery. The Boone brewery was founded in 2013. A portion of proceeds of each AMB can or pint sold goes to the foundation, which assists the Watauga Humane Society, Western Youth Network and others. “We wanted to find a way to bring our community together that had not been done before,” says the Lenoir native.

Joe Williams

37, Brisson Drugs, St. Pauls
With pharmacy and MBA degrees from Campbell University, Williams purchased the 118-year-old drugstore in 2015 and developed MedSmart, an online medical-management service that has driven a fourfold increase in business. The Robeson County native, who attended UNC Pembroke as an undergraduate, also owns Clinic Pharmacy in Hope Mills and is a trustee of the Southeastern Health Foundation, the nonprofit affiliated with  the Robeson County hospital.

“Chip and Nicole have become advocates for additional small-business growth throughout Jackson County, including additional breweries and retail establishments,” writes Rich Price, the county’s director of economic development.


Photograph by Mike Belleme

Blink and you might miss it — you can drive right past Innovation Brewing Co. in downtown Sylva without noticing the low-slung brick building on Main Street where Chip and Nicole Owen came five years ago to escape city life.

Chip, an engineer by trade and a homebrewer since 2005, had long wanted to start a brewery. Nicole, who studied environmental science at UNC Asheville, had worked in restaurants and breweries for nearly a decade.
But after years living and working in downtown Asheville, the couple concluded they wanted to raise a family in a smaller town — their son, Crosby, is 1. “We love Asheville, and we knew we wanted to be close to it. We just didn’t want to live in it,” Nicole says.
“I grew up in the country,” says Chip, 37 and a Michigan native. “Asheville was too big for me anyway.”
They spent about a year scouting about 20 potential sites in western N.C. “We kind of gave up on the idea,” Nicole says. “Then we found Sylva, and it rejuvenated our dreams.” Cobbling together $75,000, including $20,000 for a down payment on the 1950s-era brick building that previously housed a wine shop, they opened Innovation Brewing in October 2013.
The couple kept their full-time jobs — Chip at Kearfott Corp., an aeronautics company in Black Mountain, and Nicole at Asheville Brewing Co. — commuting 45 minutes to Sylva to get the business up and running.
Starting a brewery from scratch while working full time was difficult enough, but there was one complication the couple didn’t see coming. A few months after opening Innovation, Bell’s Brewery Inc., a much larger beer company based in Kalamazoo, Mich., filed a complaint against Innovation’s trademark application, asserting the name was too similar to its own marketing slogans. After more than four years of court proceedings, the appeals board of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office dismissed the complaint in December. “It didn’t restrict us from growing,” Nicole says, “it just cost us a lot of money and headache and gray hairs.”
With the trademark dispute settled, a pair of expansions this year have allowed the business to grow from 13 to nearly 30 employees. The 75-seat Pie Times Pizza Co. opened in the spring in a space adjacent to the brewery, serving appetizers, salads and wood-fired pizzas. In July, a second taproom called Innovation Station opened in Dillsboro, about 2 miles away, in a 4,700-square-foot space by the Tuckasegee River. The building is owned by the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, which carries tourists from Bryson City across western N.C. and has begun offering a beer-tasting stop for passengers 21 and up.
Innovation cranks out 1,200 barrels annually, and its beers are on tap at about 100 bars and restaurants across the region. The original taproom, an unassuming wood-paneled space with pendant lights and a large chalkboard displaying what’s on tap, offers as many as 32 beers at a time. Most popular is the Soulvation IPA, which Nicole describes as a green tea-pineapple-papaya India pale ale. “People love it. It’s very fruity and delicious.”
Chip, who has handed off production to a full-time head brewer, describes his role as “full-time mechanic and builder,” his engineering skills evident in a clever contraption he built to transport kegs up the stairs from the brewhouse in the basement. Nicole, 32, handles most of the business affairs.
“Chip and Nicole have become advocates for additional small-business growth throughout Jackson County, including additional breweries and retail establishments,” writes Rich Price, the county’s director of economic development.
The larger Dillsboro location will allow the business to add a canning line and a 15-barrel brewhouse — twice the volume of its existing one.
But Chip and Nicole are in no hurry to grow again. For now, they plan to focus on “getting these places where they need to be,” Nicole says. “And maybe a vacation this year?”
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