Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Aberdeen boasts unpretentious growth

By Bryan Mims

Aberdeen is a town basking in the shadows of some pretty lofty pines: Pinehurst. Southern Pines. Whispering Pines. They’re renowned and refined communities noted for fabulous golf resorts, horse farms, well-manicured neighborhoods and youthful retirees. Southern Moore County is among the nation’s greatest golf destinations, with the legendary Pinehurst No. 2 barely more than a golf ball’s flight from the Aberdeen town limits.

The town, a little lesser known than its neighbors, is quickly approaching 8,000 residents and “is not trying to prove anything to anybody,” local baker and business owner Martin Brunner says. “We’re not trying to keep up with anybody. We’re our own town, and I think that’s the really cool thing about it.”

Aberdeen is named for the city in northeastern Scotland, also a golfer’s paradise. Highland Scots settled in the Sandhills in the mid-1700s, lured by the boundless longleaf pine forests that oozed with tar, pitch and turpentine — major moneymakers in early North Carolina. This Scottish heritage explains the red tartan pattern on the town’s emblem, which adorns benches and light post banners in downtown. Another design on the logo is the locomotive, a nod to the Aberdeen & Rockfish Railroad Co., which linked the town with Raeford in Hoke County and became one of the state’s most successful short-line operators. These days, patrons of the Railhouse Brewery chugalug porters, pale ales and North Carolina-distilled whiskey. Founded by a sailor and a soldier in 2010, the brewery overlooks the junction of two tracks and the old Union Station Depot, now a railroad museum with a renovated red caboose outside.

On a warm, slow-going weeknight, a man with arms sleeved in tattoos sits at an outside table with Nicole Meyer, the restaurant’s manager. A native of Tacoma, Wash., she says Aberdeen carries a whiff of her hometown. “My opinion is not going to be popular,” Meyer warns as she launches into a comparison between the hipster West Coast city and this Southern whistle stop. “Tacoma is known for being a little rough around the edges, but also cultural,” she says. “I feel like Aberdeen is a little that way. It’s not as polished as Southern Pines, but it’s kind of real. There are some really great people who live here, some really talented people.”

She points out the eighth annual Spring Spree in May, which attracted more than 80 vendors, mostly artists and craftspeople showcasing their wares to the sounds of local bands. The town also strikes up a summer concert series known as the Sunday Exchange from June through September.

Chris, the inked customer who prefers not to divulge his last name — he’s in the Army and works at nearby Fort Bragg — describes Aberdeen as having an “almost multicultural” vibe, thanks in part to the military presence. Fort Bragg brushes up against the town’s eastern edge. While more commonly linked to Fayetteville, 40 miles away, Fort Bragg has a substantial cadre of officers and enlisted soldiers living in Moore County. “You get a lot of different people with different backgrounds and different mindsets and hobbies and habits,” he says. “They don’t necessarily want to live in Fayetteville but still want to be close to work.”

That proximity to Fort Bragg has attracted military-related companies to the area. Aberdeen-based Spiritus Systems, maker of nylon tactical gear, doubled the size of its facility in 2018. Moore County Partners in Progress, an economic-development group, says 385 defense contracts totaling nearly $159 million were awarded to Moore County companies in 2017.

Fort Bragg, golf, a picturesque setting and proximity to the Triangle (Raleigh is a little more than an hour’s drive north along U.S. 1) have all boosted Aberdeen’s appeal. The town has more than doubled its population since 2000, and more homes will be sprouting among the sand and pines. A $70 million mixed-use development is planned for a 119-acre tract along N.C. 5, pending approval from the town to rezone the land. The project, called Blake Village, would include up to 120,000 square feet of office and retail space and 370 homes, along with extensive green space.

“It’s one of those traditional neighborhoods where you can ride your bike from your house to the local ice cream shop on a summer day and not have to worry about getting on busy roads,” says Justin Westbrook, the town’s 35-year-old planning director.

Blake Village is the first project to seek rezoning as a planned unit development since Aberdeen adopted a land-development plan early this year. The changes have touched off concerns that so many homes would overload roads, overcrowd schools and strain other services. In April, the Aberdeen Planning Board rejected the rezoning request, though the town’s Board of Commissioners has final say.

In the downtown historic district, there are only a few vacant storefronts, Westbrook says. Street improvements including brick crosswalks, pedestrian railroad crossings, new light poles and banners are planned to make the heart of town as walker-friendly and eye-catching as possible.

That’s not to say Aberdeen is lacking in stroll appeal right now. Attractive directional signs tell how many minutes it takes to walk to the train depot, the post office, the library, shopping and dining, and to the Artist’s League, an old railroad storage house that’s been transformed into studios and galleries.

One of downtown’s youngest businesses is Sweet Carolina Ice Cream, which scooped out a little nook on West Main Street and opened in February. It has four owners, all 20-somethings who moved from the Jersey Shore. “We really, really liked it down here,” says 26-year-old Michelle Viecelli. She went into the business with her boyfriend, Christopher Clayton, and another couple they knew from New Jersey who had already moved to the area. “‘It’s so nice down here; there are trees everywhere. You guys should come visit; the air is really fresh,’” she recalls her friends saying.

Viecelli and her boyfriend were eager to leave New Jersey, and Moore County lived up to the sales pitch from their friends, so they brought their entrepreneurial spirit down south. Viecelli is no stranger to the business of ice cream; her parents own an ice cream shop.

A more established purveyor of savory products — pastries, paninis and pretty wedding cakes — is The Bakehouse on Poplar Street, where it announces “est. 1948” on the brick facade. But the business has only been making dough at this spot since 2008, when Martin Brunner and his wife, Mireia, opened the bakery and cafe. Brunner is a fifth-generation baker, and the cafe pays homage to his grandfather, who founded a shop with the same name in Austria in 1948.

The 41-year-old Brunner, a bakery instructor at Sandhills Community College, was born and spent most of his childhood in Austria before his family moved to the United States in 1991. His golf-enthusiast parents eventually settled in Moore County and opened a restaurant; their son later fired up a bakery of his own.

“Southern Pines was already way overdone,” he says. “I like Aberdeen. It’s got character. It’s a smaller town, a little less busy, and I just found the main drag here, Poplar Street, just really cool.”

Downtown is perking up with a coffee shop called High Octane, a hangout with raved-about burgers called Double Eagle Bar and Grill, and a “retro-game lounge” at Hit Point Hobbies. It’s also home to Aberdeen Coca-Cola Bottling Co., founded in 1913 and occupying a century-old brick building that is on the National Register of Historic Places. “The town is growing, and the downtown is going to piggyback off that,” says Westbrook, the town manager, noting that Aberdeen is poised to expand by about 1,000 homes in the next couple of years — and that doesn’t include Blake Village.

Aberdeen may not be trying to prove anything to anyone, but it is proving to be a desirable address in its own right. “It’s chiller,” as resident Kat Matagi, 27, styles it while ordering cotton candy-flavored ice cream at Sweet Carolina. “It has a more local feel.”

Among such lofty pines, the sunlight still casts a bright, enticing glow on Aberdeen.

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