Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Community close up: Cumberland County, getting it done


Fayetteville and Cumberland County’s recently unveiled brand — Can Do Carolina — is more than words. It’s action, thanks to modest living costs, amenities, educational institutions and economic opportunity.

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On a steamy August evening, Larry Keen threw the first pitch at a Fayetteville Woodpeckers minor-league baseball game. “The ball went over the plate,” he says. “I didn’t get a strike, but it was close.”

Keen is Fayetteville Technical Community College’s president. His trip to the pitcher’s mount kicked off Fayetteville Tech night at Segra Stadium, when the college’s choir sang the national anthem, and the stands were filled with Fort Bragg soldiers and their families, college colleagues and students, and community members. “It reminded me of why I love Fayetteville so much,” he says. “We were all there to enjoy the day together, and that’s the beauty of what we have here in this city and Cumberland County at large.”

The evening was evidence of how family friendly Fayetteville has become since the 1970s, when seedy bars and adult entertainment venues populated the center city, which is steeped in history. It’s named for Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat, military officer and leader of colonial troops during the American Revolution. Local history recalls it’s the only namesake city that he visited. It’s where the N.C. Constitutional Convention ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1789, the UNC System was chartered and Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run. Fayetteville’s 2019 population was almost 209,000, according to N.C. Office of State Budget and Management. That made it North Carolina’s sixth-largest city. And it’s only getting bigger, thanks to an affordable cost of living, quality of life amenities, educational institutions, and expanding job and economic opportunities, many linked to Fort Bragg. It’s the largest U.S. military post by population and one of six military installations in North Carolina. It’s a similar situation in surrounding Cumberland County. “We are a 350,000-person county with business and industry, history, arts and culture,” says Robert Van Geons, president and CEO of Fayetteville Cumberland County Economic Development Corp.

Van Geons points to Cumberland County’s strength as a standalone community, which would prosper without Fort Bragg woven into its fabric. “But would we be anywhere near as dynamic, unique and diverse without Fort Bragg?” he asks. “Absolutely not. We go hand-in-hand and together contribute to our quality of life here.”

Last year, Fayetteville Cumberland Collaborative Branding Committee — comprised of Cumberland County, city of Fayetteville and representatives of community organizations — unveiled a regional promotion campaign. Can Do Carolina was designed to increase awareness and attract prospective residents and businesses. It highlights Fayetteville and Cumberland County’s diversity along with its assets, low cost of living, central location along Interstate 95 — halfway between New York City and Miami — patriotism and proximity to Fort Bragg.

Can Do Carolina’s strategy is underpinned by four community pillars: find a way, care for one another, protect the world and always go further. Its logo is North Carolina’s silhouette with a star over Cumberland County. Van Geons says the star, designed to appear as if its radiating beams of light, represents a vibrant community with plenty of possibility. “The visual aspect of the brand serves as an anchor point,” he says. “The messaging and four pillars capture who we are and tells our community’s unique and authentic story.”

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Economic development and small business growth have fueled a renais-sance in Cumberland County and Fayetteville over the past 20 years. Despite the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, Van Geons says 2020 was the county’s best year for economic development. And this year is shaping up to be better. “As of August, we have already had more projects come here than we did in all of [2020],” he says.

Online retailer Amazon, for example, announced in May that it’s building a delivery center in Fayetteville. It’s expected to create about 200 jobs and open early next year. And the U.S.Postal Service leased a 178,200-square-foot spec building at Liberty Point, an industrial park in Hope Mills, in August. It’s expected to open a distribution center there this month.

Cumberland County has more demand than supply: Building vacancy is at an all-time low, Van Geons says. But some relief is on the way. SkyREM recently purchased more than 500 acres of county-owned industrial property in Cumberland Industrial Center and the Cedar Creek Industrial Park, where Campbell Soup recently opened a 700,000-square-foot distribution center. SkyREM will develop the property within three years, adding about 1.6 million square feet of industrial space. The real-estate investor purchased more than 1 million square feet of space in the county earlier this year.


More than 55,000 military members are stationed at Fort Bragg, which employs about 12,000 civilians. It’s home to the 82nd Airborne Division and Army Special Operations Command. And it’s a big reason that 850 military contractors work in Cumberland County, Van Geons says. “There is a large amount of opportunity to leverage this talent and develop relationships around the world,” he says. “We have a number of companies with an international presence.”

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Fayetteville is home to North Carolina Military Business Center. A component of the N.C. Community College System, it leverages the six military bases in the state to help North Carolina businesses grow their revenue. It has helped them land more than 4,000 federal contracts, from supplying parts to building housing, worth more than $15 billion.

Van Geons says some of the most trained and skilled soldiers in the world serve at Fort Bragg, and many settle in surrounding communities after transitioning out of the military. Local companies seek them out as hires because of the technical and soft skills that they developed while serving their country.

Fayetteville Tech and Fort Bragg share a close relationship. “We are absolutely committed to the soldiers,” Keen says. The college recently allocated space in its automotive services annex for the BMW Military Service Technician Education Program. A partnership between BMW of North America and Universal Technical Institute, it offers service members the opportunity to train for a new career before they transition into civilian life.


Fayetteville State’s Broadwell College of Business and Economics stands ready. “Our Veterans Business Outreach Center, Small Business Technology Development Center and Center for Economic Development provide business and entrepreneurial support for the military and public at large,” says Interim Dean Ulysses Taylor.

Broadwell College offers small business support and a traditional MBA program that has a health care administration specialty. Taylor says it also has the UNC System’s only completely online accounting program, which has seen dramatic growth. He says enrollment has jumped to 300 from 60 over the past three years. In fact, Broadwell College is in the midst of a growth spurt. “We’ve doubled in size over the last seven years,” he says. “Back in 2015, we had around 750 students enrolled in our college, and now we’re close to 1,700. So, we are truly a growth area for the university.”

Broadwell’s faculty and staff raised $25,000 to create a scholarship endowment. “We have a wonderful staff and faculty,” Taylor says. “They love what they do, and they wanted to be able to give back.” The interim dean loves the university, too. “I’m a graduate of Fayetteville State, and I’ve been working here now for almost 30 years,” he says. “I love this place, and it’s the best job I’ve ever had in my life.”

Working with economic development partners, Fayetteville State established the EDA University Center with a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The Center provides program support for entrepreneurial and small business growth, with specific focus on traditionally marginalized populations within the six-county region that surrounds the university.


Cumberland County and Fayetteville aren’t all work. Visitors find many new adventures and experiences. They spent more than $601 million doing that in 2019, according to the most recent data from VisitNC, the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina’s tourism promotion arm.
That put it 10th most of the state’s 100 counties.

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Fayetteville Cumberland County EDC Marketing Director Natalie LaVallee moved to Fayetteville when her husband was stationed at Fort Bragg. “We love the location,” she says. “The diversity is astounding, and that’s something I really look for in a city, because I love learning about different cultures.”

Cumberland County Schools, for example, count 85 native languages among its nearly 51,000 students. But Van Geons says nothing illustrates diversity like Fayetteville’s food scene. A food lover can enjoy a culinary jour-ney around the world simply by visiting its myriad international restaurants. From Vietnamese pho to Salvadorian pupusas, it is a foodie paradise. “Whether it’s Afghan food, Indian cuisine or authentic Thai that is so real and so spicy that even a fire guy like me can’t handle it, I love it all,” he says.

Melody Foote is Fayetteville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau’s director of communications. She points to Dirtbag Ales Brewery & Taproom, a large craft brewer and event venue in Hope Mills. “The Dirtbag is a great place to visit anytime, but it is at its best on Sunday mornings, when it features its delicious brunch and farmer’s market,” she says. The brewery added whiskey and cocktails made with locally sourced ingredients this year.
Foote’s list of must-do activities includes Cape Fear Botanical Garden, 80 acres of luscious greenery, eco-systems and year-round activities. Nestled between the Cape Fear River and Cross Creek, it is only about 2 miles from downtown Fayetteville. And if you want more outdoor adventures, she suggests visiting Zipquest Water-fall and Treetop Adventure and Carvers Creek State Park.

You don’t have to be a history buff to appreciate U.S. Army Airborne and Special Operations Museum, a monument to U.S. military heroes and a Fayetteville crown jewel. It preserves and presents more than 80 years of U.S. Army Airborne and Special Forces heritage. The 59,000-square-foot museum is self-guided. Plan on three hours to see and interact with all that it offers.

The museum has a large exhibit gallery and theater. It’s hosting a field of honor, where hundreds of U.S. flags will fly through the end of November. “History is all around you in the museum and it is very inspiring,” says Jim Bartlinski, the museum’s director. “And you never know who you might meet there. It could be a recent war hero or a veteran of World War II. You may turn and find someone who made history standing right beside you.”

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