Community close up: Moore County, improving its game

 In January 2022

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Golf brings plenty of people to Moore County. Some stay and make it their home, enjoying a high quality of life that’s only getting better because of workforce development, small business support and amenities.


The COVID-19 pandemic had a stranglehold on the economy in 2020. In North Carolina’s Sandhills, Moore County finally felt its grip loosen last year. Pinehurst-Southern Pines-Aberdeen Area Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Phil Werz says occupancy tax collections in July, August and September were 67.3% higher than those months the year prior. It was 71% more — $258,286 — in July 2021, for example. That three-month span beat the CVB’s forecast by $336,000.

Werz believes more leisure trips and family vacations to the home of American golf, where there’s nearly 40 courses, was behind the growth. “Clearly, this shift is COVID-related, and national travel experts like U.S. Travel Association, Destination Analysts and Tourism Economics all agree that it may be 2022 or 2023 before we see a return in some degree to more meetings and convention business,” he says. “Travel surveys show people still wish to take trips to rural areas, so Moore County is perfect for getting out of the big cities and being in a place where you can relax, socially distance and feel safe. Golf is enjoying its greatest resurgence since Tiger Woods came along in the 1990s. Pinehurst Resort is experiencing a record-breaking year, and their success is spilling over to other golf and hotel properties destination-wide.”

Much of Moore’s moxie is in what’s missing. It lacks high-rise office towers and smoke-puffing factories. You won’t find a six-lane freeway clogged with rush-hour traffic. “When you look at the fabric of Moore County, you’re not going to see a large auto mall, the big shopping malls,” says Natalie Hawkins, executive director of Partners in Progress, Moore County’s economic development group. “We have quaint, charming historic districts with boutique shops and restaurants, so it’s a little more appropriate for our culture, I think, to support new business creation. That’s what made us successful so far. That’s why Moore County is such a great place to live.”

Moore County’s population was almost 103,000 in 2020, up 16.5% since 2010, according to N.C. Office of State Budget and Management. It’s expected to surpass 155,000 by 2050. Hawkins says 41% of residents live in its southeastern corner — Southern Pines, Pinehurst and Aberdeen — where Tifway Bermuda fairways and pedestrian-friendly downtowns create a relaxed quality of life. Economic analysis firm Policom ranked the Pinehurst- Southern Pines micropolitan statistical area No. 1 in the state for the fourth consecutive year in 2021 because of its economic strength, consistent growth and quality of life. “There’s tons of opportunity there,” Hawkins says.

The quaint Village of Pinehurst is home to thriving small businesses, including restaurants, boutiques, specialty shops, and inns.

But opportunity isn’t limited in Moore County. It’s found countywide, attracting businesses and people who end up making the county their home. While quality of life is a big contributor, they come for other reasons, including workforce development, entrepreneurial encouragement and amenities.

ECONOMIC DRIVER
Moore County and golf became synonymous when New Englander James Walker Tufts hired Dr. Leroy Culver to design and build a nine-hole course at his Pinehurst health retreat in 1898. That relationship is still close more than a century later. “We’ve seen a shift in the balance between corporate travel and leisure travel,” Hawkins says. “Whereas before [COVID-19] we would see the corporate retreat come to town, that type of business is falling off. Now you see groups of people coming to get away for a long weekend, doing something outdoors, playing a few rounds of golf.”

Occupancy rates followed occupancy tax collections in July, August and September of last year, about the time that the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to be waning. Werz says it was up 34% in July 2021, for example, from the prior year, reaching 75.4%. The daily rate for those three months was up an average of 20.6%. He says they’re an indication of Moore’s popularity. “Overall, our destination is doing exceptionally well,” he says. “When you look at the areas that are succeeding statewide, it is the coast, the mountains and our area. Why have we been so successful in the midst of a global pandemic? Golf is enjoying its greatest resurgence since Tiger Woods emerged onto the scene in the late 1990s. That resurgence is global and not something that is temporary, because the golf industry is seeing record sales in many categories, including clubs, balls, gloves, apparel and more.”

Werz doesn’t believe golf’s resurging popularity is entirely the result of boredom born of COVID lockdowns. “This happens because people are gravitating to the game, and given we are the home of American golf, people looking to travel are seeking us out, because we are globally recognized and known as one of the best golf destinations in the world,” he says. “Golf is our DNA and to deny that golf is what is driving our success would be foolish.”

Moore County’s calendar is filled with prestigious golf events. Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club, for example, will host the U.S. Women’s Open in June, and the U.S. Open returns to Pinehurst No. 2 in 2024. “With those events, plus the impact of the USGA building its second headquarters here and making Pinehurst an anchor site for the U.S. Open, it will have reverberations around the globe,” Werz says. “All eyes in the golf industry and beyond will be on this destination. People want to be a part of the growth and success that is coming, and I can see local businesses benefitting from this, as well as the ones that will choose to start a business here or relocate here to be part of the vibe. The state of North Carolina estimates that the USGA moving here will have a $2 billion impact on the state, and we will benefit most from that decision. That said, we are very excited about positioning this destination as one of the finest foodie golf destinations in the country. We have amazing things being done here on the culinary side with local restaurant owners and chefs with a vision for the future.”

HELPING HEALTH CARE
While Moore County’s hospitality industry employed 14.3% of its workforce as of 2021’s second quarter, according to N.C. Department of Commerce’s most recent data, health care was the only industry to employ more — 25.5%. Keeping the latter’s ranks filled has become the full-time focus of many, including health system FirstHealth of the Carolinas and Sandhills Community College, both based in Pinehurst.

Dr. Jacklynn Lesniak is chief nursing officer and vice president of patient care at Moore Regional, one of four hospitals in FirstHealth’s 15-county network. She joined the system in June 2021 after working as chief nursing officer at a Wisconsin hospital and Chicago medical centers, where she held leadership roles in intensive-care and cardiovascular units. She says operating room, emergency room and ICU staffs continue to be hit hard by the pandemic. Working conditions are difficult, and burnout is rampant. “We are working to retain our nurses,” she says. “We’ve rolled out a robust recruitment plan, which includes signing bonuses. And it’s a tiered system, so those [in ORs, ERs and ICUs] get the highest. We also put in place retention bonuses. We recognize how difficult the last 18 months have been.”

Support comes in more immediate forms, too. Moore Regional’s Zen Den is a renewal room complete with massage chair, orange- and peppermint-scented aromatherapy, and silence. “This is a room where [health care workers] can just go and take a break,” Lesniak says. “Then you go back out and deliver that excellent care. Our foundation is starting a Stand Up for Nursing fund to establish three other renewal rooms, one in the ER and others in inpatient areas.”

Regardless of how long they’ve been in the profession, health care workers need to be represented in the decisions of health care systems and hospitals. “How can we assure the direct care nurses are helping to move nursing forward at FirstHealth?” Lesniak asked. “I can make the decisions, but I don’t do their job. So, I bring nurses to the table and have them talk about their needs and their workflow, then I represent their voice at the board table or wherever nursing needs to be heard.”

Retaining and attracting health care workers only gets you so far. More need to be trained, too. “You have to look at how to grow the workforce,” Lesniak says. “How can we grow our own? A lot of people may want to go into health care and not take the traditional route. So, in our hospital, we’re going to develop our own [certified nursing assistants].”

Sandhills Community College, the state’s first comprehensive community college and first to offer a college transfer program, and FirstHealth will begin offering a unique CNA training program starting with 15 students this month. “It takes four to six weeks, and we work with SCC to accomplish this through their accreditations,” Lesniak says. “You enroll through Sandhills, then it’s a full-time class program, and they’re basically hired by FirstHealth during that time as a training CNA, so you get a paycheck. You can quit your day job and go into this program. There is funding available for the cost of the class, like a scholarship. The one thing in health care these days is the marketplace is changing so quickly. And with the needs in our community, you don’t have that kind of lag time. We’re developing and rolling out at the same time.”

Lesniak says a nurse extern program also is in the works. “This is targeted at our nursing students in their final year, and they’ll work for us, where we can mentor them and help them grow their skills,” she says. “When they pass their final test, they move into that job with us and get paid for that position as well.”

A study by UNC Chapel Hill’s Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research predicts North Carolina could be short as many as 17,500 nurses by 2033. “Agencies in and around Moore County are no different than those nationally, which are in need of trained nurses as well as other health care workers such as medical lab techs, surgical technologists, respiratory therapists, paramedics, radiography techs and ophthalmic medical assistants,” says Rebecca Roush, SCC’s senior vice president of academic affairs and institutional planning. “Technology is becoming increasingly important in the education of nurses and health science students. In some areas, such as associate degree nursing, simulations can be used toward required clinical hours. With the recent national accreditation of the Sandhills’ associate degree in nursing, we are able to increase the percent of clinical hours accomplished through simulation to 50%.”

SCC also is adding clinical space. “With this increase, the Sandhills nursing faculty will work toward increasing the number of nursing students entering the program each academic year to address the continued need for trained nurses,” Rousch says. “Simulation cannot be used toward clinical hour requirements in all health science programs, but it can be used to meet competencies. In other words, simulations can be designed to give students experience with specific skills and situations, which might be rare in a clinical setting.”

Moore County commissioners approved a $20 million bond in February 2021. The money will pay for updates to Kennedy Hall and the construction of Foundation Hall, both at SCC. Roush says the move unites SCC’s health care programs. Space vacated by its EMS programs, which, along with nurse aid, were elsewhere on campus, will be occupied by aviation programs. The completed health science and nursing education complex is expected to open this fall.

Michelle Bauer, SCC’s dean of continuing education workforce development programs, says the college is working toward filling other worker shortages. “We have a wonderful new Breakthrough Construction Center at our Caddell Training Center that just opened for classes … ,” she says. “[It] houses our construction trades, HVAC and plumbing [programs] all in one place. This building was made possible by grants from the Golden LEAF Foundation, William L. and Josephine B. Weiss Family Foundation, American Red Cross and the Palmer Foundation. Having dedicated classroom and lab space for HVAC and plumbing programs has greatly increased our capacity to offer programs in trades areas with a critical shortage of skilled workers.”

SERVING VETERANS
Fort Bragg, whose almost 54,000 soldiers make it the U.S. Army’s largest installation based on population, sees about 8,000 soldiers transition out of the service annually, according to its commanders. Some of them return to their home, but a good portion remain in adjacent communities, including Moore County, which lies to its west. There they raise families, work and start businesses. “We recognize the roles that small businesses and entrepreneurs play in our economy, and we want to make sure we’re strengthening that, especially when you think about the military, who live in the area when they transition out,” Hawkins says. “We have numerous veteran-owned businesses.” VeteranOwnedBusiness.com lists 20 such companies in the Moore County communities of Aberdeen, Cameron, Carthage, Pinehurst, Southern Pines, West End and Pinebluff.

Christopher Cheek was recently hired as SCC’s director of veteran affairs. He’ll help soldiers transition to civilian life. “SCC may not have a lot of active duty [soldiers as students], but we do have a lot of veterans,” he says. “My role is to bring the experience from having worked at Fort Bragg and to go out into the community and work with people, like NCWorks, with the process of developing different programs for soldiers transitioning from active duty to veteran status. Active-duty personnel go through a transfer program during their last 180 days [to prepare for civilian life]. But I feel it’s often a lot of information crammed in, and they feel stuck.”

Cheek says SCC is creating a mentorship program for veterans, and they can work with a success coach, too. Many choose to study health care. And he understands why many stay in and around Moore County. “The way they’ve established the county overall, it’s a tremendously reputable place for people to retire and come live the remainder of their lives,” he says. “It’s an area of peace, like a resort. It’s a nice getaway.”

ECONOMIC REBOUND
There’s a balance to Moore County. While businesses, golf courses and growing communities fill its southern half, the northern reaches are home to a thriving agriculture industry. It’s here that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture — the most recent — counted 733 farms covering 89,375 acres and producing more than $150 million in annual sales.

Northern Moore County also has small towns filled with history. Its seat — Carthage — is here, about 12 miles north of Pinehurst. It was one of the first 10 towns chosen for the state Department of Commerce’s Community Economic Recovery and Resilience Initiative, which Gov. Roy Cooper announced in April 2021. The town of Vass, just to Carthage’s southeast, was added in CERRI’s second round, which was announced last month.
Administered by Commerce’s Rural Economic Development Division, Rural Planning Program, CERRI helps communities recover from the economic impacts left by the pandemic. It includes support services such as local cluster analysis, commercial district regulation review, local infrastructure asset mapping, and small business expansion and recruitment.

Much of Carthage’s economic development attention prior to the pandemic was paid to the former home of the Tyson & Jones Buggy Co., which built horse-powered vehicles from 1850 to 1929. Partners in Progress and representatives from the county and town discussed turning the “Buggy Building” into an entrepreneurship hub early last year. “But [it’s] on hold,” Hawkins says. “That building is historic to the community, and I think that the town leadership is looking for a different use, something that would bring more life to downtown and bring people in, like a nice restaurant or place that sells craft beer, something like that.”

Hawkins says a Partners in Progress study showed that an entrepreneurial hub somewhere in Moore County was feasible. “But we realized we don’t have all our resources consolidated in one place,” she says. “We want people to have the resources they need to support their efforts, which is why [Partners in Progress] created a task force to pursue entrepreneurial designation.”

THE BIG PICTURE
Attracting people and businesses is the first step. The next is supporting them once they’ve arrived. “I think in terms of population growth, this Morganton Park South we have going on [in Southern Pines] is a big deal in terms of expansion in the retail industry sector [Moore County’s third-largest industry by employment],” Hawkins says. “It’s rumored we’re going to get a Target, the first one in the county, and if they’re willing to come, it’s an indication of the growth and the economic engine that’s changing our demographics. You see it in the need for elementary schools, in labor-and-delivery [care] at hospitals, in the demands for park and recreation services for our communities. Moore County is more than an attractive place to retire. Now it’s a quality-of-life place for the younger demographic.”

Moore County voters approved a $103 million bond in 2018. The money is building 800-student elementary schools in Aberdeen, Southern Pines and Pinehurst, replacing ones that are between 70 and 80 years old. The work is matched with a facilities master plan that addresses long-range maintenance needs districtwide.

Moore County Schools offer students opportunities to find and follow a career path. “We have Career and College Promise, where juniors and seniors can take courses at SCC for college credit, then those credits will be applied toward their two- or four-year degree,” says Catherine Nagy, the district’s director of communications. “We have high school students who graduate with a two-year associate degree the same week they graduate from high school. They’ll start a career in fields like nursing or construction and go directly to their job. Then you have some who want to go to a four-year college who will check off some of their requirements ahead of time like freshman English. We offer nursing in our schools, so some students go straight to work in a hospital or doctor’s office or retirement community.”

Nagy says each school is Purple Star rated, signifying its commitment to the distinct educational and social-emotional needs of students from military families. “We also have a very innovative [science, technology, engineering and math] program, and professionals from all over the state and Virginia visit to see how we apply STEM to our students,” she says.

Remote learning and working during the pandemic underscored the need for high-speed internet access. Moore County Board of Commissioners’ 10-member Digital Inclusion Task Force, which formed last fall, is exploring local broadband needs. The Moore County Extension Service estimates 5,936 households — 5.7% of the county — lack internet access. The county website says about 30% of households lack high-speed internet. About 49% of the county population lives in rural areas outside the county’s 11 incorporated municipalities.

The Task Force is identifying where broadband infrastructure is needed, communicating and marketing options for affordable internet, and increasing residents’ digital literacy. “We want to make sure we have adequate, affordable internet service, so we can provide quality education to our students, and that public safety officials can access data for their daily duties and in health care there is more telehealth,” Hawkins says. “From a business perspective, a lot of businesses have gone into the e-commerce realm. And that’s digital literacy. Can you navigate the internet and leverage what it provides you as a student, parent or business owner?”

Moore County Commissioners will submit the Broadband Inclusion Plan to the state for funding consideration. “[The inclusion plan] will help us pinpoint areas we know we need to focus on,” says Chris Butts, Moore County’s director of information technology. “This is starting to get our ducks in a row so when [grant] money is approved, we are ready to go.”

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