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Can Spring Hope reverse loss of local businesses?

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Spring Hope’s neatly laid out downtown has been fortunate in being able to retain its historic appearance as a railroad town, with most of its buildings looking like they did a hundred years ago, but too many of those buildings are empty or under-utilized despite several failed efforts at revitalization. We need to look beyond the town’s appearance to really see what we need to do.

Just before I retired last year, Dr. Otis Lowry sent the newspaper a letter that wasn’t intended for publication but meant to enlighten us on how the town has changed over the decades. He ticked off the changes in Spring Hope’s business community and it was a sobering, sad list.

“When I came to Spring Hope in 1960, most all businesses were local family owned and operated. Namely there were three general merchandise stores (R.. Mullen, F.D. Bissett and Son, and Edwards Brothers); now all are closed. Baines Hardware now closed, five grocery stores all gone and replaced by Food Lion; two ladies clothing stores, closed; one men’s clothing store, closed; dime store, closed; seven full-service gas stations, all gone; Sykes Seed Store, closed; four oil companies (Warren-Brantley, Matthews, Morgan, and Little River), all closed; two restaurants (Showside and Country Inn), both still open; two TV repair shops, both closed; two sewing factories, closed; Daniel’s Building Supply, closed; Mitchell Lumber Company, closed; Lassiter Cotton Gin, closed; Lassiter Milling Company, closed; one pharmacy (Southside), still open; tire recapping company, closed; Collie Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning, closed; several beauticians, still open; three barber shops, now two.”

The retired physician wasn’t finished: “Webb’s Mill that, according to my wife, made the best cornmeal available, now closed; two high schools now gone to consolidation. In addition to the ones listed as still open there are now several fast-food businesses, Belt Concepts, Dollar General and Food Lion, which are all chain or corporately owned. Then there are four locally owned antique businesses, Denton’s Heating and Air, Stallings Propane and several auto repair shops. What makes small towns unique and likable are locally family-owned and operated businesses. Merchants and customers know each other, go to church and socialize together. Gathering places like May’s Service Station, Sykes Seed Store, R.O. Mullen store, and F.D. Bissett store are irreplaceable…

“When I came to Spring Hope in 1960, there was one vacant store building and today there are over a dozen. I know that there has been revitalization efforts by the town, but we still have too many vacant stores,” he concluded. “I don’t know what the answer is for small-town survival, but it is going to take some thinking outside the box and revival of that old-time, hometown community spirit which we seem to have lost.”

He’s right. And there’s more. Many of the businesses and industries he cited were still here when I moved to town in 1975, and I saw them close. And the good doctor didn’t even mention the jewelry store that closed, the video store that closed, several sewing plants that closed, the laundry and laundromat that closed, a host of businesses that came and went like revolving doors, and the fact we have a whole empty shopping center with only one small restaurant on it.

We need to do some serious evaluation of how we’ve come to what we are, what strategies we should adopt to improve Spring Hope’s residential and commercial growth and what is the best way — inside and outside the box — to implement those strategies so that they actually work.

I’ve got more thoughts on the subject I’ll share next week, but if we don’t take the time to ask and answer these questions, I’m afraid we’ll just spin our wheels and fail to accomplish what so many of us have worked so hard for so long to see.

A town that focuses only on improving its physical appearance reminds me of an atheist’s funeral: the deceased is all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Ken Ripley is a resident of Spring Hope and The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.

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