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Seeking smart growth in Spring Hope

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The letter I shared last week from Dr. Otis Lowry was a brief look at the glory days of Spring Hope’s business community, a nostalgic listing of old businesses and industries now gone.

Some of the businesses were gone by the time I moved to town in 1975, but many were not. My favorite was Duck Sykes and Sykes Seed Store. A short man with a booming foghorn voice, Duck had most anything you wanted — and things you didn’t even know you wanted — on one of his many wooden shelves that lined his walls, even if sometimes you had to blow the dust off. Sykes Seed Store was part business and part museum of an earlier age.

Those were good days. As Dr. Lowry said, everybody knew each other and supported each other’s businesses. The town had an easy rhythm and everyone knew their place, carved out from generations of tradition and history.

Spring Hope doesn’t necessarily look that much different now. Many of the storefronts haven’t changed, even though some of them are empty and others are used for storage. The town has made various initiatives to fix itself up, planting trees and placing benches on the sidewalk. The old train depot in the heart of town is now a bustling, modern library where books and computers fit comfortably together.

But looks aren’t everything and Spring Hope’s commercial life is no longer the self-contained world it used to be. And it likely never will be so again.

In his letter, Dr. Lowry blamed corporate and chain ownership, changes from small family farming to plantation farming, the consolidation of the high schools and oppressive government regulations as contributing to the decline. And there’s a lot of truth in what he says.

As in most small towns, the reasons for change are varied, sometimes complex and often normal. Many local businesses have closed because their owners died or retired. Industries withered as the markets for their products waned or corporate owners moved them overseas or at least elsewhere. Changing technologies doomed some industries and businesses.

The opening of a “new” U.S. 64 that bypassed Spring Hope shortly after I moved here hurt local businesses that had relied on its traffic. Improved transportation also made it easier for residents to do their shopping in Raleigh, Wilson or Rocky Mount. Other businesses failed because they could not compete or, sadly, did not know how to compete effectively against more effective marketers. And, also sadly, some businesses died because they were poorly managed.

When I was actively involved with revitalization, we did achieve a lot in making the town a better place to live, but the biggest perceived obstacle to bringing in new businesses was Spring Hope’s population that many retailers thought — and they told us — was too small a market. So we focused more on bringing new families to town and encouraging housing growth to make our population bigger. And subsequent revitalization efforts by the town and Chamber of Commerce have emphasized improving the town’s appearance and using special events beside the Spring Hope National Pumpkin Festival to attract visitors to town. And we’ve also sought, through zoning, to balance support for new businesses with protecting our small-town appearance.

As the town gears up for another effort at revival, in my opinion we need to accept the reality that Spring Hope has become a bedroom community for both Rocky Mount and Raleigh; that the highway system and internet have combined to expand shopping competition far beyond the small stores that once met our needs; and just attracting crowds to town for special events is not an effective strategy for bringing new businesses to town.

Spring Hope needs to determine what kind of businesses its people will support. I suspect service-oriented businesses have the best chance for success, even against the big-box stores. The recent sad death of Reg Mullen, followed by Donna’s death this week, leaves an opening for a new hardware store. Some businesses that meet recreational needs might be useful draws for teenagers and work-weary adults on the weekend. But whatever comes to town will be driven by private enterprise, not the government.

The best we can do, and I think we should do, is make a much more concentrated effort at actively recruiting businesses to come to town, working with banks, prospective businesses and real estate agents to make the necessary deals. The chamber, working with Nash Community College and others, can help existing businesses improve and expand. And we should definitely make use of the county’s retail developer, who has been hired specifically to work with our communities.

We can’t make businesses come to Spring Hope, but we can do better at marketing what we do have to offer. And it’s a certainty that if we just sit back and wait for new businesses to come to us, we’re going to have a very long wait indeed.

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

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