UNCP reaches out to small towns in its region


“I was talking to the mayor of Rowland, who is a really nice guy, about making his exit more attractive to travelers on I-95,” said Theron Bell, mayor of Robbins, N.C.

In a flash, one of the important features of the NC STEP program (Small Town Economic Prosperity) was on the table. Teamwork and training with professionals and networking between small town leaders are critical to rebuilding small towns, which have suffered greatly from structural economic changes.

Town leaders from Robbins in Moore County and Candor, N.C., in Montgomery County, met at UNC Pembroke on October 18 to brainstorm and network. The discussion was led by Dr. Michael Hawthorne, chair of UNCP’s Public Administration Department.

“This effort today is a first step in enhancing our involvement in regional development,” Dr. Hawthorne said. “Programs like this supplement our central role of producing high quality graduates to fuel that economic growth engine.”   At the table with Dr. Hawthorne were Dr. Cammie Hunt Oxendine, acting dean of the School of Business, Dr. John Parnell, the Belk Distinguished Professor of Management, Beth Wilkerson, assistant director of the Small Business and Technology Development program at UNCP, Dr. Marian Wooten, a professor in the Physical Education, Health and Recreation Department, and three graduate students in the Master of Public Administration Program: Mary Beth Locklear, Kim Moseley and Caroline Goins.

Dr. Parnell will soon begin work with Rowland, N.C., which joined the NC STEP Program recently. Dr. Wooten led a student team who helped plan the development of a recreation site in Robbins and a community building in Candor.

Robbins and Candor were among the 20 towns selected by the Rural Center to launch the project in 2006. Today, they are transitioning from the planning and training phase to the implementation phase, when they may apply for grants.

Representing Candor was Mayor Richard Britt, Town Commissioner Beth Maher and Town Manager John Gowan.

“In small towns a lot of us are getting squeezed, and this program is about planning the future,” said Gowan, who also serves as town manager for Ellerbe and Star. “This is about getting people together regionally to solve problems.”

Representing Robbins was Town Commissioner George Hayfield and Mayor Bell.

“We’re all in the same boat, and you can’t run a business if you stay isolated,” Bell said. “We want to grow our own leaders and to bring other people into the discussion with new ideas.”

The STEP program is a wide brush, but for Mayor Britt it can be applied to very specific issues of economic development.

“We’re trying to get people to turn left and come to our town off I-73/74,” Britt said. “It would stimulate business on our main street.”

Closed manufacturing plants, empty downtowns and population decline are endemic to many small towns in Southeastern North Carolina.

Graduate Student Caroline Goins grew up in one of those towns.

“Our job today is to summarize and compile the ideas we hear,” Goins said. “I’ve heard a lot of great ideas, and I would say small town leaders are optimistic about the potential of their communities.”

Dr. Hawthorne summed up UNCP’s role in this and other programs.

“Universities are often the engines helping to drive local and regional economic development,” Dr. Hawthorne said. “We have expertise we can make available to communities in our region, helping them address economic challenges and take advantage of opportunities.”  

Questions about the STEP program may be directed to the NC Rural Economic Development Center at (919) 250-4314 or email info@ncruralcenter.org.

Questions about UNCP’s Public Administration Department may be directed to 910.521.6637 or email pa@uncp.edu.