Will they come home to Rocky Mount? NC sees unprecedented rural decline

akenney@newsobserver.comMay 31, 2014 

  • By the numbers

    Raleigh

    Population, 2010: 406,264

    Population estimate, 2013: 431,746

    Unemployment, March 2014 (metro area), unadjusted: 5.2%

    Median age, 2010: 32

    Largest sectors: Retail – 11.5%; health care & assistance – 10.5%; accommodation & food services – 9.2%

    Median home price: $205,000

    Median household income: $53,699

    Rocky Mount

    Population, 2010: 57,483

    Population estimate, 2013: 56,954

    Unemployment, March 2014 (Nash and Edgecombe counties), unadjusted: 9.4%

    Median age, 2010: 39.4

    Largest sectors: Health care & assistance – 14.84 percent; retail – 14 %; manufacturing – 13.59 percent

    Median home price: $112,500

    Median household income: $37,759

    Sources: N.C. Division of Employment Security, American Community Survey, Trulia

— Raymond Staton orders ice cream at 9 a.m. His brother has salad.

They are seated side by side on chrome stools in the Highway Diner, fresh from an eight-hour shift at the Firestone plant on the edge of the city, Raymond’s red company jacket slung over the back of his seat. Both are breakfast regulars at the diner, a gleaming art deco joint off U.S. 64.

The brothers, both on the younger side of middle age, have worked their way into the city’s dwindling industrial sector. They make some of the best money in town assembling tires. Their friends have done well, too, opening law offices and salons in a city that some have written off.

This place has given them enough to live on, just like it has their family’s last three generations. But it may not be enough to keep their kids here.

“They should get out of Rocky Mount,” Staton says of his three children, just after listing his hometown’s small-city virtues.

The same sentiment is spoken up and down the diner’s counter. The construction worker at the end is driving an hour to Raleigh for work. The waitress will be out of this place as soon as she’s done with school.

Rocky Mount, along with half the state’s counties, is shrinking as its young people leave. The two counties that make up the city’s metropolitan statistical area – Edgecombe and Nash – cumulatively have lost several hundred people every year since 2010, the first such significant decline in at least 30 years.

In all, 47 of North Carolina’s 100 counties have lost population in the last four years, double the tally of a decade earlier.

The natural magnetic pull of larger cities, combined with an uneven economic recovery and a shifting industrial base, is stripping rural towns and smaller cities of their population, leaving an aging population behind. Rocky Mount’s median age is 39.4, compared with 37.4 for the state and 32 in Raleigh, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey .

The result: When the United States’ metropolitan statistical areas are ranked by their growth rates for 2013, Rocky Mount’s decline puts it in the bottom 6 percent. Raleigh-Cary, just an hour away, is in the top 3 percent.

“A lot of it’s psychological, but a lot of it’s fiscal,” says John Cromartie, a geographer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

“Starting to lose population is a serious thing. ... It costs more to provide services. It’s harder to provide services. You have to start closing down underused services, such as schools.”

Caught in the crosswinds, Rocky Mount’s leaders are grasping for answers, wondering when and whether they can reverse this new trend. Out beyond the state’s metropolitan bubbles, a city is trying to change its story.

Losing the young

Through all its prior troubles, Rocky Mount still grew.

Like many rural places, it was buoyed by natural reproduction and new development even as it weathered the postwar suburbanization of the 1950s, the 1996 closing of the Rocky Mount Mills textile plant, the winnowing of the tobacco workforce and the floods of Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

The growth rates in Nash and Edgecombe counties were slow but steady after 1980, usually hovering around 1 percent except for a slowdown in the late 1990s, according to U.S. Census estimates.

New subdivisions stretched out on the west side of town in the 2000s, even as vacancies pockmarked downtown Rocky Mount.

“It was a lot of growth, a lot of houses being built,” says Mayor David Combs, a real-estate broker whose grandparents grew up here.

Combs was putting people – most of them middle-age with kids – in houses here well into the last decade. Many found employment at the city’s five major companies, chief among them a pharmaceutical and medical device company named Hospira, followed by a Cummins engine plant, the Nash County health system, Honeywell Aerospace and PNC Bank.

The housing boom slowed in 2006, a couple of years ahead of the full economic crash. The city issued 186 housing construction permits that year, a number that plummeted through 2011 and stood at only 23 in 2013.

Rocky Mount was particularly vulnerable to the economic recession. Economic cycles always have affected rural growth rates, sending them swinging upward in the 1970s, then back down again, according to Cromartie, the USDA geographer.

During those rural booms and busts, people move by the thousands in and out of places such as Rocky Mount. In the past, enough people were having babies to make up the difference, keeping both Rocky Mount and the nation’s rural areas as a whole from losing population.

But slowly, these places have lost what demographers describe with a rather clinical phrase: reproductive capacity. There aren’t enough babies born to make up for the young people who leave.

“As we get older, and the younger people aren’t coming back to jobs, it is an issue which will have an impact long term,” Combs says.

This all sets a damning trap. The people who build major businesses want to make sure that young people will follow them. But without those jobs, it’s awfully hard to bring in young people or to make an area attractive to them.

“Most of northeastern North Carolina, and all along that border between Virginia and North Carolina, are counties that have aged over the decades so much that they now are experiencing that natural decrease,” Cromartie says.

And with each year that Rocky Mount loses population, it loses a small part of its sales-tax revenues, and public services cost more per capita, according to Cromartie.

“The question then becomes: Do you try to promote growth?” says Rebecca Tippett, director of the Carolina Demography project at UNC’s Carolina Population Center. “Do you sit back and watch it happen and try to mediate the change as best as possible?”

Knowing your neighbors

Dorsey Tobias wakes up every weekday morning to drive from Rocky Mount to Raleigh, where she manages media relations for PNC Financial Services Group.

At age 28, she’s proof of one Rocky Mount’s hopeful mottoes: The highway goes both ways.

“I will say that I am probably in a minority. People who grow up in smaller towns can’t wait to get out, and I loved it,” Tobias says during an interview at a downtown Raleigh cafe. “I just loved knowing my neighbors, knowing my parents’ friends and knowing people cared for me.”

She grew up in one of Rocky Mount’s newer subdivisions, built in the 1980s. Her father worked at RBC Bank’s local offices. She left for UNC-Chapel Hill, fully expecting to come home one day to raise a family – but maybe not so soon.

Barely two years out of school, she was headed back to Rocky Mount with her beau, who had just taken a banking job there.

While she moved in 2010 – the same year that Rocky Mount’s population numbers began to drop – she found a corps of like-minded people had come to the city, too.

Now they keep busy with the new restaurants that have taken root, or at cultural venues such as the Imperial Centre, a former tobacco warehouse and library that now hosts art, a museum and a gourmet coffee shop on sunny hardwood floors.

“If (newcomers) don’t know how to connect with others, it kind of seems hopeless,” she says. “But what I’ve seen of people in those situations, once they meet one person ... it snowballs in a positive way.”

She has a few reasons to believe Rocky Mount will find its footing.

The area’s unemployment rate has fallen sharply this year, from a high above 14 percent to 9.7 percent in March.

The cost of living, meanwhile, is far lower than the Triangle’s, which gives some hope that Raleigh’s development revival will spill over to Rocky Mount.

And while Edgecombe County again lost several hundred of its population in the latest U.S. Census estimates, more-affluent Nash County saw its estimated descent slow to only 160 net departures between 2012 and 2013.

For Theresa Pinto, president of Rocky Mount’s Chamber of Commerce, these years of contraction have shown how rural areas can be buffeted by economic turns. She is confident, however, that new strategies – such as preparing for the nation’s growing wave of retirees and emphasizing the city’s strengths – may boost the city again.

Cities in rural areas, Pinto said, need to build “regional resiliency, so when these ebbs and flows happen, we’re not as vulnerable.”

And just as central cities lately have reclaimed their identities, she and Rocky Mount’s optimists believe that rural areas will have their time.

“In the next couple decades, I think that this twin county region – the Tar River region – will get comfortable with its identity and its distinct uniqueness,” she says. “And I think that they will create a new history for themselves.”

History provides some hope for a rural renaissance as well. Economic cycles and generational preferences sent people surging into rural areas in the 1970s, 1990s and 2000s.

And eventually, even with urbanization happening across the world, Cromartie expects metropolitan and rural populations to reach an equilibrium, perhaps when 90 percent of the population lives in urban areas.

That population mix is a long way away for North Carolina, which lags the national average in urbanization. Only about 66 percent of North Carolina’s residents live in urban areas, compared with 80 percent nationally.

“What does this mean?” asks Tippett, of Carolina Demography. “Does it mean that these areas are going to collapse? Will they taper down to some more sustainable level, or will they revive at some point in the future with economic development?”

What’s sure is that a change a half-century in the making has come to a head, and with it come new questions and challenges for the places out among the pines and mountains.

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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