After years of weary austerity, rural North Carolina is ready for a cold one.
But not in a dive.
It turns out the same craft breweries and pubs that have long been a feature of hip urban neighborhoods are also well-suited to the congenially devout residents of North Carolina’s former – and formerly very dry – textile towns.
The establishments are popping up in western North Carolina towns like Spindale, Shelby, Morganton, and if the efforts of local officials pay off, very soon in Forest City and Rutherfordton. Leaders of the two Rutherford County towns have taken note of the enthusiastic reception such businesses garner and concluded their own respective Main Streets offer a setting and appeal similar to a trendy city neighborhood.
And at a considerably lesser cost. What would go for half a million dollars – at least – in Charlotte, can be had for a fraction in downtown Forest City. To put this into perspective, a 4,000-square-foot building on the town’s Main Street is currently selling for $135,000.
Those are yester-year prices. Many of the street’s existing businesses also hail from a different era, like the famous Smith’s Drugs, which runs one of the last real soda fountains in North Carolina. A few doors down is the Graham Cash department store with its mid-century modern storefront. A hardware store a half block over displays Radio Flyer wagons for sale in the store window.
But stores that cater to more recent tastes are cropping up on Forest City’s Main Street, too. On a recent Saturday morning, live bluegrass music could be heard from the Puzzle Creek Outdoor gear and clothing store. Across the street, The Twisted Pear sells handcrafted soaps and gifts, plus a selection of regional wines and bottled beer.
This is an intentional blend of old and new favorites to make downtown Forest City a destination for local residents and tourists alike. It’s an effort that past and current planners never stopped making, even during the leanest years after the Great Recession.
“Forest City’s citizens have a long history of being proud of their town. There has always been a focus here on quality of life,” town manager John Condrey said in a recent conversation.
That’s an essential philosophy for any town attempting to attract businesses that in turn attract people who want to patronize them. Yet it’s a frequently overlooked factor in the public conversation about how to boost economic development in rural North Carolina – an area that can ill afford to hand out millions in incentives.
On that note, state tax credits for rehabbing certain historic structures
that might make excellent sites for craft breweries are sun-setting, although their federal counterparts are still available. That may turn off certain investors. But rural North Carolina’s cheap real estate prices would more than make up the difference compared with opening a microbrewery in a large city.
Further, there’s a market here for craft breweries, one that’s far from saturated. One of the busiest establishments in the county is Barley’s Taproom, a family-friendly place with dozens of different specialty brews on tap. Presently, it’s the only such establishment in the area.
In addition to this built-in market, there’s also the potential for attracting additional crowds of affluent patrons after business mogul Marc Bellissimo completes construction on his massive equestrian resort in neighboring Polk County. The mega horse park, just 15 minutes from downtown Forest City, is expected to draw tens of thousands of visitors every season.
Officials like Condrey are betting they’ll flock to downtown Forest City for a glimpse of what authentic “small town friendly” really looks like. And a good meal and a beer.
The town is moving on putting zoning ordinances in place that will make it easy for breweries, outside dining restaurants, and other establishments to open on Main Street. Plans are in the works to broaden already wide sidewalks and add pedestrian-friendly streetscape features.
It’s all part of Forest City’s vision of a future that, given thoughtful and careful planning, and despite the past gloomy years of economic uncertainty, can indeed be bright for our state’s rural towns. That’s something all North Carolinians can raise a glass to.
Stephanie Janard is a correspondent for the Daily Courier of Rutherford County. She periodically writes a “letter from the west” for The News & Observer opinion pages.