Consider two restaurants: Southern Belle and Southern Exposure. Both were in the heart of rural Eastern North Carolina. Southern Belle was a Mount Olive institution for decades. It served classic, diner-style food. Fried chicken, steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, salad and chocolate pie were staples. Eating there was as close as you could get to having a home-cooked meal. I spent many summers playing there and swimming in the pool behind it. Former Gov. Jim Hunt often made it a point to stop there. On one visit, he got angry at having to interrupt his meal to take a phone call.
Southern Exposure opened in 2004. It brought experimental, gourmet-style dining to Faison. On a given night, you could get fried calamari, butternut squash ravioli or roasted roma spaghettini. It was called “Faison’s Wonderful, Little Secret,” and it earned the title, drawing regular customers and rave reviews with its tasty, inventive cuisine.
Southern Belle closed in 2013. Southern Exposure closed in 2015. Mount Olive and Faison haven’t been the same since. These restaurants provided more than food. They were gathering places where friends, neighbors and family could meet in fellowship and talk over local issues in a warm, inviting environment.
It’s getting harder for local restaurants like these to make it in rural North Carolina. Chains and fast-food restaurants dominate the route that stretches from Raleigh to the beach. I’m not against chains. I thought Red Lobster’s recent shoutout from Beyonce was well-deserved. But it’s a problem when only chains have opportunity in a given region.
I grew up in Faison, went to school in Asheville, taught in Dudley and live in Durham. I’ve seen firsthand the urban development in North Carolina that has accompanied rural decline. It’s natural for cities to have more development than rural areas. But when the gap is wide, it contributes to an unhealthy social dynamic. Today rural North Carolinians feel economically left behind and alienated in comparison with the state’s vibrant urban areas. This economic frustration and resentment fuel Donald Trump. As Wilkesboro writer and attorney Michael Cooper wrote of Trump, “His supporters realize he’s a joke. They do not care … he disrupts a broken political process and beats establishment candidates who’ve long ignored their interests.”
Republicans are recognizing this problem. The push by some N.C. Republicans to divert urban sales taxes to rural communities is a counterproductive kind of stimulus. But I understand why they want to do it. Even some Republicans recognize that nothing short of government intervention is going to help revive business in rural areas.
Rural NC needs a different kind of stimulus initiative funded by the broader state tax base rather than urban sales taxes. The stimulus could help local businesses with a combination of things that Republicans and Democrats generally favor. It should drastically reduce the tax burden for start-up businesses in rural North Carolina. Taxes could be fairly increased on the business when it has shown its economic sustainability.
Republican leaders have sought to pass some stimulus for business development. But programs like JDIG favor existing businesses over start-up entrepreneurs and seem likely to benefit urban North Carolina more than rural. GOP plans are also too reliant on private investment and neglect the vital role that government investment can play. If private investment and loans were all that were needed, rural N.C. would be in better economic shape.
Our legislature needs to pass measures that significantly increase the capital and money state government offers rural entrepreneurs. It doesn’t mean giving money to every single person who applies. Instead, a rural N.C. stimulus could follow a model that allocates a set amount of money, heavily publicizes the availability of these funds and encourages rural entrepreneurs to develop applications and pitches. This kind of stimulus is costly. But the new tax bases generated by successful businesses would more than make up for the state’s investment.
There’s also the intangible value that locally grown businesses give to their communities. I remember a financially struggling man who used to eat regular meals in Southern Belle. His bills were often quietly put away by staff without expectation of payment. That’s the compassionate side that local businesses offer to North Carolina’s people. With the right investment, N.C. can help such local businesses thrive in rural areas.
You can’t out-argue Donald Trump. But jobs and the sense of shared community that come from local businesses can blunt his message.
Bert Clere is a writer in Durham.