Reviving Small-Town North Carolina
Scott Resch is on a mission. As the new owner of Ramseur’s Main Street Diner, he’s re-launching the diner as a retro, 1950s sit-down eatery. This will be the first new restaurant on Main Street in decades, he says as he hangs art and his mother polishes silverware. The Main Street of Ramseur, in Randolph County, is tucked behind U.S. Highway 64 and therefore largely ignored by the thousands driving through each day. But Resch believes a new eatery is just what Ramseur needs.
“We need a reason for locals to stay and for people to visit,” he says.
Invigorating a Community
This sentiment is popular across Ramseur, where thriving textile, cotton, furniture and lumber mills have disappeared or shrunken, taking with them many young people with aspirations beyond blue-collar work. The recent dismantlement of the region’s largest textile factory, Ramtex Inc., which once employed 1,200 people, symbolized an end to a more prosperous era. But a movement exists to revamp the town and make the Main Street area a destination.
“Ramseur offers supreme quality of life, hunting, safety and kind people,” says Kevin Franklin, the town administrator.
“We think this is a terrific place to live and wish to enhance that.”
One big step for Franklin’s office was collaborating with the College of Design’s Community Design Initiative (CDI), a 15-year-old program led by Research Associate Professor and Coordinator for Research and Extension Jay Tomlinson. CDI helps rebuild and invigorate North Carolina’s country towns through planning and designing attractive community areas consistent with the region’s history and culture.
“The idea is giving residents a vision beneficial for them and their community. We help instigate the dream,” Tomlinson says.
Tomlinson and his students worked as consultants in Ramseur for two years, helping steer efforts to reinvigorate the Main Street area. Last month they delivered their final report. Suggestions included building a small amphitheater off of Main Street, hosting an annual spring river festival, renovating the old mill warehouse and converting abandoned shops to more eateries, like the new diner, and artist studios. They also suggested installing signage along U.S. Highway 64 and helped create a logo with the motto: “Ramseur: Where Family and Friends Meet.”
“Ramseur has huge potential,” says alumna Irene Sadler Judge who began working on the project as a student a year ago. “The topography on Main Street makes for a dynamic atmostphere, and the river can be used for canoes, kayaks and fishing while the rail trail behind Main Street can be revitalized. We see a bright future.”
But revitalizing any community takes time. Franklin says when the CDI first met with residents and played the “design game,” a board game Tomlinson created to help locals become involved in the town’s redesign, people suddenly saw what is entailed.
“Planning, zoning and working with property owners is complex,” Franklin says.
Main Street has some commerce including a bank, library, post office, tattoo parlor and a Mexican convenience store, but some storefronts need sprucing up and there remain few cosmopolitan things to do. Former commissioner Mike Campbell says he loves his town but his young sons yearn for simple things – like buying an ice cream and sitting somewhere nice outside as they do when visiting nearby Asheboro.
Campbell hopes more commerce will come and churches, which host local festivals with hot dogs and cotton candy, can cultivate more frequent events.
Franklin adds that the N.C. Cooperative Extension Office is helping to develop an agribusiness such as a potential farmer’s market collaborating with the nearby Millstone Creek Orchards to sell peaches and apples along with a storefront for Ramseur’s locally-raised meat. This could attract tourists from around the Triangle. And the CDI will continue guiding Ramseur. Tomlinson offers ongoing counsel to town administrators he helped two decades ago. Ramseur will be no exception.
“It’s our job as a land-grant institution to help small towns get back on track.”