FRANKLIN — Residents of Franklin are keeping a close eye on the ongoing revision of plans for Western North Carolina’s national forests. Like people living in many Western North Carolina communities, those in the Macon County town have long lived surrounded by the federally protected acreage, which helps define their community identity.
But in Franklin, some signs indicate suggest the traditional economic relationship between the National Forest and the community has evolved in significant ways, reshaping local opinions about what’s best for the forests and the local economy.
If the rebirth of a small town main street is any indication of forthcoming prosperity, then Franklin has a bright future.
“I’m a firm believer in a vibrant downtown. In a small community it really is a symbol of who we are,” Macon County economic development director Tommy Jenkins told Carolina Public Press. “It is the epicenter of our local economy.”
His office, which overlooks a portion of Franklin’s Main Street, said there’s been a renaissance there in the last several years.
That’s was evident on June 1, a Wednesday, when a steady stream of people were entering storefronts, strolling or sitting on one of the numerous benches that line Macon County’s commercial and civic hub.
The flow of people isn’t hectic, but promising.
The potential of Franklin’s primary thoroughfare is one of the reasons Cory McCall, a 33-year-old Franklin native, and his business partner Rob Gasbarro chose Main Street to launch Outdoor 76, a shop specializing in outdoor gear that opened in the autumn 2010.
“Your perception of a town is its downtown,” McCall told CPP. “We didn’t want to open our business anywhere else. This is where community starts. When you go to a small town, you want to see the main street. I think that if you have a core energy here, it filters to other parts of town.”
Jenkins credits Outdoor 76 with being a leader of Franklin’s downtown revitalization. At the time they opened, many of the store fronts were empty. In part, a byproduct of the recession, but also by longtime businesses aging out.
Other enterprises soon followed. Now the downtown has an up-and-coming vibe that includes restaurants, shops, museums, and soon, two breweries: the Lazy Hiker Brewing Company, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, and Currahee Brewing Company, slated to open later this year.
Jenkins said Macon County was hit particularly hard by the subprime mortgage crisis. The county of 33,000 residents has just two incorporated towns, Highlands and Franklin. While the resort-focused Highlands has thrived, Franklin has faced struggles in line with other rural county seats throughout the nation.
“We had a hard time here because we were so vested in second-home and retirement-home construction,” he said. The second home wave has a long history in Macon County. Initially, a steady stream of Floridians built cabins to escape the heat, but over time “the houses got bigger.”
While the construction industry boomed in the 1990s and 2000s. It came to a halt as the housing bubble fizzled out.
Since many of those home-buyers came from Florida, a state hit particularly hard by the mortgage crisis, its impact trickled up to Macon County where home building contracts dried up and construction jobs disappeared.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in Macon County soared to 14.5 percent in February 2010. While much improved six years later, it’s currently 5.4 percent, slightly above the statewide jobless rate of 5 percent.
Challenges, optimism about national forests
While the economy has stabilized, economic worries in Macon County aren’t absent.
Perhaps the most troubling measure of economic prosperity is a steady drop in average income levels in Macon County that reflects a national trend in many counties throughout the nation.
According to an analysis of census data by Pew Charitable Trusts, the median household income when adjusted for inflation dropped by 10 percent or more in a third of the nation’s counties between 2000 and 2014. In Macon County that figure fell to $37,884, a 16.9 percent drop.
Among those who may be left behind are people who have lost jobs in manufacturing or construction.
Shaina Adkins, a community advocate in Macon County who has addressed food insecurity, told CPP that since the recession many people are looking for niche jobs that pay a higher than average wage. While many of the families she’s worked with experience chronic poverty, she’s also seen many skilled and educated workers since the recession face food insecurity issues as well.
“I think there is a sense that while the town of Franklin is growing, there are some folks who feel left behind,” she said. “When it comes to job opportunities, people have to look at the possibility that the jobs may not come to Macon County. Many of the them are willing to take underpaid jobs and stay here for a sense of stability for their families.”
Yet Macon County boosters, such as Jenkins, are optimistic. One of the lessons of the housing crisis, he said, is to diversify the economy.
Recently, Macon County announced the expansion of their largest private employer, Drake Enterprises into a space vacated by Caterpillar which shut down its manufacturing operation last year, laying off over 100 workers.
While manufacturing has long held a presence in the mountain county, its potential expansion is limited. For one, Macon, like other rural counties don’t have a big enough labor force to provide jobs for a large scale manufacturing operation and space to build is limited. Jenkins said their “sweet spot” are operations in the 50 to 100 employee range for manufacturing.
Macon County, he said, is hedging its future economic growth on their ability to attract and encourage new business development that will provide higher paying jobs.
“We don’t have a large government agency or institution here, but we do have a lot of entrepreneurial spirit,” Jenkins said.
In order to diversify the economy, Jenkins sees potential in developing Franklin as a regional medical center, adding more retail anchors, and encouraging more smaller specialized farming operations, for example. Above all, however, he sees the future deeply connected to tourism, the region’s natural beauty, and the high quality of life.
“The region as a whole is learning to appreciate what we already have,” Jenkins said.
He hopes that strengthening the quality of life will attract new enterprises, families, and curtail the “brain drain” of young talent that often afflicts rural communities.
Close to outdoors
Michelle Ruigrok, the southern Appalachian outreach coordinator of the Wilderness Society and resident of the Rainbow Springs community in the western part of the county came to Macon County for a semester program at the Highlands Biological Station while a student at UNC Chapel-Hill. After graduating she stayed on as an employee and became a permanent resident.
“The people in my circle are young families who like to get outside and want to live in a place with a small town feel,” she said. “If you are into the outdoors, you can’t find a better place to live.”
Franklin mayor Bob Scott agrees. “We cannot separate from the outdoors. We need to capitalize on it and protect it,” he said
A former journalist, the white haired, bespectacled Scott fits the profile of a small town chief executive. Clad in suit and tie, he’s likely to be found strolling from his office at City Hall along Main Street engaging with business owners, shoppers, and tourists.
When the Greenville, S.C., native Scott moved to the region in the late 1960s, he said one of the primary draws to Macon County was the mines where tourists prospected for rubies and sapphires. But increasingly, Macon County has been on the radar of recreation.
McCall of Outdoor 76 would like to see the town and county capitalize more on the natural resources of the regions. Recently, Franklin was designated an Appalachian Trail Community, but he said a unified branding effort among city and county leaders would have a large benefit.
Town and country divide
Indeed, the county leadership and city leadership have not always seen eye to eye. Case in point was an anti-wilderness resolution passed by the county commission. The city, passed a resolution that Scott said supports the decision of the National Forest Service and would welcome additions to the wilderness. It passed 4-2.
In all, Macon County has 153,000 acres of national forest, nearly half the area of the county. Currently, the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests are undergoing a management plan revision that will oversee over 1 million acres of public forest over the next two decades that, at times, has been contentious regarding future special land designations, such as potential wilderness
County leaders in rural counties have also said they are concerned that placing additional land in special designations will limit future revenues generated by the federal government from timber sales and other activities. Counties with public lands receive payments in lieu of taxes (PILT) — payments to local governments to offset losses in property taxes due to non-taxable federal lands within their boundaries. In 2015, Macon County received $337,000 in PILT transfers.
While Scott has been an advocate for further protection of the forest, he’s also focused on increasing the livability of Franklin and would like to see more parks, continued repurposing of vacant buildings and pockets of urban blight addressed.
On Main Street, Scott has a list of improvements he’d like to spearhead, including an expansion of the bricks that line the sidewalks at the town square. Funding that project, he said, may not be easy since federal and state funds are tougher to come by and a tax increase would be a tough sell to city residents.
“I think Macon County has always been a flagship of the six far western Counties,” said Scott. “People have always looked to Macon County. [Our transformation] is not as fast as I’d like, but I’m proud of our progress.”
Bricks or not, it seems that the downtown may continue to blossom.
“People are investing in Franklin like never before,” McCall said. “There’s a sense of something we’ve never experienced before.”