SALUDA — For small towns, community development and economic growth are often synonymous.
“There’s a relationship between building that sense of place (and) supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs in downtown districts,” said Kenny Flowers from the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Rural Economic Development Division.
“Creating a vibrancy helps when you’re trying to do an economic development project.”
Flowers and his team at the Commerce Department are charged with looking into ways to bolster North Carolina’s rural towns and cities. Recently, that’s meant sifting through applications for the Rural Transformation Grant, a fund created by the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
Beginning last summer, the U.S. Department of the Treasury distributed ARPA money in two ways: directly to county, city and town governments; and to the state government for the legislature to decide how to appropriate.
Gov. Roy Cooper’s plans for the state’s $5.7 billion included a $48 million allocation to the Rural Transformation Grant Fund, which local government officials could use to enhance communities, revitalize downtowns and strengthen neighborhoods.
The fund also set aside money for the state to partner with Appalachian State University and offer educational programming for local government officials.
In North Carolina’s 18 westernmost counties, four municipalities — Valdese in Burke County, Mars Hill in Madison County, Saluda in Polk County and Old Fort in McDowell County — received a total of $2.67 million through the Rural Transformation Grant Fund.
Mars Hill, Hildebrand in Burke County, Rosman in Transylvania County and Spruce Pine in Mitchell County also participated in the economic development program with the commerce department and ASU.
A refurbished town icon
The Old Rock School in Valdese has housed “lots of memories,” said Morrissa Angi, director of community affairs and tourism for Valdese.
But the nearly century-old former school building, which now functions as a community center equipped with classrooms, nonprofit and business offices, and a 500-seat auditorium, needs improvements.
“With us being a small town and a building in a small town, a lot of projects that are awarded are necessity-based,” Angi said.
“This (grant) really covers a lot of the things that have been pushed back because of necessity projects.”
Vadese’s $850,000 in Rural Transformation Grant funding will go toward installing a ramp and auditorium seats compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Some projects funded through the state grant, such as replacing flooring and adding more restrooms, will enhance what Angi described as an “iconic” Valdese building. While others, including renovating the building’s third floor to create rentable office spaces, will bring revenue to the town, which purchased the building in 1986.
“The gist of the projects with the grant aren’t really saving us money; they’re generating money,” she said.
The state grant also means that towns don’t have to tap into their own ARPA funds to do projects necessary to continue economic growth, such as fortifying downtown areas.
Rather, towns can save their direct ARPA allocations for more pressing projects.
A bustling town center
Officials from Saluda plan to use the $111,000 ARPA funds appropriated directly to the community to improve its sewer system and roadways. The city, nestled in Polk County, will use its $170,000 award from the Rural Transformation Grant Fund, to enhance its town center, McCreery Park.
The goal of adding an outdoor amphitheater, renovating the park, improving equipment and making existing park facilities ADA-compliant is to establish McCreery as a “community investment,” Saluda City Manager Steve Orr said.
“We have a lot of people that visit, and if they have children, (the park) makes it really easy for them to have a place for the kids to go,” he said. “It just makes it much more family-oriented.”
While Saluda has fewer than 1,000 residents, McCreery Park is constantly lively as different community groups use the area for events and educational programming.
Tending to the town’s center will not only make Saluda a more attractive site for tourists and residents, but it will also catalyze further conversation about development. It also, according to Orr, ties directly to the goal of ARPA — to address deficits made evident by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It all ties together because you’ve got public health outcomes, you’ve got economic development, you’ve got the park and all these other aspects,” he said.
“You start to get a good synergy.”
The beginning of an initiative
Western North Carolina’s other towns receiving funding through the Rural Transformation Grant have similar projects planned.
Old Fort plans to use its $900,000 award to improve a central road, North Catawba Avenue, by building ADA-compliant sidewalks, incorporating a segment of the Fonta Flora State Trail and connecting its downtown with trails in Pisgah National Forest.
Mars Hill is using its $750,000 Rural Transformation Grant funding to purchase and renovate a historic downtown building. Enhancing the Gibbs Building, constructed in the early 1900s, will revitalize the town’s downtown district, according to a project description provided by the Commerce Department.
Altogether, 30 local governments in rural areas received funding through the state’s ARPA allotment. There will be at least two more grant cycles where small towns and cities can apply for the funds, Flowers said.
After the ARPA money runs out — all federal dollars must be allocated by December 2024 and spent by December 2026 — Flowers said the state plans to continue the grant through other funding streams. With 86 applications for a total of $51.4 million, the continuation of the grant will likely be appreciated.
“The Rural Transformation Grant Fund will become a part of that continued investment in communities,” he said.
“That’s our foundation for economic development: increasing competitiveness, increasing capacity and enhancing the quality of life in rural communities.”
Here’s a list of all North Carolina localities that received funding through the Rural Transformation Grant Fund:
- Newton, $900,000
- Sanford, $900,000
- Old Fort, $900,000
- Lumberton, $900,000
- Spencer, $900,000
- Tarboro, $875,000
- Greenville, $875,000
- Valdese, $850,000
- Stokes, $850,000
- Rockingham, $750,000
- Alexander County, $650,000
- Weldon, $369,778
- Roxboro, $175,000
- Mount Olive, $175,000
- Stantonsburg, $50,000
- Randolph County, $900,000
- Jonesville, $900,000
- Pembroke, $850,000
- Wallace, $825,000
- Hickory, $900,000
- Salisbury, $875,000
- Raeford, $846,000
- Windsor, $839,450
- Butner, $825,000
- Mars Hill, $750,000
- Garysburg, $355,680
- Elizabethtown, $332,500
- Pilot Mountain, $330,000
- Warren County $300,000
- Saluda, $170,000