ROBBINS, N.C. - It's midafternoon, and nothing is moving in this onetime textile mill town 50 miles northwest of sprawling Army installation Fort Bragg. Many of the downtown storefronts are vacant; others are closed, a reflection of the bleak local economic reality, which is an unemployment rate that's higher than the state average.
Robbins wasn't always like this. Lifelong residents including Mayor Lonnie English remember when this town of 1,200, which gained a measure of prominence in recent decades as the boyhood home of former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., was a bustling place.
"We had the mills," English says. "We had the chicken processing plant. We had three or four service stations, gamerooms, restaurants, a Belk-Cline department store, a Western Auto and two hardware stores."
Robbins is like scores of other textile mill towns across the Southeast, especially in North Carolina. As shuttering textile and apparel plants across the region drained the lifeblood from these towns, residents have struggled to reinvent themselves and communities have struggled to survive.
But now, many here are hoping that a local economic success story will herald a transformation for the town. It involves a preacher's wife who prayed for jobs, a local boy made good who opened a hometown branch of a global commercial real estate services firm, and the conversion of a once-vital old mill's headquarters into offices for that firm, now one of the town's largest employers.
The firm, Houston-based Situs, opened an office here in 2007. The location was something of a departure for the company, which also has offices in cities such as New York, Atlanta, Little Rock, London and Frankfurt. Situs now employs 55 people here, many of them former textile mill workers who got additional education so they could perform commercial real estate analysis.
Unlike legions of people laid off from the region's textile and apparel mills who've been forced to take lower-paying jobs, the Situs employees say they make more than they did before.
Michael Walden, an economist at North Carolina State University, says there are occasional "bright spots" such as Situs in the old textile mill towns of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia,where textile manufacturing flourished for decades after moving here in the early part of the 20th century, drawn by cheap labor. "Companies would go in and essentially build a town," he says. "Textile manufacturing flourished, providing employment to hundreds of thousands of people, especially those without higher education. They were highly protected from international competition."
"This was primarily a small-town, rural industry," says Walden. "It was a way of life. That's largely gone now. Rural towns like Robbins have been scrambling, saying is there some way we can save our town? What can we bring in? But in terms of labor, it's never, ever going to employ the hundreds of thousands of people that used to work here."
After years of manufacturing job losses, North Carolina has seen a slight uptick, adding 5,500 jobs between February 2010 and last May, says Larry Parker, spokesman for the Division of Employment Security at the state Department of Commerce. "But the rural areas are hardest to rebound," he says. "The rural areas are still struggling, and that's where a lot of those textile manufacturing plants were."
Today, growth in North Carolina's textile industry is focused more on the research and development of high-tech textiles such as clothing that can heat and cool the wearer's body, acoustic textiles for symphony halls, and textiles for the military, Walden says.
Taking a new path
After Brandy Hussey, 28, was laid off twice from a small hosiery mill in Star, 15 miles away, she enrolled in a two-year continuing education program at Sandhills Community College. She's a team leader at Situs now - and making more money. "I get to do more of what I enjoy doing," Hussey says. "It gives me the opportunity to use what I learned from college."
Hussey says she "probably would have kept working in the mill" if she hadn't learned about a state workforce-development program. "I thought it was too good an opportunity to pass up," she says. Hussey, who says most of her family and friends worked in textile mills, sometimes finds it challenging to explain her current job. "I tell them about it," she says. "But I don't think they fully understand what I do."
The Situs offices - in the former headquarters building of Candor Hosiery Mill, whose six factories in this area once produced over 15 million socks per week - often draw people who are curious or job hunting, says Jennifer Lang, a managing director. "They ask, 'What do y'all make here? Do you have any jobs?' " she says. "The easiest way (to answer) is to say we make spreadsheets for banks."
Situs employees here perform real estate analysis for commercial and investment bankers such as Wells Fargo and UBS. The company laid off 20 people here after losing a contract in December but is now preparing to hire up to 10 people.
English, the mayor, says officials are trying to get Robbins declared part of a federal Historically Underutilized Business Zone, which would provide tax incentives to new businesses coming into the area. Those businesses would be required to hire area residents, he says.
Situs received $150,000 in state matching funds to help it launch the location here, says Steven Bean, a managing director and Robbins native who was pivotal in getting the company to locate here.
Prayer was answered
Robbins is in the northern end of Moore County, and it seems a world away from the county's southern end, home of the thriving community of Southern Pines and the golfing resort of Pinehurst, which will host the 2014 Men's and Women's U.S. Opens. The Moore County unemployment rate for May was 8.6%, below the state average of 9.4%, according to the Labor and Economic Analysis Division of the North Carolina Department of Commerce; it's above 10% in Robbins, according to English.
So Situs' arrival was something of a miracle, says Mickey Brown, the mayor for 14 years until 2007. "We had lost upward of 2,500 jobs in textiles, furniture-making and poultry processing over a 10- to 15-year period," he says. "Like a lot of other small towns, we had lost the things that sustained us for so many decades."
In 2006, during an ecumenical service involving eight local churches, Sherri McNeill went to the altar and asked for divine help in bringing jobs to Robbins.
"When I got home, I found out my cousin Steven (Bean) was coming home to see his parents," says McNeill, 49, wife of the Rev. Kenneth McNeill, pastor of First Baptist Church here. "We had never had Steven and his wife over for dinner, but I said to my husband, 'Let's have them over.' "
Over a meal of baked cranberry chicken, McNeill appealed to her cousin, who had extensive corporate experience. "I was like, Steven, is there any way you can come to Robbins and bring jobs?" she says.
Bean, who had been thinking about ways that some back-office real estate analysis jobs could be better done in the USA than outsourced to countries such as India, started putting together a demographic study looking at the potential workforce within a 5-mile, a 25-mile and a 50-mile radius of Robbins.
"We were looking for people with a business or financial background," he says. "We knew we wouldn't find people who understood commercial real estate. We wanted people who were maybe working in the accounting department at a mill or who had a business degree. They generally had jobs, but what they didn't have were jobs they were educated for."
Bean, 48, says he's glad he's helped bring hope to his hard-hit hometown. "Every business leader in America that has the opportunity to do something like this ought to do it," he says. "Because there are people here, good people, that need jobs."