A Vision For Pinelandia

02 Aug 2019

Preserving small-town America in Aberdeen, Pinehurst and Southern Pines

By Ray Owen

“A Yankee’s worth twice a bale of cotton, half as easy to pick.” Southern Pines founder, John T. Patrick, shared this joke when he announced his plans for a resort in what was then the most impoverished section of the state. Branded “Patrick’s Folly,” the fledging town was described as “a hole in the wilderness, where even a pea vine wouldn't grow and a grape vine cannot sprout.”

A steady stream of new arrivals proved naysayers wrong, and southern Moore County reinvented itself as a place for world-class golf and equestrian sports – loved for its natural beauty and the goodness of its people. 

For many decades, it was a sparsely populated seasonal retreat – a dynamic enclave of people from everywhere – a microcosm of America. Things began shifting after the Pinehurst Resort hosted the U.S. Open Golf Championship in 1999 and 2005, followed in 2010 by a substantial increase in the number of residents, as neighboring Fort Bragg became the largest military installation in the world.

The transformation of our sleepy towns feels like it happened overnight as the population has grown. In terms of economic strength, the flood of newcomers has made the Aberdeen-Pinehurst-Southern Pines area the state’s top “micropolitian” economy, ranked 27th nationally among cities with 50,000 or fewer residents.  

We have come a long way since the days of “Patrick’s Folly,” yet challenges remain: How do we negotiate shifting demographics and development pressures, while maintaining our sense of place and quality of life?

“I’ve told people that the 1999 U.S. Open changed Moore County forever,” says Aberdeen Mayor Robbie Farrell. “That will forever be the high water mark that kicked the door open. When you get international coverage like we got that week, everybody came here and they said ‘Okay, we like this place.’ ”

“I grew up here,” Robbie explains, “and other than a short time when I went, I’ve lived here all my life. Four generations of my family have called this home. You talk about a charmed life; I lived on U.S. 1 and could walk to the lake and to school. That was my life and I miss it.”

“What I love about this place is the small town charm where you actually know your neighbors,” says Robbie. “We still have our longleaf pines, the weather is wonderful and you can play golf about 300 days out of the year. If you combine the three towns it’s a city, but if you go to either one, it’s a small town.”

“The native residents are friendly folks,” Robbie adds. “We hope newcomers will be integrated into what we are because that’s what attracted them here. This area is welcoming, we’ve not to turn anyone away, so long as it doesn’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

“Aberdeen is trying to maintain this,” says Robbie. “Our Town Board is currently redoing town ordinances to tighten up regulations. As Ft. Bragg grew, builders coming out of Cumberland County took advantage of us. Moving forward, if anybody wants to come they’re going to play by our rules.”

According to Robbie, “You have to ask yourself at what point have you lost what you’re advertising? People know us from around the world and we have to protect that. It’s at the front of my mind. Right now, we don’t see an end to growth. The only way we can preserve any of this is to plan ahead.”

“There are several things I really love about Moore County, shared factors that we all enjoy,” says Pat Corso, executive director Moore County Partners in Progress. “The climate and the unique geography, there’s nothing like it. We have flora and fauna that doesn’t exist anywhere else, from fox squirrels to the longleaf pine ecosystem. I also like our history and sense of identity.”

“Each town has a distinctive flavor and they all add up to a very special community. I don’t see it as three towns; I see it as three neighborhoods in one remarkable place.” 

“How do we sustain the legacy and quality of life?” asks Pat. “That is the $64,000 question. That’s a challenge and it’s really hard because there’s so many push and pulls going on in the community now.”

Regarding planning, “the challenge is we needed those conversations about two to five years ago, and we’re a little behind,” says Pat. “We are not the masters of our own destiny at this point in time, both in terms of community and the institutions. Circumstance and situation is causing dramatic change and we are following, not leading.”

“In a world where mergers happen every other day,” Pat explains, “suppose First Bank merged with Fifth Third Bank, that Marriott purchased Pinehurst, or that the hospital was owned by Vidant Medical; we aren’t the same place anymore. We have to guard our local institutions and realize what a tremendous asset they are.”

“Proactively, the towns have come together with the idea of the tri-cities working cohesively,” says Pat. “Not getting into the weeds about details, but on macro issues like land use, education, transportation, those shared impacts. We have facilitated conversations every other month and that is bearing fruit.”

“The vision is keeping what we have for posterity,” according to Pat. “That can’t be achieved that by letting situations dictate what becomes. We have to play ball together and win together – that’s how to sustain something special.”

“Locally, Southern Pines is the one community you could pick up and drop anywhere and it would be self-sustaining,” says Town Manager Reagan Parsons. “We have a good balance of residential, commercial and jobs. We also have a very successful downtown area.”

“What you see more often are communities trying to recreate what we have,” says Reagan. “Sometimes they had it at one time and lost it, other times they're just popping it up out of a field and hoping to build the synergy we have here.” 

“On a national scale, golf is the historic thing that has brought a lot of people here and we’ve got it in spades. We’ve lost a few courses along the way and it’s becoming more of a high-end destination as we lose some of the courses that were historically part of the market.”

“The sustenance of the legacy has a lot to do with recognizing the history,” believes Reagan. “We have to play off of our strengths, making sure there is a continuation into the future. That doesn't mean taking a snapshot and freezing time, it can’t mean that.”

“We’re seeing at residential building on lots that have existed since the town was originally laid out. Maybe someone decided to build a house on two or three lots, and they're now finding that it makes sense to sell off the extra lots. The planning for the density we’re now seeing was done decades ago, it just now coming to fruition.”

“The downtown just happened to have taken a lot more time,” says Reagan, “but the layout has been there for a very, very long time. Sustenance is really about recognizing how we got to where we are and realizing where we’re headed is just a completion of somebody’s master plan from a very long time ago.”

When asked about charting the course ahead, Regan replies, “Planning acts as a guide that tries to keep us between the rails. Maintaining that same welcoming, small-town Americana character – where you can live, work, play, and raise a family safely – all our efforts are about preserving this special place that we all know and love.” 

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