N.C. Town Plagued by Troubles Fights to Rebuild

A burned shop i i

When a fire broke out in Spruce Pine's historic downtown, four buildings burned down, displacing 10 business owners and a handful of residents. Audie Cornish, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Audie Cornish, NPR
A burned shop

When a fire broke out in Spruce Pine's historic downtown, four buildings burned down, displacing 10 business owners and a handful of residents.

Audie Cornish, NPR
Aaron Buchanan i i

Aaron Buchanan, 23, owned a thrift store in downtown Spruce Pine. He lived in the apartment upstairs and provided performance space for local musicians. But it was all destroyed in the fire. Audie Cornish, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Audie Cornish, NPR
Aaron Buchanan

Aaron Buchanan, 23, owned a thrift store in downtown Spruce Pine. He lived in the apartment upstairs and provided performance space for local musicians. But it was all destroyed in the fire.

Audie Cornish, NPR

Spruce Pine, N.C., is a town of just 2,000 nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Southern Appalachia.

It's the seat of Mitchell County, an area that has been hit by hurricanes, flooding and rock slides. The last time the town received national attention was because of a multimillion-dollar real estate scam that drew state investigators.

This month, Spruce Pine was struck again, when its historic downtown was set on fire. Four buildings burned, displacing at least 10 business owners as well as a handful of residents.

A suspect is now in custody, but while the community is breathing a collective sigh of relief, it is also showing signs of frustration. Some wonder whether Spruce Pine will survive.

"We use all the energies we have to rebuild, and we have done a lot of rebuilding," says Shirley Hise, head of the Mitchell County Chamber of Commerce. "We have not been able to maintain that rebuilding."

Out of Business, Out of Jobs

Hise recently attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony at one of the buildings gutted by the fires, but "Going out of Business" signs dot the community.

Spruce Pine has lost one-third of its manufacturing base as companies from Henredon to Ethan Allen have closed facilities nearby.

Hise says that it's ironic that the furniture makers who were the bedrock of the job market abandoned the area in search of the very thing that brought them to town: lower-wage workers. The unemployment rate in Mitchell County is more than 7 percent, while the state average is 4.9 percent.

Attracting Tourism

With an estimated 2,000 jobs lost over the past decade, the community is looking to tourism and small businesses to make up the difference. Officials are trying to draw railroad buffs to see the freight trains that run through the town several times a day. Do-it-yourself gem mines dot the steep, winding highways up to town.

Economic development officials in the community are also devoting energy to a program that aims to market Spruce Pine as the "Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree."

"It is frustrating because in a small community like this, funding is not readily available to help communities rebuild and reinvent themselves, which is basically what we are trying to do," says Patty Jensen, who helps run a store that sells everything from hand-blown glass ornaments to clocks carved by unemployed furniture workers.

"After manufacturing leaves and you've depended on that for 30, 40, 50 years ... you have to totally reinvent yourself with a population that is not educated to the level to meet the demand of what a job would be now," Jensen says. "A lot of people that were in the manufacturing plant did not have a high school education."

Leaving Home

Downtown business owners are crucial to the town's redevelopment, and officials say that they will do everything they can to support those who have been uprooted – like 23-year-old Aaron Buchanan.

Born and raised in the county, Buchanan owned a popular antique and thrift clothing store in the center of town, right across from the railroad tracks. But the fire destroyed it all, and despite pledges of support, Buchanan is torn about his future in Spruce Pine.

"Every string has been cut," Buchanan says. "I want to travel the world, and if any time there would be an opportunity to do that, I think that would be now. But at the same time it's hard to leave not only a community you grew up in ... but a community you spent time, interest in, money in — to say 'The heck with it this. I'm out of here. This town is hopeless.' "

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