ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Here in the U.S., life is just starting to get back to normal in the mountain town of Spruce Pine, North Carolina. More than a week ago, an arsonist set fire to several downtown buildings. The destruction shut down nearly a dozen small businesses in the heart of a community that suffered many blows in recent years.
NPR's Audie Cornish visited the town and she has this report.
AUDIE CORNISH: Going-out-of-business signs already dot the community. Now, the future of nearly a dozen other business owners in the rural community of Spruce Pine is up in the air, thanks to the arsonist who torched several buildings in the center of town. As the cleanup begins, whether the town will survive is the question for many here.
Ms. SHIRLEY HISE (Head, Mitchell County Chamber of Commerce): You know, we use all the energies that we have to rebuild. And we have done a lot of rebuilding. And we've not been able to maintain that rebuilding.
CORNISH: Shirley Hise is head of the Mitchell County Chamber of Commerce. She leans over the yellow caution tape in front of a blackened building, where she just held a ribbon-cutting last month. Hise says Spruce Pine was already trying to make a comeback after a series of tough breaks. In the last three years, there have been two hurricanes, flooding and three major rockslides. But it's man - not Mother Nature - that's ripped the town the most.
Ms. HISE: We lost Henredon. We lost Lexington. We lost Hampshire Hosiery. We lost Ethan Allen. We lost Taylor Togs(ph). And then we lost Outboard Marine Corporation. So those are six plants since 2000 that we have lost here.
CORNISH: Roughly, a third of its manufacturing base and an estimated 2,000 jobs gone. The unemployment rate in the county is more than 7 percent - well over the state average. Hise says it's ironic that the furniture makers who'd been the bedrock of the job market abandoned the area in search of the very thing that brought them to town: cheaper wage workers.
(Soundbite of train horn)
CORNISH: These days, tourism has joined gemstone mining in rebuilding the fragile local economy. Railroad buffs travel here to see the freight trains run through the center of town. Gem mines promising visitors a shot at striking valuable stones dot the steep roads that sneak up and down the Blue Ridge foothills where the town nestles.
Ms. PATTY JENSEN (Owner, 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, reinvent themselves, which is basically what we're trying to do.
CORNISH: Patty Jensen helps run a store called The Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree downtown. Inside, you'll find an air-conditioned oasis of pine-smelling wreaths, gold-flecked cards and straw angels. The store is part of an economic development scheme that includes a field of budding evergreen trees the town is growing in order to reimagine Spruce Pine as the home of the perfect Christmas tree.
Ms. JENSEN: We have pottery. We have woodworking. There's textile. There's handmade - hand-blown glass ornaments.
CORNISH: The store sells crafts created by unemployed furniture factory workers.
Ms. JENSEN: After manufacturing leaves and you've depended on that for, you know, 30 or 40 or 50 years, and it leaves, you'd have to totally reinvent yourself with a population that is not educated to a level to meet the demand of what a job would be now.
(Soundbite of bulldozer)
Mr. AARON BUCHANAN (Owner, Cheapskates): Well, you're looking at a thrift store that's been burnt, bulldozed outside and piled up in the streets, mangled metal, wood timbers from the ceiling, bags of old used clothes.
CORNISH: That was Aaron Buchanan. He's only 23 and he owned one of the businesses that got hit the hardest. It's called Cheapskates. It was a sort of funky thrift store and also had performance space for his punk band, and he lived in the apartment upstairs.
Buchanan grew up here. He went to high school in the area. And he says it's a hard decision to know about whether to leave.
Mr. BUCHANAN: Every string has been cut. My life is invested right over there. If I could travel, I could see, like, I want to travel the world and, you know, if anytime 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 the community that you grew up in, invested time, interest and money to just say, well, the heck with it. You know, I'm staying on this hopeless…
CORNISH: And Spruce Pine town officials hope that Buchanan - young, ambitious and entrepreneurial - won't give up on them. This week, there will be a benefit concert to help support businesses like his. Meanwhile, the downtown area is back open and ready for business.
Audie Cornish, NPR News.
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