Editor’s note: This is the third article in a three-part series exploring the redevelopment of the 200-year-old Rocky Mount Mills, and the growing entrepreneurial ecosystem in the city of Rocky Mount.

ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. – Back in the 1990s, when David Joyner was as a kid growing up in Rocky Mount, it was the kind of place that you dreamed of leaving.

“That was the goal in school. To get out and be successful,” recalls the 34-year-old, who was born and bred there. As a teenager, he lived through the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd, and later the collapse of the region’s textile industry.

Fast-forward to 2019: Some say things are finally picking up in this sleepy little corner of eastern North Carolina, just 60 miles east of Raleigh.

With Rocky Mount Mills now re-opened as a mixed-used development — and a number of other big projects slated — the city is having a bit of a renaissance. Even more interestingly, it’s being steered, in large part, by a new generation of entrepreneurs.

No longer busting to get out of dodge, this small but determined group of millennials and Gen Xers has set up shop in the town that raised them. Above all, they share one goal: to transform this once-forgotten rural city into a new business hub and tourist destination.

“There’s no cavalry coming up over the hill for us,” say Joyner bluntly, who is among those leading the charge.

As life would have it, Joyner never left Rocky Mount for good after all. Instead, he returned to start up his own media company, Joyner Media & Strategies, and help revitalize his community from the inside. “We need to stop looking out, and look to ourselves in eastern North Carolina. We don’t need the urban areas to make us be successful again. We’re going to have to layout our own blueprint,” he says.

Rocky Mounts rising generation of business leaders … Rocky Mount Mills events and marketing manager Julie Baggett, CoolGeeks founder Tarrick Pittman, AXA Financial Advisors Sarah Dixon, Joyner Media Strategies David Joyner. Photo by Chantal Allam.

David Joyner in front of his home, a renovated mill home in the Rocky Mount Mills complex. Photo by Chantal Allam.

Honoring brother’s memory

For Joyner, it’s a personal mission.

After a brief stint in Virginia, he settled in Rocky Mount to work in hospitality. Then his younger brother, Jessie, was killed in a drive-by shooting, and that changed everything.

To honor his memory, Joyner decided to make his community a safer place by advocating for small businesses and smart growth. “It really starts with economics,” explains Joyner. “My passion is to be part of the team that is moving the ball forward, helping to bring in resources and create opportunities that don’t always exist throughout all of the community.”

These days, instead of hanging out at the local SONIC drive-in on Friday nights, he’s organizing monthly meetups for other young entrepreneurs. There’s no official name for the group, but they network, talk business, and support each other.

“There is a lot of opportunity in Rocky Mount, and entrepreneurs are starting to pay attention to what the city can offer them,” says Sarah Hicks, 34, who is a regular at the meetups.

She and her husband, Ryan, 35, relocated from California to Rocky Mount a few years back, and opened up Bin & Barrel wine shop on Nash Street in late 2018.

“Our endgame was always to own our own business, and we saw that goal achievable in Rocky Mount.”

Rocky Mount’s rebound?

In many ways, they’re bucking the trend. Rocky Mount – like many rural towns across the nation – has suffered an exodus in recent years.

In just the last five years, its population has dropped more than five percent — from 57,696 in 2012 to 54,523 in 2017, according to World Population Review.

At the peak of the recession in 2011, Rocky Mount’s unemployment rate jumped to 14.7 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It now hovers around 5 percent – still way above the national average of 3.9 percent.

However, Rocky Mount Area Chamber of Commerce’s president and CEO David M. Farris believes the city is finally turning a corner.

“There’s a much more optimistic feel that we’ve had here in some time,” he says.

Among the projects in the pipeline: the Division of Motor Vehicle’s plans to relocate its headquarters there, bringing hundreds of jobs. Triangle Tire also plans to build two manufacturing sites between Rocky Mount and Tarboro, bringing 800 jobs and nearly $580 million in investment. Then there’s Corning Inc., which is putting $86 million towards building a warehouse facility, creating 111 jobs.

“We project over the next five to eight years, we need 10,000 more workers here,” says Farris.

The question is, from where?

He says the Chamber is working hard with local community colleges to build a talent pipeline. It also runs its own leadership program, and is pushing initiatives to attract entrepreneurs, including partnering with local business centers to offer free classes on entrepreneurship. “We have this ecosystem that’s evolving that gives younger people reasons to relocate in Rocky Mount.”

Putting everything on the line

Jessica Hicks, 28, is one such example.

A few years back, the part-time dental hygienist and her husband, Michael, 35, moved from Tennessee to Rocky Mount with dreams of starting their own business.

When the historic, 100-year-old building formerly known as the Bel Air Artisans Center came up for sale in downtown Rocky Mount, they grabbed it.

“We sold our home, took out two loans. We’ve maxed out,” Hicks says candidly.

It took almost a year to renovate but the couple persevered, reopening the space to much fanfare last month — drawing a 300-strong crowd with Christopher Chung, CEO of the nonprofit Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, among those in attendance. Renamed the Bel Air Art Center, the two-floor, 1800-square-foot building on Church Street is now a mixed-use space, with a yoga studio and art gallery. Artists and a massage therapist also rent studio space in the back.

“There’s a lot of potential that isn’t tapped into yet,” Hicks argues. “With the Amtrak passing through, we have people coming from up north all the way to Florida. We’re right there on I-95 and 64. It’s a great spot to stop.”

She remains confident. “We put everything into it. I’m not allowing myself to think it’s not going to work.”

Ribbon-cutting ceremony … L-R: Martha Lamm, DeeDee Hicks, Jillian Darville, David Combs, Michael Hicks, Jessica Hicks, David Farris (Pres. of Chamber), Jim Ratliff, Jane Nickels, Sharon Ratliff, Christopher Chung (CEO of the Economic Development Partnership of NC). Photo by Tyshon Johnson, J & J Photography,

Robert Schubauer and Christopher Chung (CEO of Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina). Photo by Tyshon Johnson, J & J Photography.

Tiffany and Marc Hines chat with locals at the opening. Photo by Tyshon Johnson, J & J Photography.

Katrina Williams checking out the artwork. Photo by Tyshon Johnson, J & J Photography.

Tarrick Pittman, 45, is another small business owner hoping to contribute to Rocky Mount’s comeback.

Back in 2009, he opened CoolGeeks Computer Repair on Douglas Block, the historically African-American business district. This year, he’s getting ready to celebrate his 10th anniversary.

“It’s kind of an opportunity for me to show people in the community that as a person of color, you can do other things other than be barber or a beautician. You can actually have a hand in technology.”

CoolGeeks owner Tarrick Pittman.

He’s seen a lot of change over the last decade, but believes there’s still some way to go. That’s why he’s running to be the next councilman to represent Ward 1.

Still, he believes the city is finally heading in the right direction. “With Rocky Mount Mills, and the revitalization of some downtown projects, that has kind of turned the tide. People are starting to see opportunity now, and that’s important.”

Note: CBC is the parent company of WRAL TechWire

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