Here’s how one North Carolina town is bringing its downtown back to life

By Sarah Nagem

Boyd McLaurin had been thinking about opening a restaurant in Laurinburg, although he had no experience in the hospitality industry. 

During a fish fry hosted by the local Optimist Club, McLaurin struck up a conversation with Mark Ward, economic development director for Scotland County and leader of the Scotland County Economic Development Corporation. 

Ward mentioned a downtown space that might be a good fit. The three-story, century-old building needed a lot of work, but McLaurin knew it had lots of potential. 

“I just said, ‘Mark, I can turn this place into a hell of a good restaurant,’” McLaurin recalled telling Ward. “We just kind of took it from there.” 

And so a partnership began between McLaurin and his business partner and the Economic Development Corporation, which tries to lure new businesses to the county. 

The EDC bought the building at 102 S. Main St. in 2019 from its previous owner for the bargain price of $15,000, Ward said. Then the group spent about $375,000 to replace the roof, renovate the space and create a commercial kitchen. 

Now the EDC rents the space to the Railroad Bar & Grill, which opened in mid-February. 

The project was recently recognized by the N.C. Department of Commerce as a Main Street award winner. It was one of three projects across the state named “best public-private partnership in downtown revitalization.” 

Ward said the project could serve as a model for other rural counties and towns across southeastern North Carolina, which has seen a drop in population over the past decade. 

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While economic development often focuses on industrial sites that will bring in dozens or hundreds of jobs, Ward said it’s also important to help small businesses, especially downtown. 

“They’ve got to understand that’s what will save their communities,” Ward said. 

‘Perfect time for us’

Like many small towns across the state, Laurinburg once had a bustling downtown filled with restaurants, retail shops and drug stores. 

When Belk left downtown in the 1980s and moved to a shopping plaza, many local businesses followed, said Laurinburg Mayor Jim Willis. 

The decline of the city’s core was personal for Willis. His father opened a Firestone store on Main Street in 1946, selling everything from home and auto products to fishing bait and bicycles. 

Willis worked there for 30 years until his dad died in 2006.

Hurricane Florence dealt a devastating blow to downtown in 2018, destroying some properties and damaging others.

But slowly, downtown Laurinburg seems to be making a comeback. 

Fore’s Family Restaurant opened on Main Street in 2020. Willis and his wife opened an event space for reunions, weddings and other festivities.  

A butcher shop is expected to open soon, he said, and he recently attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a dance studio. 

Meanwhile, the nonprofit group ’Tis The Season transforms downtown into a showpiece each year ahead of Christmas. The group’s mission, according to its website, “is to create community connection that drives engagement and growth through nostalgic holiday events and celebration.” 

Laurinburg, home to about 15,000 residents, has become an attractive place to live, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, Ward said. Some people left big cities in search of more space, cheaper housing and small-town charm with plenty of local-business options. 

“It was a perfect time for us,” Ward said. “People started realizing, ‘You know what, I don’t want to go to a major metropolitan area. I don’t want to drive 40 miles to grab something to eat. I do want to support my local individuals who are struggling.’” 

‘A lot of hiccups’

While the pandemic might have made Laurinburg a target for newcomers, it hindered progress at the Railroad Bar & Grill. Construction delays pushed back the restaurant’s opening date. 

“We’ve had a lot of hiccups out the gate,” McLaurin said. 

A chef from Charleston, South Carolina, had agreed to work for the restaurant for a few months to get it started, but McLaurin said he left after a week. 

Now a local chef is on board, and McLaurin’s sister-in-law manages the restaurant. 

McLaurin said he wouldn’t have been able to open the Railroad Bar & Grill in that space if it weren’t for the EDC. He couldn’t afford to renovate and repair the building himself. 

As part of the agreement with the EDC, the restaurant is paying discounted rent for the first three years. Then it will pay full market price. 

“I would have never, ever dreamed of doing this on my own without their help,” McLaurin said of the EDC. 

Some people doubted his dream. McLaurin, who has lived in Laurinburg all his life, said his town has an image problem. 

Scotland County ranked among the top five counties in the state with the highest violent-crime rate per 100,0000 residents in 2020, according to data from the State Bureau of Investigation. 

Laurinburg saw nine homicides in 2020, up from three the prior year, according to the FBI. 

Scotland County typically has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. It topped the list in January, with a jobless rate of 8.1%, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. The statewide seasonally adjusted figure was 3.9%. 

“The town itself is trying to overcome bad publicity,” McLaurin said. 

But, he said, “There’s some stuff happening. If we can keep this momentum going, there are some good things coming.” 

Ward said he has been talking to potential business owners interested in another downtown property owned by the EDC. The space could serve as a restaurant, coffee shop, retail store or something else. 

The EDC paid about $18,000 for the building in 2019 and spent nearly $90,000 to gut the space and replace the roof, Ward said. 

How the EDC works

Economic development experts have long touted the benefits of public-private partnerships, which often use a combination of taxpayer money and private investment. 

A project in the Rowan County town of Salisbury also won a Main Street award for its partnership that resulted in the opening of a “wellness destination.” The renovated building offers space for yoga and cooking classes, according to the commerce department. 

Railroad Bar and Grill opened in downtown Laurinburg in February 2022. Photo courtesy of Railroad Bar and Grill

In Laurinburg, the EDC did not use any tax money for the building that’s now home to the Railroad Bar & Grill, Ward said. 

The corporation receives some money from Scotland County and Laurinburg, he said, but it also collects rent from sites it owns in industrial parks on U.S. 401. The three tenants are NCWorks, Carmichael Farms and CCL Label. 

The success of the Railroad Bar & Grill shows that businesses can thrive downtown, according to Willis. 

“Already, we’ve seen the benefit in that we’ve got renewed interest in other restaurants wanting to come,” he said. 

Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem