A 'STEP' in the right direction
Nearly 10 months ago Rutherfordton became part of the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center's Small Town Economic Prosperity (STEP) Program.
Since then, citizens of the town, community officials and professionals and members of the Rutherfordton STEP committee continue to focus on how to reinvigorate the town's economy and move the community forward.
During the town's STEP community meeting Monday night, committee members discussed the program's strategy identification phase.
"Right now we are identifying strategies and trying to come up with projects that will help bring economic vitality to Rutherfordton," said STEP committee member Cindy Adair.
The committee analyzed community assets and resources as well as constraints and limiting factors for sustaining and growing the local economy.
By analyzing these strengths and weaknesses, STEP is able to better identify economic development strategies.
After identifying strategies, STEP will be able to develop projects that support those strategies and ultimately lead to economic growth in Rutherfordton.
"We need to focus on strategies and what direction to take before we decide on individual projects," said Barbara Mears, a member of the STEP committee.
When determining strategies during Monday's meeting, members of STEP discussed what types of strategies would be feasible under the town's present circumstances and with the resources currently available.
STEP considered the pros and cons of proposed strategies as well as each strategy's target audience and ultimate goal.
One strategy focused on business development with ways to retain and expand existing businesses and to create new businesses through entrepreneurship.
"We have been looking at tourism and how to increase that tourism in downtown Rutherfordton. One way to do that is through entrepreneurship and by encouraging retirees to start new businesses," Adair said.
"We are also encouraging 18 to 30-year-olds to move back to the area and open businesses to help get a spark back to the area," said Mears.
Another strategy STEP discussed was making the town more attractive in order to draw in more outside investment and boost tourism.
"With the minimal population here, it's hard to draw from, tourist-wise," said Adair. "People might ask, 'What is there to do here?' or 'How can I spend my time here?' And we need to offer things here that aren't offered in Forest City or Spindale."
Mears provided specific examples of ways to make the town more attractive and enticing, including local art displays in vacant shop windows downtown and the creation of a 'fab lab,' a small-scale printing workshop used for individual projects by college students and small local businesses at a fraction of the price it would cost using mass production.
A third strategy STEP discussed was the increase of marketing.
"We have a lot of things to see and do in Rutherfordton, but information is not easily accessible in one central location," Mears said. "Even people who have lived here for a long time don't always know about things that are happening."
Adair suggested marketing tactics such as more communication between surrounding towns as a way to share ideas and working with the Tourism Development Authority to train local citizens as town advocates.
"We need to be our own advocates — everyone from town employees to restaurant staff to shop owners," Adair said. "We need to be positive and spread the word."
Although the town council will vote on the future projects STEP develops, it will be the citizens of the town and community who will pick and plan those projects.
The STEP committee has worked hard to ensure the public is involved, not just in Rutherfordton but in the entire community.
"We have a great area with great people, but we've been beaten down," said Adair. "We believe in this area and that's what STEP is — to let people know what we have to offer, to promote our town and our way of life and to believe in us again."