A Question Facing All of Appalachia

Will our young people stay or go?

LENOIR, N.C. – From the time that narrow-gauge railroad lines were built into the mountainous regions of Caldwell County in the late 19th Century – in particular near Edgemont and Mortimer – the furniture industry dominated the economy of Lenoir for a century. The hardwood forests of the slopes of the Blue Ridge Escarpment provided the most important raw product.

Jennings Furniture, Lenoir
Workers at Jennings Furniture of Lenoir in an undated photo. Courtesy of Caldwell Heritage Museum.

Of course, the most important ingredient in the furniture industry’s success was its people. Without workers to build the railroads, harvest and haul the timber, and make the final product, the industry would never have existed in Lenoir and other areas of Western North Carolina (WNC).

While the most common explanation for the near death of the industry is the passage of international trade agreements about 20 years ago, those arguments overlook the fact that Lenoir and the region had failed to diversify its economy. In short, it relied upon a mono-economy. It has been argued that the reason furniture dominated the region is simple – crony capitalism. In other words, furniture industry leaders ensured that local elected officials supported their efforts to keep other industries out, hence keeping wages artificially low and company profits high.

While these are topics we will explore in much greater detail in a forthcoming documentary and series of articles, it is clear to anyone driving through Lenoir or nearby towns that the region is at a tipping point. In some ways, uptown Lenoir is thriving, due largely to a strong arts and music community. Still, even uptown is struggling, as evidenced by the numerous empty buildings. Even more startling are the site of shuttered factories along U.S. 321-A and other roads leading out of town. One might point to the many fast-food restaurants and similar businesses along U.S. 321 heading to Blowing Rock as signs of economic progress, but frankly, those businesses pay minimum wage and create a littered landscape of neon signs that discourages visitors to look for, let alone find, uptown.

Still, we are hopeful. We are impressed with the many shop owners, artists, musicians and others working tirelessly to maintain the entrepreneurial spirit essential to any community’s success. Indeed, we will be profiling these businesses and individuals so that we can share their insights and experiences. In doing so, we hope that not only will these organizations and folks receive your support, but will inspire others to act upon their dreams – dreams that will ensure that Lenoir and WNC recovers.

However, to do so, our young people must stay. The decisions that our young adults make over the next few years will determine the future of Lenoir and WNC. Clearly, the past reliance upon a mono-economy hit this area hard. So, economic diversification and sustainable development are essential for Lenoir – now.

© The Appalachian Chronicle, 2016 

Related article:

“You Make Us Want to Leave”

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