In Bertie County, some of North Carolina's fastest-shrinking towns seek a turnaround
This is the first installment in our new Main Street NC series from the WUNC Politics Podcast. In the coming months, we’ll be visiting communities across the state to hear from local leaders about the positives going on in their towns, and the challenges they face, from population loss to flooding to aging utility infrastructure. Our first stop is the Bertie County towns of Aulander and Lewiston Woodville.
While North Carolina’s urban areas are seeing rapid growth, more than 20 of the state’s 100 counties have seen their population decrease in recent years as residents move away for better opportunities elsewhere.
Those population declines are sharpest in northeastern North Carolina. Two towns in western Bertie County — about an hour north of Greenville — have shrunk more than anywhere else in the state. Bertie ranks among the state’s poorest counties, with a population that’s about 60% Black.
Lewiston Woodville has lost nearly half its population in the past 30 years, and it’s a similar story a few miles up the road in Aulander.
More than 1,200 people lived here in 1990. Now, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates it is home to just over 700 people.
Most of the storefronts in the two downtowns are vacant, some with merchandise still on the shelves as the roof caves in. Plants are growing up from the floor in a long-abandoned laundromat.
Peering through the dusty glass, a sales rack in the former Aulander Pharmacy at the corner of Main and Commerce Street displays 99-cent greeting cards.
Larry Drew recently retired after 14 years as mayor. He grew up in Aulander and says it used to look a lot different.
“There were no empty storefronts,” Drew said. “Every storefront was full. We had three automobile dealerships right here inside one square mile of Aulander. We had two or three variety stores, we had several restaurants, several grocery stores.”
Drew said the economic outlook started to change a few decades ago when N.C. Highway 11 was moved east to bypass the town. Things got worse in 2016 when the town’s main employer, a peanut processing plant, closed its doors. About 80 people lost their jobs.
Town leaders are trying to get a new company to take over the site.
“If you add 60 to 80 jobs in this little town,” Drew said, “and I think if we could get 20 of that 60 to live here in town, think what that would do for tax revenues, for the water and sewer …. that many more volunteers who are here to help the town do things. That might be where that next head of the Little League comes from.”
Aulander has reasons for optimism these days. A new dental clinic is under construction, and earlier this year, Breaking Bread Family Kitchen opened up on Main Street as the town’s only restaurant.
“I had opportunity to come here in this building, and I just wanted to come back home in my hometown and do something positive, you know?” said Julie Johnson, owner of Breaking Bread Family Kitchen.
The food at Breaking Bread is already attracting customers from miles around. Johnson said the burgers are made fresh, and daily specials like chicken and dumplings and corned herring have proven popular.
It’s clear during the lunch rush that Breaking Bread has become Aulander’s community center.
“It's not just a place to eat. They come, everybody knows each other,” Johnson said.
The town owns the building, and Drew said it’s used incentives to bring a restaurant to the space.
“If you can imagine a proprietor of a full-blown restaurant, paying $250 a month in rent,” he said. “And that didn't cover all of the buildings and all of the stoves, refrigerators, pots, pans — everything that was needed was there.”
He argues that county and state leaders could help provide similar incentives to bring more jobs and amenities to his town and its even smaller neighbors.
“If you look at where the money's going, it's not to this end of Bertie County,” he said.
Neither Aulander nor Lewiston Woodville have a grocery store, with dollar stores as the only shopping option. Lewiston Woodville Mayor Chris Cordon said that makes it difficult to attract housing, but grocers aren’t likely to set up shop unless the population grows.
“That's the issue with those who are thinking about coming in to develop Lewiston Woodville and get a tax credit so they can build (housing),” she said. “But because we don't have a grocery store, they can't get a tax credit. And if they couldn't get a tax credit, they can't build a house, so you’re like in a Catch-22.”
Leaders here in western Bertie County remain optimistic about the future.
Here are some highlights of WUNC’s conversation with Cordon at Lewiston Woodville’s town hall, which shares space with the fire station.
NOTE: This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How would you describe Lewiston Woodville to someone who's never been to this area of the state?
"It's a family friendly municipality, where everybody knows everybody. You've seen the commercial or the show Cheers. Everybody knows everybody, and we can share and help one another whenever there's a need."
Tell me more about the history of the town.
"In 1981, the town of Lewiston merged with the town of Woodville. It was for economic development. Because both municipalities are small, when we merged together, we were able to keep each other alive."
The census numbers show the population dropped from about close to 800 in 1990, to a little over 400 today. What factors caused the decrease in population?
"When businesses closed. We had several large mills, we had a tobacco industry, we had a cotton gin. There was a lumber company. And when they closed down … the population followed the businesses, or they just decided, 'There's nothing here for me to do.' So, they left the area to find work, and we just need them to come back home."
What does the town ultimately need to bring folks back and get businesses in some of the storefronts?
"What we really need now is housing. The Perdue poultry plant is maybe three or four miles down the road, and they employ over 2,000 employees. But most of them live outside of the county.
"So, if there was housing, can you imagine the population expanding? You can see a downtown Main Street revitalization that will bring in businesses and clothing and textile and hardware. Right now, we don't have a restaurant, other than fast food from the gas stations."
Do you have a wish list for projects that if the resources were there, the town would like to take on?
"If the resources were there, first of all, we would clean up downtown. Those stores that are dilapidated, we would get rid of them. We will research businesses that would want to come to Lewiston Woodville. We will do the proposal, a strategic action plan, that will say, ‘Hey, this is what we would like to see here.’ And these are the opportunities that you will have if you came here.
"We need a park. We need recreation for our youth. We need more police protection. Recently, we had one part-time police officer for this municipality, and the county does the job of patrolling. We need a better fire department. We need an EMS station. Because, God forbid, if something were to happen at that (chicken processing) plant where those gases escaped, within a three-mile radius, everybody would have to be evacuated."
You've been involved with the town for a long time, what drives you to do this work given the challenges that the town does face?
"Because I see progress, and I want progress. I don't want to ever forget where we came from, and where it was — at one time — a thriving community. And I believe it can get back there. My driving force is to make sure that the community is a family-friendly community, and that we can make it and survive and help one another."
What do you recommend people check out in Lewiston Woodville and the surrounding areas?
"We have fishing and hunting. We're known for that. Recently, there was a pier put in place in Lewiston Woodville, where people can drive to and fish on the pier. There's a lot of people who come from all over to hunt deer, bear, pheasant in the area.
"If you want to know what coming to Bertie will provide you, it will provide watercraft, a park, tree houses where people come in and spend a night outside in a tree house — a lot of outdoor activities (in Windsor)."