A $20 million federal grant helps two rural NC towns turn dreams into reality

Spindale, North Carolina completed a “streetscape” project in 2022 along several blocks. A new grant will will help them and neighboring Rutherfordton do the same thing along the entire 2.5 corridor between them. (Town of Spindale)

By Michael McElroy

October 27, 2023

Funding from the Biden administration will help Spindale and Rutherfordton transform the congested thoroughfare between them into a pedestrian-friendly ‘complete street’ rarely seen in rural areas.

The walk along Main Street in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, a town older than the Constitution, takes you past ice cream and fudge shops; a barber and a children’s museum; and a tiny park with flower gardens, fairy lights, and benches in the shade.

Take a similar walk in Spindale, just down the road, and you’ll find a barbeque restaurant, a killer coffee spot, a bike shop, and Barley’s Taproom, the kind of place where town leaders say everyone knows your name.

These idyllic small town Main Streets are two miles apart, but the walk between them is no easy stroll.

The main thoroughfare linking these sister towns in rural Western North Carolina is congested, crumbling, and not at all built for pedestrians or bicyclists. The corridor is a longstanding infrastructure headache that snarls traffic, dilutes tourism, and endangers commuters.

Local officials have tried to fix the problems for years, but significant infrastructure improvements aren’t cheap, especially in rural communities which have much smaller budgets than the big cities.

Now, however, leaders in both towns say this entire corridor is on track to be the envy of the state by 2027.

What a difference a $20 million federal grant can make.

A $20 million federal grant helps two rural NC towns turn dreams into reality

Main Street Park in Rutherfordton. Both towns have idyllic downtowns. (Michael McElroy/Cardinal & Pine)

‘The catalyst for so many things’

Spindale and Rutherfordton received a RAISE grant in 2022, through the Biden Administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, to not just fix this stretch, but transform it.

The money is part of the $4.9 billion in federal infrastructure funding that has already been spent or earmarked for North Carolina.

Town leaders won the grant through a detailed plan to turn their 2.5 mile corridor of danger and delay into a “Complete Street,” a concept that factors cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, traffic flow, and environmental concerns into the design.

The plan will make it easier for pedestrians to cross busy streets, add benches and flowers, connect two major greenway biking paths, ease traffic patterns, improve emergency response time, build Electric Vehicle infrastructure, reduce stormwater runoff, increase access to grocery stores and drug stores, revitalize the sidewalks and public transit spaces, draw more visitors to local businesses, separate bicyclists and pedestrians from road traffic, lower vehicle emissions and create a seamless corridor of mobility, safety, equity, and beautification from one town to the next.

In short, it’s a big deal.

A $20 million federal grant helps two rural NC towns turn dreams into reality

A rendering of the proposed changes to ease congestion, improve safety and make for a more pleasant walk between Rutherfordton and Spindale. (Towns of Rutherfordton and Spindale)

“This project is going to have one of the greatest impacts in our communities in many generations,” Rutherfordton’s Town Manager Doug Barrick said in an interview with other local leaders this summer at Rutherfordton’s Town Hall.

Barrick and Spindale’s town manager, Scott Webber, took the lead in writing the grant application.

“It’s going to be the catalyst for so many things,” Webber said.

The project will spur further economic development, they said, complement existing redevelopment projects, and work in tandem with efforts to improve access to affordable housing.

“It’s really going to be a unique project,” Webber said, “and something that rural parts of North Carolina just don’t get very often.”

The problem

The project isn’t just cool, they said. It’s needed.

The Biden administration required that any project approved for RAISE grants under the infrastructure law had to help “historically disadvantaged communities,” areas that constantly have 20% poverty rates or more. Several neighborhoods in the project area meet this metric.

Whatever a person’s needs are, Webber said, the completed project will make it easier for them to get to work, get to the doctor, get to school.

“There will be a true multimodal path for you to get there,” he said.

That is especially important in these towns: 16% of the households along the project corridor have no access to a vehicle. That’s nearly triple the state average.

It means that a lot of people have to walk where they need to go.

‘You’re taking your life in your hands’

The boundary separating the towns runs somewhere between the order window and payment window of a McDondald’s drive thru.

“You order in Spindale and lucky for us you pay in Rutherfordton,” Barrick said.

But the intersection of US Rte. 221 and Railroad Ave, just beyond the McDonalds, isn’t as lucky.

The intersection, an expanse of asphalt, sharp turn lanes, and short traffic lights, is one of most congested exchanges in the county. There were 87 car crashes at this intersection between 2016 and 2021.

Delays are common. It can take forever even for ambulances to get through the snarl. And most dangerous for pedestrians, there aren’t any crosswalks.

Each town has a sidewalk running along 221, but they are on opposite sides. Rutherfordton’s sidewalk is on the north side, Spindale’s is on the south. Both stop several feet short of the intersection.

A $20 million federal grant helps two rural NC towns turn dreams into reality

The barrier between the towns runs across the most congested intersection in the county. There are no crosswalks. (Michael McElroy/Cardinal & Pine)

So a pedestrian living in Spindale but working in Rutherfordton, for example, would need to walk on the south side until they approach the intersection, then walk on the shoulder of this busy street the last few feet, then cross to the north side of the road without a crosswalk, and continue into Rutherfordton—and then do it all in reverse coming home.

“It’s very dangerous,” Barrick said.

Webber added: “It’s hard enough to get a car through there, much less walk.”

“You take your life in your hand when you walk across that intersection,” Mayor Mickey Bland of Spindale added.

Just because there’s no safe way across, however, doesn’t mean people don’t have to make their way across.

A Food Lion, the area’s main grocery store, is also at this intersection, leaving pedestrians on the opposite side no safe way to get there.

A big portion of the $20.4 million grant will go into this intersection, creating a roundabout, coordinating traffic signals, adding crosswalks, and building separated pedestrian crossovers.

“It’s going to help correct one of the biggest, traffic congested areas in the county,” Bland said.

The grant

The shape of the overall design came together in 2018. Town officials knew the problem, they had a plan. They just didn’t have the money.

The towns and the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) tried for years to get the funding needed to address some of the issues, but they never got enough, or got promises that fell through.

“We’ve gotten a couple intersections that were funded and then unfortunately became unfunded with some budget issues at the department,” said Hannah Cook, the NCDOT planning engineer for the area. “It’s been five or six years of planning, pursuing funding from multiple sources.”

When the new RAISE funding became available through the infrastructure law, Barrick and Webber had the same idea at about the same time. They agreed to work together, thinking that one plan to solve two towns’ problems might appeal to the grant’s decision makers.

Barrick and Webber gave their project a name that seemed fitting: PARTNERS (Partnership for Active Regional Transportation and Neighborhood Equity in Rutherfordton and Spindale).

The plan received bipartisan support in Congress. Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican, played a big role in getting the funding approved, vouching for the plan and writing letters to the US Department of Transportation, which was ultimately the final decision maker.

The total funding for the project will also include $1 million in separate federal funds, $2.3 million from state funding, and just over another $1 million in local funds.

Now, instead of trying to solve one problem at a time, the towns can take care of them all at once.

A $20 million federal grant helps two rural NC towns turn dreams into reality

A Spindale garage near the project area. Town leaders say the corridor project will help revitalize all the businesses in the area. (Michael McElroy/Cardinal & Pine)

“It was a jigsaw puzzle that we were working to kind of put the pieces together,” Webber said.

“And what the RAISE Grant allowed us to do is glue all of those jigsaw pieces together into one cohesive project.”

In a preview of what’s to come, Spindale completed a separate “streetscape” project in 2022 along several blocks of Main Street. Foot traffic for the businesses along this stretch has soared, Webber said.

The grant will allow the towns to replicate that success, Webber said.

Some serious dominoes

The funding has a firm deadline. The money has to be spent by 2027, Cook said, and the final construction completed in a decade, though it is likely it will be faster.

That’s a timeline beyond the wildest dreams of the previous approach.

“The piecemeal way doesn’t guarantee the next domino,” Mayor Jimmy Dancy of Rutherfordton said.

“You might get one domino on the front, you might get one domino in the middle, you might get one domino on the end, but they’re not all going to fall. This allowed all the dominoes to fall.”

Most of these dominoes are pretty big.

  • The completed project’s traffic flow improvements will save the town’s commuters more than $5.6 million over 20 years, the grant application said.
  • When everything is in place, if an ambulance leaves Spindale for an emergency, the traffic lights will stay green all the way down the corridor.
  • Buses will no longer have to make awkward, time-consuming turns on narrow streets or go blocks out of their way.
  • And with a new safe passage between the separate Thermal Belt Rail Trail and Purple-Martin Greenway, the bicyclists who took 100,000 trips on the trails in 2021, will be able to pull into either town for lunch or a drink.

Working together worked, the town leaders said.

“Neither one of us would’ve gotten any funding if it wasn’t for us going together on it,” Webber said.

Dancy agreed.

“Had we done it separately, we’d still be talking about it,” Dancy said.

The grant also frees the towns up to spend their own money in other ways.

“This will certainly help save the town of Spindale a lot of money that we can spend on other projects,” Bland said, “and will get this project completed in approximately a four-year span which may have otherwise taken 30 years.”

Dancy added: “Without funding you’re just dreaming. The grant takes that dreaming part out of it, and allows us to start talking about reality.”

‘We have to have good working relationships’

The towns’ sense of cooperation did not begin with the grant proposal, Barrick said.

They are both old mill towns in the cradle of the state’s textile industry.

Cooperation was built into the town’s survival plan.

A $20 million federal grant helps two rural NC towns turn dreams into reality

Rutherfordton factories created a new “Tanner” style of ladies garments that became popular across the country in the decade before World War II. (Michael McElroy/Cardinal & Pine)

“A lot of times we hear from folks outside of our area who ask, ‘How do you guys work so well together?,’” Barrick said. “Honestly we have to, if we want to be able to do better for our communities and do better for our citizens, we have to have good working relationships.”

As Barrick spoke, a fire engine blared its signal out on Main Street, heading south. It stopped briefly at the intersection just down from Rutherfordton’s town hall, then turned left on Charlotte Road, the beginning of the corridor set to be remade, heading toward Spindale.

It could have been a fire unit from either town, on its way to any fire or emergency in the area. Because the towns, though they have separate fire departments, work in tandem. A fire in Spindale is a fire in Rutherfordton.

“We’re two small towns with two small staffs in rural western North Carolina,” Barrick said.

“Our ability to act as if we are a major metropolitan is difficult. And so when challenging times come—and those challenging times can be storms, they can be pandemics, but they could be breakdowns—our ability to work together is critical.”

He added: “Does it matter what the side of the truck says when your house is on fire?”

The corridor project is monumental, and the federal funding made it all possible, and now each town’s fire department will soon have an easier time getting to a fire, whichever side of the McDonald’s it’s on.

But the display of two towns working together is another benefit of the grant and the process, Dancy said.

“If we can encourage our citizens to work together like we do,” Dancy said, “what a most enjoyable neighborhood we can have.”

He paused, then continued.

“Regardless of whether the sign says Spindale or Rutherfordton, it’s my neighbor.”

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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