East Spencer, China Grove selected to participate in statewide rural community initiative

Published 12:01 am Sunday, May 29, 2022

Elisabeth Strillacci & Ben Stansell

Both China Grove and East Spencer were selected along with 17 other towns by the state’s Department of Commerce to participate in a Capacity Building Program that, when completed, will help position each town to qualify for significant grant funding.

The Department of Commerce has partnered with Appalachian State University’s Walker College of Business to create the Rural Community Capacity program, also known as RC2. The program includes professional development, including four classes that run through October, technical assistance, and finally implementation grants.

East Spencer

East Spencer’s town administrator, Michael Douglas, was in Boone last week for two days to attend the introduction to the program and the initial classes.

“The time at Appalachian this week was basically an introduction to the program, what capacity building means, what the goals are and how the classes can help,” he said. “And then we did have presentations on entrepreneurship, including information from several communities on how they have drawn entrepreneurs in and how they determined those businesses can best benefit their communities.”

There are “a lot of pieces to this puzzle in terms of the classes,” Douglas added. “But my understanding is once you complete the courses, you are eligible to apply for the grant funds, and it appears there are not many obstacles to actually getting the grant.”

The grant money comes from the Commerce Department’s Rural Economic Development Division through the new Rural Transformation Grant Fund, which in turn comes from $48 million the state has earmarked to help economically disadvantaged communities.

If East Spencer receives the grant, Douglas said he hopes the town’s Board of Aldermen will agree with his goal of using at least part of the money to create a three- to five-year strategic plan focusing on the overall growth in town — industrial, commercial and residential.

“Part of that is also creating a downtown district, which we do not have,” he said. There are currently no locations in mind, he said, “because we are at the very beginning of this process, but we could have a plan in place in months for developing economic prosperity, for how East Spencer can and should look.”

Douglas said personally, participating in the program lets him do what he loves. “For me, it’s all about improving the quality of life for the residents of East Spencer. If you couple this with the $23 million we’ve gotten for the water and sewer improvements, which will lower costs for residents, we’re looking very good over the next three to five years.”

China Grove

Joining Douglas in Boone last week were China Grove Councilwoman Cheryl Sheets and Assistant Town Manager Franklin Gover, the town’s two representatives in the program.

Sheets said applying for the RC2 program wasn’t on the town’s radar until a few weeks ago, when Assistant Secretary for Rural Development Kenny Flowers visited for the groundbreaking of Macy’s new facility. Flowers encouraged the town to apply for the grant and Gover submitted an application that night, just hours before the deadline.

Gover said they “hit the ground running” at Appalachian State last week. The first two days of the program focused on familiarizing members of the cohort with one another and what the program will help the municipalities achieve.

Sheets said she expects to learn ways China Grove can embrace and harness the growth headed its way.

“Knowing that Macy’s is coming and growth is coming to China Grove, I’m excited about the training program and what they’re offering,” Sheets said. “It’s going to give us proven economic development strategies to help us prepare and plan for our growth so that citizens can get the maximum benefit.”

China Grove’s participation in the program could be a major benefit the town’s downtown area.

“A lot of this program is understanding how to work with your downtown stakeholders and engage with them and understand their needs,” Gover said. “That way you can work well together and help assist them, ultimately leading to the revitalization of your downtown.”

Once they complete the course, Gover said the town will be in a good position to apply for grants in the fall, including a downtown revitalization grant from the state’s $48 million rural transformation grant fund. China Grove could receive up to $950,000 from the fund, Gover said. That money would help China Grove make downtown improvements, such as streetscaping, landscaping and bolster infrastructure.

Utilizing $55,000 in funding from the Cabarrus-Rowan Metropolitan Planning Organization, China Grove is currently partnering with planning and design company Kimley-Horn to conduct a main street corridor study. The town will initiate the study at its Block Party on June 4 from 4-7 p.m. at Community Park. Representatives from Kimley-Horn will be in attendance to gather feedback from citizens to help jumpstart the study.

The block party will also feature fun and games, including a magician on site, family-friendly activities and food and ice cream for sale. A China Grove fire truck will be on site to keep everyone cool, so event attendees are encouraged to wear swimming suits and bring a towel.

The results of the main street corridor study, Gover said, will be helpful when the town applies for the downtown revitalization grant.

“There are multiple grant opportunities coming up in the fall,” he said. “And so participating in this program is basically us demonstrating that we have the capacity and we are learning the best practices to implement the grants that we need.”


Leaders from towns selected to participate in the program gather. Photo courtesy of Appalachian State University’s Walker College of Business