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Ask the people of Rocky Mount what they think of the DMV and you hear one word a lot: ‘Exciting’

Rocky Mount rejoices over news DMV headquarters is moving to town

The state's decision to move the Division of Motor Vehicles headquarters from Raleigh to Rocky Mount is welcome news to the struggling city and to Eastern North Carolina as a whole, residents say.
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The state's decision to move the Division of Motor Vehicles headquarters from Raleigh to Rocky Mount is welcome news to the struggling city and to Eastern North Carolina as a whole, residents say.

The planned move of the Division of Motor Vehicles headquarters from Raleigh to Rocky Mount next year is causing angst among its more than 400 employees, who must decide whether to make the longer commute or look for another job.

Some Raleigh and Wake County politicians also worry about the departure’s impact on Southeast Raleigh, a part of the city that has struggled economically.

But an hour east, the Council of State’s approval this week to move the DMV into the former home of the Hardee’s hamburger chain on North Church Street was eagerly anticipated.

“We’re very excited about it,” said David Combs, a real estate broker who has been mayor of Rocky Mount since 2007. “The prospects of 400 or 500 people coming to work every day at the DMV is a great opportunity for Eastern North Carolina, not just Rocky Mount.”

Supporters of the move say despite the hardship it may cause employees, Raleigh won’t miss the DMV jobs, which pay an average of $43,183 a year, according to the agency. The Triangle’s diverse economy is still roaring, they say, and the state will eventually sell the nearly 6-acre complex on New Bern Avenue to a developer who will build something that will create jobs and generate taxes.

But Rocky Mount needs these jobs, supporters say. The Rocky Mount metropolitan area, consisting of Nash and Edgecombe counties, has the highest unemployment rate in North Carolina, at 5 percent, according to the state Commerce Department.

That’s a big improvement from its most recent peak of 14.8 percent unemployment in February 2010, during the recession. But since then the metro area’s workforce has shrunk 11 percent, to 64,146 in December. In contrast, the Raleigh metro area’s workforce, which doesn’t include Durham and Chapel Hill, has grown nearly 23 percent during that time, to more than 712,000.

Struggling downtown

The state’s decision to move a few hundred back-office jobs in Rocky Mount is no small thing, said David Farris, president and CEO of the Rocky Mount Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Both from an economic standpoint and a symbolic standpoint, it’s huge for us,” Farris said. “And we’re very excited about it.”

Nowhere are this city’s struggles more evident than in what was the main retail district downtown. When the tobacco and textile factories were going full tilt, downtown shops along Main Street, overlooking the railroad tracks that bisect town, were full and well-lit. Now, block after block, store windows are empty, some even boarded up.

One business that has survived downtown is Central Cafe, two miles down Church Street from the DMV’s new home. The restaurant, which features hamburgers and hot dogs served on paper plates and wax paper, has been downtown for nearly 90 years, the last 32 of them on the corner of South Church Street and Western Avenue, said manager Matthew Johnson.

Johnson, a native, has managed the cafe for 10 years and says he doesn’t notice much change in the fortunes of Rocky Mount. The DMV would be a welcome addition, he said.

“It’s going to be down the street, so it’ll probably be good,” he said. “Anything to bring more people into Rocky Mount would help.”

A few blocks away, Kimberly Thigpen, owner of The Bath Place shop on Northeast Main Street, is more excited about DMV’s arrival, and says others are, too. Thigpen opened her shop selling handmade soaps and creams seven years ago on the north end of the downtown shopping district and says she’s been able to hang with help from a wholesale business and sales through Triangle Whole Foods stores.

Last fall, the city opened the Rocky Mount Events Center a block away from Thigpen’s shop, with meeting rooms and an arena for sporting events and concerts. That has brought in people from out of town for basketball tournaments and other events.

“But there’s still a lot to be desired in terms of foot traffic,” Thigpen said, and DMV might help. “It’ll be great to have more activity close to the downtown area.”

Unanimous decision

The Council of State, consisting of Gov. Roy Cooper and nine other statewide elected officials, approved the DMV lease on Tuesday without discussion or dissent. Some have accused Cooper of orchestrating the DMV’s move to please his friends back home in Nash County, where he was born and raised and practiced law.

“Cooper, I feel, made promises to his constituents down east, and he has now kept them by bringing jobs in the form of the DMV to his home area, but at what cost?” said Debra Dunston, a 22-year DMV employee from Raleigh who loathes the prospects of a two-hour round-trip commute to Rocky Mount. “He has made and kept his promise, and as voters we will make and keep our promise to make him a one-term governor.”

But if the Democratic governor voted to approve the move, it was Republican budget writers in the General Assembly who set in motion the process that led to it.

The North Carolina state Division of Motor Vehicles plans to move hundreds of workers and its headquarters from its long-time home on New Bern Avenue in Raleigh to Rocky Mount.

DMV can’t stay on New Bern Avenue, because of asbestos and fire safety problems that state officials have determined are too expensive to fix. Years ago, the agency explored building a new complex on land the state owns at Poole Road and the Beltline, but the General Assembly never allocated money for new DMV buildings there or anywhere else.

Instead, last year’s budget included a provision that directed the DMV to seek proposals to lease space from private landlords in Wake or surrounding counties. Nash qualifies, but barely; it just touches Wake near Zebulon.

“The legislature wrote the rules directing the move, and the Departments of Administration and Transportation followed the process laid out in the law to select the lowest bidder,” Cooper’s spokesman Ford Porter wrote in an email. “Where the governor grew up wasn’t a factor in the bid selection.”

Farris, the Rocky Mount chamber president, says the day he heard about the directive to the DMV from the General Assembly he drove by the former Hardee’s headquarters on his way to a meeting.

“I pulled into the parking lot and said, ‘Why not?’” he said.

Hamburgers, then a bank

Hardee’s began building the complex in the 1960s, with what is now a six-story office tower and five single-story buildings for storage and manufacturing. After Hardee’s was acquired by a California company and moved out, Centura Bank moved in, converting most of the single-story buildings into offices. A space the size of a ballroom where the bank trained employees was once where Hardee’s made hamburgers, Farris said.

After it was acquired by RBC and then PNC, the bank decamped for Raleigh, leaving the entire campus empty. In 2016, David Hicks and Scott McLaughlin bought the complex and eight vacant adjoining acres for $5.4 million, according to county records.

Hicks and McLaughlin had some interest from tenants who wanted to lease one or two buildings, but they held out for someone who would take the whole thing. Meanwhile, they have kept the heat and air conditioning running for more than two years.

“You have to keep the air moving all the time,” said Robin Roseberry Anders, a broker with NAI Carolantic Realty, which handled the property. “You can destroy a building in a summer with the humidity in North Carolina.”

The owners will spend about a year and millions of dollars getting the buildings ready for DMV, Anders said. The agency was very specific about its needs, providing several pages of specifications right down to the sizes of individual offices.

“This will not be a paint and carpet kind of deal,” Anders said.

The expected costs of the renovations are reflected in the rent DMV will pay, an average of $2,053,635 a year for the first 15 years, the lowest of any of the proposals the agency received. If the General Assembly includes the rent money in this year’s budget, the DMV will begin moving in the summer of 2020.

Triangle Tyre Co. will bring 800 jobs over five years to rural Edgecombe County to work in its first manufacturing plants in the United States, after $152 million in state and local financial enticements were approved Tuesday.

Time for a comeback?

News of DMV’s move coincides with other big projects getting started in the Rocky Mount area, said Norris Tolson, head of the Carolinas Gateway Partnership, a regional economic development agency. This spring, CSX railroad plans to begin construction on the Carolina Connector, a train and truck transfer center, Tolson said, at about the same time that Chinese tire maker Triangle Tyre Co. will break ground on a manufacturing complex that will eventually employ 800.

“This town right now is absolutely busting with energy and vibrancy,” Tolson said. “There’s a lot of things going on now.”

When people talk about a possible comeback for Rocky Mount, they often mention Rocky Mount Mills, the 200-year-old cotton mill and village on the Tar River a three-minute drive from the DMV campus. Capitol Broadcasting Company, which turned the American Tobacco Company’s complex in Durham into a showplace of offices and restaurants, bought Rocky Mount Mills in 2007 and is following a similar formula here.

So far, the company has renovated and leased more than 55 village houses and turned the mill buildings into 68 apartments, an event space and 120,000 square feet of offices. There are also three restaurants, a bottle shop and five small breweries.

Offices full of state bureaucrats may not have the same cool factor as a restored brick cotton mill where people make craft beer, but Evan Covington Chavez, the project’s development manager, called the DMV’s pending arrival “exciting” in part because it’s so close by. And like others, Chavez said there’s symbolic value in having the state invest in the region this way.

“I think it shines a light on Eastern North Carolina in a way that’s positive,” she said.

Railroad behemoth CSX announced in 2016 it would make Rocky Mount an East Coast hub for shipping and receiving cargo containers. The company will build the Carolina Connector, an “intermodal terminal”. The terminal will draw and reroute containers

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.
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