They want to leave to find opportunity, adventure and success, but the millennials in Franklin, whether they are natives or newcomers, are now finding all that and more closer to home.
It’s hard not to notice a renewed sense of energy in town lately with more young people getting involved in the community either by starting businesses, promoting local initiatives and running for public office in Franklin. This is a major shift for a town that has long been known as a quiet retirement community. So what’s causing the swing toward a younger audience?
“I’ve found opportunity here,” said Matt Bateman, a young Franklin businessman. “I’m an entrepreneur at heart, and that is where Franklin’s growth is going — more people are taking a leap of faith in a community that supports them.”
According to the U.S. census numbers, the 25-34 age group in Macon County has increased by more than a third from 2010 to 2014 population estimates and the 35-44 age group makes up another 10 percent of the population. While still in the minority, a groundswell of young residents are taking an active roll in preserving what they like about the town while trying to build upon it.
Brandon McMahan, a 33-year-old elementary school teacher in Macon County, just got elected to the town board of aldermen, and he’s happy to be part of the exciting change in his hometown.
“I definitely feel that the people of my generation are becoming more involved in Franklin. There’s no denying it, when you look around and see all of the young people who are deciding to stay in Franklin, to raise their families, open their businesses and plant their feet here,” he said. “It’s extremely exciting. It’s a beautiful thing and makes me quite proud that my hometown is becoming more and more a place that people are proud to call home, and are excited to be a part of.”
Finding the ability to make a living is important, but work isn’t everything for the millennial generation. Finding a balance of work and play is also a deciding factor when younger people start looking for a place to settle down and raise a family. Macon County’s natural resources and access to outdoor recreation give people a high quality of life while also allowing them business opportunities.
The shift hasn’t happened overnight though. It’s been a gradual change. Younger downtown business owners have moved in, high-tech industries have brought in younger professionals and more people are leaving the cities for mountain life, but two recent events have really opened people’s eyes to Franklin’s future.
On Oct. 30, Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine announced that Franklin was named the ‘Top Small Town” of 2015, which gives the town a lot of great regional publicity for its outdoor opportunities.
Secondly, the residents of Franklin made it clear they wanted younger voices in leadership roles when they voted to elect McMahan and Adam Kimsey to the Franklin Board of Aldermen. The two 30-somethings were able to unseat the two incumbents — Joyce Handley, 74, and Verlin Curtis, 80, — and significantly reduce the average age on the town board.
Everyone agrees it’s an exciting time for Franklin — feeling like they’re right on the cusp of something great.
Times they are a’changing
Bob Scott, mayor of Franklin, moved to Franklin in 1967 for a job opportunity with Nantahala Power and Lighting Company. Even though the job wouldn’t last forever, his love for Franklin has never wavered. He doesn’t see himself ever wanting to leave these mountains.
“At the time, it was a town time had sort of forgotten,” Scott said. “But it was one of the things I loved about it — it was like walking back into the 1940s or 50s.”
Scott says most of the change he’s seen throughout the years has been positive — more cultural diversity among the population, a more diverse economy and more openness to new and innovative ideas. High-technology industries like Drake Enterprises and other entrepreneurial businesses have attracted a new demographic of residents to Franklin.
“The secret is to find your niche here and capitalize on it,” Scott said.
That’s exactly what Cory McCall and Rob Gasbarro have done with their business Outdoor 76 in downtown Franklin. McCall grew up in Franklin and got a degree in hospitality and tourism from Western Carolina University in 2004. Realizing the importance of Macon County’s natural resources, he and Gasbarro opened their outdoors retail store five years ago. At the time, Franklin was in the midst of a recession and struggling to fill the downtown storefronts, but now there has been an influx of new and diverse businesses.
“If someone had said five years ago that Main Street would look like it does now, I wouldn’t have believed them,” McCall said.
Even at 33, McMahan remembers Franklin before big box stores like Walmart and Kmart moved in and he’s seen many mom and pop stores go out of business. He’s seen the passage of laws allowing alcohol sales and he’s seen Franklin get its first brewery this year.
“I’ve seen a lot of Main Street businesses come and go and I’ve seen Main Street begin to flourish and develop a new identity — an identity that I believe appeals to a younger, more modern demographic at times, but that still adheres to the expectations that we all have for what makes Franklin great,” he said.
While Scott said he is happy to see positive growth and change in Franklin, he hopes the town never loses its unique charm and that some of the past can be preserved since it’s what brings many people to the area.
Bateman hopes the Top Small Town designation from Blue Ridge Outdoors will shine a brighter spotlight on the outdoor recreational opportunities that have always been available in Macon County.
“We’re an outdoor town smack dab in the middle of the Nantahala National Forest,” he said. “We have to figure out how we can take advantage of all our natural resources without abusing them.”
While some people can’t see how outdoor recreation tourism can translate into more jobs and industry for Macon County, Bateman sees plenty of opportunity for larger outdoor businesses and perhaps even a recreational manufacturer of some sort.
McCall hopes the new title will spur more marketing of Franklin as an outdoors destination to bring in more tourism dollars. The town is already an Appalachian Trail Community and is an important stopover for thru-hikers.
Franklin, like many small outdoor towns in the region, is always looking for ways to set itself apart.
“The award is a big deal for us and we’ll get a direct impact, but we need to use this as a launching pad to continue to showcase all we have here,” he said.
Owners of Outdoor 76, Rathskeller Coffee Haus & Pub, Lazy Hiker Brewing, Crabtree General Store & Coffee Vault and The Bowery Restaurant are a few examples of a budding, younger generation of business owners in downtown Franklin. They are hardworking, social media savvy and community-minded — a combination that has proven successful for them.
“What we’re seeing is a good thing — there are several new businesses in town and most of those are a new generation of entrepreneurs,” said Tommy Jenkins, economic development director for Macon County. “Every community needs a new shot of adrenaline from time to time, so this is an exciting time for Franklin.”
McCall said Outdoor 76 recently celebrated its five-year anniversary. During that time they’ve experienced tremendous growth and support. After year three, they were able to expand their business from 1,600 square feet to 5,000 square feet. Not only do they offer outdoors gear but the shop has a bar in the back with at least 12 craft beers on tap at all times. McCall said he wanted more than a business — he wanted a place of community. When people come off the street and sit down for a drink together, they meet other residents and they chat with tourists and make them feel welcome.
Noah McIntee, head brewer at Lazy Hiker Brewing, has found the same to be true just down the street. Lazy Hiker, which opened in May in the former town hall building on Main Street, is Franklin’s first craft brewery.
“It’s been good — the community has been very responsive,” McIntee said. “We’re trying to create awesome beers for a broad market and a place for the community to gather.”
The new brewery also offers additional nightlife for Franklin with an outdoor stage for live music. McIntee moved his family to Franklin from Buffalo, New York, to take the head brewer job at Lazy Hiker. His wife Jennifer McIntee also started her own business on Main Street — Beyond Bending Yoga.
“It’s a great environment to be in — we have a lot of natural resources and we’re easily accessible to different markets,” he said. “Things just continue to build upon each other.”
Tim Crabtree, owner of Motor Company Grill in downtown Franklin, recently opened Crabtree General Store just across from the Macon County Courthouse. Just like the old town hall building was turned into a brewery, Crabtree turned a vacant bank building into an old-timey general store with a full coffee bar.
The store offers local honey and jams, classic toys and candy. The old bank, which has been vacant for six years, was completely renovated and of course no southern general store would be complete without a wrap-around porch and rocking chairs. He says it’s a great time to own a business downtown.
“Businesses in Franklin are growing, and I see a lot of new faces getting involved,” Crabtree said. “Right now we’re moving into the slower season but there’s still a lot of people on Main Street.”
From what he sees, the tide is turning for small towns all over the country, with the emphasis on supporting small businesses and shopping local to improve the local economy.
It’s not just about being successful for these up and coming leaders — it’s about making Franklin successful for future generations. Instead of complaining and being frustrated that things weren’t progressing the way they wanted them to, they got involved to make it happen.
“It’s hard not to notice the shift in priorities and a shift in vision lately,” Bateman said. “I’ve been a big proponent of my hometown and it just takes getting involved to make those changes.”
Bateman helped started the Venture Local Franklin, a grassroots initiative to encourage people to shop local and invest in their community. Venture Local Franklin has so far put together 27 cash mob events at local businesses to help boost their revenue and so far they’ve been extremely successful in raising awareness and money.
“People may think it doesn’t help but it does help — it helps people pay their lease,” he said. “It also helps people better understand what options they have for shopping at home before they buy online.”
He also helps promote Franklin online through his website www.stayandplayinthesmokies.com. If someone searches for the hashtag #FranklinForward on social media, they can see a host of positive news going on in town.
“Franklin forward is a phrase we’re all buying into — there’s a lot of good content about our town being shared,” Bateman said.
McCall said Outdoor 76 has always tried to incorporate a sense of community into its business. It is actively involved in promoting the town by encouraging people to vote in the “Top Small Town” competition and participating in community events.
One thing he’s noticed is that the younger generation of business owners has finally accepted that if they want things to change and they have the resources to make it happen, they need to step up to do it.
“We would get frustrated because we wanted to see things change, but we realized we needed to be the ones to lead it,” McCall said.
By the numbers
Macon County’s population by age group in 2010
• 20-24: 2,450
• 25-34: 2,227
• 35-49: 3,622
• 50-64: 4,347
• Total population: 33,922
Macon County’s population by age group in 2014
• 20-24: 1,630
• 25-34: 3,260
• 35-44: 3,440
• 45-54: 4,628
• Total population: 33,875
SOURCE: US Census data
Outdoor recreation economics
• $19.2 billion in consumer spending
• $1.3 billion in state and local tax revenue
• $5.6 billion in wages and salaries
• 192,000 direct jobs
• At least 48 percent of North Carolina residents participate in outdoor recreation each year.
• $646 billion in consumer spending
• $39.7 billion in state and local tax revenue
• $39.9 billion in federal ta revenue
• 6.1 million direct American jobs
SOURCE: Outdoor Industry Association