Archived Opinion

Investing in what’s best about WNC

op frWhile I was living in Elizabethtown in southeastern North Carolina in 1988, Walmart opened a brand-new store. Most everyone was excited, and how could you blame them? The retail giant hadn’t yet taken over the world, although it was already by then the largest retailer in the U.S. But how could you argue with the cheap prices all the one-stop variety, especially in an area that was poverty-stricken as textile mills were shuttering their operations?

Wallace Leinwand had become a professional acquaintance when I was a newcome to town, a trusted source of town history and an expert on civic affairs of the community. He owned a family clothing store on the main street of town (a quick search on the Internet finds that it has survived), a typical department store of the type common in most small towns. 

But way back then, over lunch at a downtown burger joint where I was an eager reporter at my third newspaper job, I remember him bemoaning the coming of the huge discount retailer. I can’t recall his exact words, but he was wise enough to see the writing on the wall, savvy enough to realize that Walmart and other national big boxes would bring irrevocable change to the main streets of small-town America.

Wallace Leinwand nailed it. But the Walmart phenomenon wouldn’t have happened if Americans had not already began abandoning their downtowns for malls and two-store shopping centers in the suburbs. At my second newspaper job in Zebulon, they built a Food Lion and a Belks out on the bypass, along with a few fastfood restaurants. Downtown businesses suffered. 

The boarded up main street stores of many small Southern towns remain their most striking feature. In many places that change predicted by my friend in Elizabethtown has been more like a bad nightmare. 

But not here, not in the mountains of Western North Carolina. As places across the country try many different ideas to breathe life back into their downtowns, ours are thriving. As my wife and I strolled up and down Main Street  this past Saturday night, I was reminded once again of how much I enjoy downtown Waynesville, Sylva, Bryson City, Franklin, Canton, Highlands and Cashiers. 

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And at this time of year, as we rush through the holidays, I try not to take things for granted — like the stores, galleries, restaurants and pubs that make these downtowns so fun. Yep, I’ll drop a few dollars at the big box this holiday season, but I’ll probably spend more at our downtown establishments. For me, shopping on main street feels more like making an investment in what’s best about this region. 

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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