Shirts at the Border Belt Farmers Museum in Fairmont.

Shirts at the Border Belt Farmers Museum in Fairmont.

ROWLAND — “When you’re talking about NAFTA,” said Robeson County Office of Economic Development Executive Director Channing Jones, “it depends on what lens you’re talking about it through.”

According to Jones, Robeson County’s economy was once based on tobacco, then shifted over to textiles, but now lacks a primary sector which provides an overwhelming majority of the jobs in the area.

Inside a former railway station smelling of tobacco, now the Border Belt Farmers Museum, behind a glass case there is a small plastic factory identified by a sticker on its maroon walls as South Robeson Knitting Inc. In another exhibit golf shirts and aged magazine pages line one section of wall. In another exhibit a softcover book thicker than Game of Thrones collects dust beside cigarette boxes.

Nothing is as tragicomic as an old catalog, in this case a Sears annual catalog, to be saved for one year from Jan. 31. This year’s look, according to the cover, from the distant year of 1993, recently 30 years ago. Within the catalogs on pages time and decay have lent a somewhat sepia haze, models pose in fashions so dated as to be cartoonish; the clothes are bright and belligerently heavy on the primary colors.

These catalogs were called wish books, reminisced Fairmont mayor Charles Kemp, and there was a time when the town’s Sears, owned and operated by Troy and Millie Miller, couldn’t keep the catalogs on the shelves because of high demand.

Every town had a Sears store, Kemp said, yet Rowland mayor Robert McDougald said he couldn’t remember if there were any brick and mortar Sears stores left. McDougald said this was a sign of the times.

The Fairmont town government operates out of the former Fairmont Hotel, constructed in 1929, the year the prosperous Roaring Twenties crashed headlong into the Great Depression.

“I can take you to five places around the town that used to be textile plants,” Kemp said.

He believes he heard the figure that 25,000 textile jobs were lots. NAFTA went into effect on the first day of 1994, and Sears stopped sending out their wish books in 1993. Two such books remain in the museum as a record of yesterday’s aspirational, idealized present.

Jones said there was no doubt NAFTA was detrimental to Robeson County’s textile base. In the past, profit margins became tighter because of overseas competition, as other countries could simply produce goods for cheaper.

Kemp was teaching at Fairmont High School in 1992, and with NAFTA a major issue, Kemp posed the question to his students, if they were business owner and it would be cheaper to operate their company in Mexico, would they do so?

“Invariably,” Kemp said, “the answer was yes.”

Kemp remembered the forum between the presidential candidates in the 1992 election. Unusually there were three, incumbent George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot, the last an independent, nonpartisan candidate. Kemp remembered Perot as a businessman with Texas Instruments.

“Ross Perot was the guy with all the money,” McDougald recalled.

Kemp recalled Perot’s famous statement a giant sucking sound would follow the passage of NAFTA, the sound of American jobs being lost to Canada and Mexico.

“I do know when the NAFTA law was passed, thousands of jobs were lost to Mexico and Canada,” Kemp said.

According to Jones the jobs did not leave to a single destination. Jobs departed the United States for South America, Mexico, India, and various Asian markets. He said employers outside the United States had significantly lower labor costs.

McDougald said NAFTA had been portrayed as a job-maker, though it turned out to be a job-taker, and the agreement had been portrayed as less impactful than it turned out to be. McDougald said these changes forced people to get smarter and understand computers to survive the new millennium’s digital world.

Jones said jobs now require more aptitude now, including factory jobs that involve working with expensive, high-tech equipment. The industry has changed in other ways, too, and hypothetically speaking a modern factory needs only 100 employees to accomplish the output of 500 employees as it did in the past.

“In the 80s and 90s, most of the jobs here were textile and manufacturing related,” said Rowland mayor Robert McDougald, himself a former purchasing manager for Waverly Mills in Laurinburg, “There were at least six that had lots of jobs.”

McDougald said the area still had some textile industry, but not nearly as much as the late twentieth century.

The lone remaining business in Rowland, Sophie’s Textile Plat, now under Delta Apparel, provides around 100 jobs. The larger manufacturers, including Waverly Mills and JP Stevens, provided 500-600 jobs.

Jones said successful American textile companies in Robeson County include Crew Boss, which manufactures flame-resistant clothing for firefighting.

“Those that weathered that particular storm,” Jones said, “seem to be doing particularly well.”

The Fairmont Department Store, formerly the Johnson and Cotton Company, a furniture store, is among the oldest remaining buildings in the town. Formerly it provided clothes for the entire family. The location was once much larger but was reduced to its current size, with half the building now an open-air restaurant.

Presently the Fairmont Department Store only sells menswear. According to owner Jay Capps the store stopped selling women’s clothing because there was no traffic and competition from the Internet. While men’s fashions remain relatively static, bringing in a new line of women’s clothes yearly was too great a burden for the store, and impossible in a small town by Capps’ reckoning.

Capps said the department store’s downturn began with NAFTA and the closure of the Fairmont textile industry around the turn of the millennium.

“NAFTA played a large part in the decline of textiles,” said Channing Jones, Executive Director of the Robeson County Office of Economic Development.

“From a labor issue, it was a bad thing, but from a consumer issue, it was a good thing,” Jones said.

Jones said NAFTA caused competition to rise tremendously and allowed American consumers, the largest market on the planet, to buy their goods at stores like Walmart for much, much cheaper.

“Once the NAFTA trade agreement went into effect,” McDougald said who took a job with FEMA after the textile industry declined, “All those jobs went overseas.”

From the front of the office, another Rowland government employee, Ted, interjected that his home state of New York had lost textile jobs to the South, before the South lost those textile jobs in turn. The subject soon cause their ire to bloom. McDougald said at one point Made in America meant something. Ted agreed.

Jones said traditionally a lot of industry migrated from the Northeast to the Southeast, adding this could be observed in several sectors. He said as agriculture became less laborious, rural areas began to need large employers for those workers.

Jones said Robeson County’s economy was now more diverse now, making it less venerable to shifts in the market, be they good or ill, and that international companies were reshoring because of the supply chain.

“It doesn’t matter if you can produce goods cheaper if you can’t get them to consumers,” he said.

Jones said COVID started a global conversation about how much critical manufacturing infrastructure must be kept in a country.

Before the pandemic, Jones explained, the business and manufacturing mentality was influenced by the just-in-time idea, that products should be produced and shipped as quickly as possible, and production and shipping should be minimized.

This approach created issues with personal protective equipment during the height of the pandemic, when PPE manufacturing and reserves were insufficient in the United States. According to Jones, now the American government has begun stockpiling PPE in storehouses.

According to Jones, current thinking is based on the idea of just-in-case, having easily accessible reserves and reshoring manufacturing facilities. This, explained Jones, has coincided with a shift towards long-term growth.

In the interval between his present and last tenures as mayor, Kemp worked at the Border Belt museum.

“Nobody ever came,” Kemp said, “That’s the saddest thing I can tell you about Fairmont.”

Jones, however, cited North Carolina’s growing economy as the third fastest-growing in the United States, which was acclaimed last year by Forbes as the best state to do business in.

“My guess is that we’re going to continue to evolve,” Jones said.

Copeland Jacobs can be reached via phone at 910-416-5165 or via email at [email protected]