When Tim Barth arrived in 1994 as the new town manager, Spindale seemed an ideal spot for a young man with big plans and a master’s degree in public administration from UNC-Chapel Hill. This town of four thousand souls was quiet and charming, with good weather, inexpensive housing, safe neighborhoods, and strong, reliable revenue from its half-dozen mills.
Ten years later, things have changed. Barth has watched $30 million evaporate from Spindale’s tax base, the town’s workforce has been cut by 24 percent, and plugging new holes in the budget gets harder every year. When the Stonecutter mill closed, Spindale lost $280,000 a year in sewer fees. The town has 850,000 square feet of vacant industrial floor space that may never be filled. And, because 30 percent of the town’s adult workers do not have a high-school diploma, attracting new employers is a tough sell.
When you ask Tim Barth if Spindale will survive, his answer is a firm, unequivocal “yes.” But when you ask him how, he thinks long and hard, and says, “I don’t know.”
Barth was on hand to discuss all of this when the Tar Heel Bus Tour made a stop in Spindale last May. Each year, the bus tour winds its way through the North Carolina countryside, acquainting new Carolina faculty members and administrators with the state’s farms, businesses, and barbecue joints. As the tour group stood with James Cowan in the empty Stonecutter plant, hearing his story, they were no longer tourists, along for the ride. The force of the storm became real.
Barth remembers it this way: “When they walked through that mill, through those big empty rooms, it was overwhelming. I don’t think they will ever forget what they saw in this town.”