(Article by Evan Hoopfer, Triangle Business Journal)  Natalie Hawkins vividly remembers the first time she visited Moore County. She was a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill staying at the Pine Crest Inn and felt like she entered another world.

“I thought I had stepped back in time,” Hawkins says. “I thought I was in the middle of a Norman Rockwell painting in living color.”

Moore County is still considered a golf mecca and home to many retirees, but families relocating to the area – especially with Fort Bragg half an hour away – have injected youth and a different dynamic into the community.

Word is getting out about Moore County. The tri-cities area of Pinehurst, Southern Pines and Aberdeen was named the No. 1 micropolitan area in North Carolina earlier this year, according to a study by economic research firm Policom Corp. Moore County’s population grew 13.5 percent between 2010-2020, according to U.S. Census data, faster than the 9.5 percent growth clip for the state overall during that time frame.

Community leaders such as Hawkins are charged with the balance of growing while maintaining the county’s charm.

Hawkins took over as executive director of Moore County Partners in Progress, the county’s economic development arm, in May 2021 but is no stranger to the Sandhills. She worked for the Village of Pinehurst for more than 20 years.

What’s the biggest surprise in how Moore County has changed? The impact of the Fort Bragg realignment and the influx of military into our community. When those changes were announced several years ago, that the Army was going to close some bases and move some operations to Fort Bragg, we kept on hearing, ‘This is going to affect Moore County.’ What really happens is the military community is such a tight network that when they get stationed at Fort Bragg, they come to live here because of our schools, health care and great quality of life – the word gets out.

What businesses would you like to attract? We’re looking at two key sectors to focus efforts on right now. The first is the golf cluster, with the U.S. Golf Association’s announcement that it’s going to put Golf House Pinehurst HQ2 here, and the golf-related businesses that have a presence here. The other area is medical and life sciences. We’ve got phenomenal health care facilities here – FirstHealth, Pinehurst Surgical Clinic, Pinehurst Medical Clinic, the Reid Heart Center, and we just broke ground on a new $65 million cancer center which you don’t see in rural North Carolina. We think businesses in those two sectors would be particularly attracted to this area.

Outside of the three main towns, where do you see the most opportunity for growth? Carthage. Hands down, Carthage. There’s a lot of growth going on in Vass, too, but I think Carthage is going to grow the most next because you can get on 501 up to Sanford and it’s 20 minutes closer to Raleigh than Pinehurst is. Vass is growing because of its proximity to Fort Bragg. If you look at where housing is really booming, you’re seeing a lot of housing growth in Vass. The 15-501 corridor is slated by the DOT to be four-laned, so once that is four-laned I think Carthage is going to experience a tremendous amount of growth.

What’s the timeline for making that road four lanes? Right now, everything’s after the U.S. Open in 2024.

In 10 years, how will your county be different? We’re going to have improved road infrastructure for sure. I think that the N.C. Department of Transportation will have made those improvements to 15-501 and some improvements to U.S. 1. There are a lot of road projects on the horizon. I think Pinehurst is going to have a lot more attention because of the U.S. championships and with every U.S. Open, it just opens the door further and further to the world of who we are in Moore County. Ten years from now we’ll have a lot more residents and the growth from the Southern Pines-Pinehurst area will go more north, so you’re going to see Pinehurst and Carthage coming together.

Do you think Moore County Regional Airport will have commercial service by then? I would love to say that Moore County Airport will have commercial service. I think with the recurring U.S. Opens and the USGA headquartered here, I think there’s demand for it today. I just don’t think the commercial airlines are willing to foot that bill. So, maybe there’s a boutique airline. That’s what I see. I see a boutique airline’s commercial service running back and forth to Raleigh and Charlotte.

What keeps you up at night? The fear that community leaders or business leaders will make decisions that may be right in the short term, but are not going to be benefiting long term to our community. Decisions about supporting transportation improvements that are needed, and although they may be controversial today, it’s really what the community needs long term. I look to the future, and I can see the changes on the horizon, and they’re not just changes from the standpoint of growth in the amount of people, but we’re changing as a community in terms of demographics. We are attracting younger people to this community. People say, ‘Pinehurst is a retirement community.’ It is no longer a retirement community.