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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM MOORESVILLE, N.C.

An Economic Engine Nobody Had Imagined

July 07, 2002|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Twenty years ago this fading mill town faced its own mortality. The minimum-wage jobs stitching blue denims were disappearing fast and when Mayor Joe Knox convened the first meeting of a new economic development board, his opening words sounded like an obituary: "We're getting ready to go broke."

But a combination of shrewd planning, blind luck and convenient geography turned Mooresville into an unlikely success story: a town that re-created itself as "Race City, USA," home to the nation's top stock-car teams. Now, with a facelift, identity transplant and economic transfusion, this nowhere town has such a prominent place on the map that it's even become a honeymoon destination.

"The only stipulation I made when I proposed was that Mooresville would be our first trip," said Missouri contractor Bob Kelton, a so-called "gear head" who led his accommodating bride through the high-tech palaces where Daytona 500 racers are built and fine-tuned. "For race fans, this is what Graceland is to Elvis fans. It's the Hollywood of NASCAR."

A decade ago, top NASCAR drivers and their teams began to alight here, drawn by favorable economics and geography. In their wake came jobs (half the town's workers have jobs in or related to motor sports), tourists and a construction boom that changed State Highway 150 from a country road with two gas stations into a thoroughfare of malls, racing museums, motels and restaurants.

The problem Mooresville faced when turn-of-the-century mills started closing is hardly unique. The Carolinas lost more than 100,000 mill jobs between 1991 and 2001. Last year alone, 62 plants closed, taking 23,000 textile jobs as the industry--once the economic foundation of the Carolinas--suffered through its worst year since the Great Depression.

In response to the loss of jobs, the South went hunting for replacement industries, many of them automotive. Over the last decade, Honda, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz went to Alabama; BMW to South Carolina; Nissan to Tennessee. In April, Alabama won out over four other Southern states for a $1-billion Hyundai Motor Co. plant that will employ 1,500 people.

But attracting new industry did not come cheap. Mercedes-Benz, for example, got $253 million in state tax incentives to put down roots in Vance, Ala.--$168,000 for each of the 1,500 jobs the plant created. Mississippi got Nissan's $1-billion truck factory after offering a $300-million package, including $80 million to train workers.

What is unusual in Mooresville's revival is that the effort was spearheaded by a town, not a state, and they didn't have to buy the jobs. And that the motor sports industry landed here by a stroke of good luck and wasn't the type of industry townspeople wanted to attract.

"When the first race team moved in, then others followed, a lot of people thought we were just getting noise; a bunch of greasy mechanics and junkyard garages," recalled Dick Morosa, a volunteer at the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame off a street named Gasoline Alley. "Well, it turns out these people go to church and their shops are cleaner than any restaurant you ever ate in."

Knox saw the curtain coming down on the textile era in the early 1970s. He got the federal government to build a wastewater treatment plant and the state to provide grants. The town leased 753 acres off Highway 150 and created two industrial parks with infrastructure, paying off the notes when plots in the parks were bought by developers or NASCAR teams.

NASCAR's top drivers--51 of the 58 Winston Cup teams live and work in Mooresville, or within a two-hour drive--were enticed to the town by easy access to three interstate highways, one of South Carolina's lowest property tax rates, plenty of land in industrial parks, and a good lifestyle on the banks of Lake Norman, where million-dollar mansions now are as commonplace as an order of ribs at the Sweetfire Bar-B-Q.

"Things have changed in town with all the growth," said Jack Moore, who has worked at the hardware store on Main Street for 56 years. "Traffic's worse, property's gone up. But we've still got a small-town flavor and you don't hear people complain. I don't know where we'd be without NASCAR. It saved Mooresville."

Small-town Mooresville may still be, but with a touch of Disney. Restaurants put stock cars on their roofs to attract customers, streets have names like Performance Road and Speedway Drive, tour operators shuttle tourists to the "garage mahal"--built by the late racer Dale Earnhardt and run by his son--and the police chief is looking for a sponsor to buy his department's 30 cruisers, to be painted in the wild colors of stock cars.

With NASCAR's popularity soaring, Mooresville's timing was perfect to get a slice of the bonanza. NASCAR says its licensed clothing sales alone total more than $100 million a year and top drivers have become national celebrities with NBA-style incomes. Motor sports is a $1-billion industry in North Carolina, the state says, with $750 million of it generated in and around Mooresville.

At one new business in town, a training school for pit crews, Chuck Homrighouse was lifting weights. A computer security analyst, he moved to Mooresville from upstate New York and signed up for the school's $1,700, five-week course--the first step toward a career on the racing circuit.

"I figured all the students would be local guys," said Homrighouse, 36. "But look at the license plates in the parking lot. They're from Michigan, California, Illinois--all over. Ten years ago, I'd never heard of Mooresville. Now, if you want to do NASCAR for a living, this is where you've got to come."

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