By Russ Lay on June 30, 2018

A rendering of the repurposed Rocky Mount mill.

Usually, our travel-related features focus on nearby destinations with an eye toward events, activities, entertainment and, of course, food and drink.

This edition takes a slightly different twist as we combine the recreational attributes of our featured locale with a subject critical to northeastern North Carolina — jobs and the revitalization of cities.

Before the Age of Globalization, regional cities such as Rocky Mount, Washington, Greenville, Kinston and even Elizabeth City had thriving agricultural and manufacturing economies.

Tobacco, cotton and peanuts led the way in rural agriculture, but the cities were also home to manufacturers who supplied Detroit with fan belts, tires and other parts. Textiles, chemicals, paper products were also part of the economic landscape.

As those jobs migrated to other countries, the region’s cities went into decline. Even agriculture has suffered as North Carolina farms find it difficult to compete with larger, corporate-owned operations that dominate production nationally.

In the 21st century, we find our towns experimenting in numerous ways to revitalize their communities with new industries, ranging from tourism to pharmaceuticals.

And in one part of Rocky Mount, a business incubator focused on one of America’s fastest-growing economic sectors — craft beer.

Sebastian Wolfrum

Many people would be envious of Sebastian Wolfrum’s job. Born and raised in Germany, Wolfrum earned certifications as a brewer and maltster before arriving in the United States in 2005 to become director of a large North Carolina brewery.

He is now the executive brewmaster for Rocky Mount Mills, working under the auspices of Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting, owners of WRAL-TV in Raleigh, which bought the now 200-year-old cotton mill in 2007.

Capitol’s CEO Jim Goodmon and his son, Michael, visited the site at the request of Rocky Mount officials, who were afraid the old mill, which churned out Confederate Army uniforms in the Civil War, would be sold and torn down.

The Goodmon family has been instrumental in the revitalization of downtown Durham, and Michael Goodmon has been overseeing success stories there, such as the American Tobacco Campus and American Tobacco Underground, where restaurants, start-up business ventures and housing have created a thriving community.

Capitol’s vision for Rocky Mount is similar to what has happened in Durham.

When completed, Rocky Mount Mills will have 300,000 square feet of office space and apartment lofts inside the old mill.

In the adjoining neighborhood, the small houses once occupied by mill workers have been renovated and are being sold as primary residences or held as rentals for craft beer tourists, whom officials hope will flock to the incubator.

The company is also building 42 new houses within walking distance of the campus that will also be targeted to the tourism market.

Wolfram already owned a consulting and malting business that works with craft brewers, as well as the Bull Durham microbrewery, which operates a small microbrewery at the Durham Bulls minor league baseball stadium and is owned by a subsidiary of Capitol, and also brews beer at the Rocky Mount incubator.

Wolfram reminded us that “craft beer has had a history revitalizing communities” as it engages the surrounding neighborhood as well as attracting events and tourists. Craft beer tourism is experiencing exponential growth and is already a major attraction in Asheville and other parts of North Carolina.