It's midafternoon, and nothing is moving in this onetime textile mill town 50 miles northwest of sprawling Army installation Fort Bragg. Many of the downtown storefronts are vacant; others are closed, a reflection of the bleak local economic reality, which is an unemployment rate that's higher than the state average.
Robbins wasn't always like this. Lifelong residents including Mayor Lonnie English remember when this town of 1,200, which gained a measure of prominence in recent decades as the boyhood home of former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., was a bustling place.
"We had the mills," English says. "We had the chicken processing plant. We had three or four service stations, gamerooms, restaurants, a Belk-Cline department store, a Western Auto and two hardware stores."
Robbins is like scores of other textile mill towns across the Southeast, especially in North Carolina. As shuttering textile and apparel plants across the region drained the lifeblood from these towns, residents have struggled to reinvent themselves and communities have struggled to survive.
But now, many here are hoping that a local economic success story will herald a transformation for the town. It involves a preacher's wife who prayed for jobs, a local boy made good who opened a hometown branch of a global commercial real estate services firm, and the conversion of a once-vital old mill's headquarters into offices for that firm, now one of the town's largest employers.
The firm, Houston-based Situs, opened an office here in 2007. The location was something of a departure for the company, which also has offices in cities such as New York, Atlanta, Little Rock, London and Frankfurt. Situs now employs 55 people here, many of them former textile mill workers who got additional education so they could perform commercial real estate analysis.
Unlike legions of people laid off from the region's textile and apparel mills who've been forced to take lower-paying jobs, the Situs employees say they make more than they did before.
Michael Walden, an economist at North Carolina State University, says there are occasional "bright spots" such as Situs in the old textile mill towns of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia,where textile manufacturing flourished for decades after moving here in the early part of the 20th century, drawn by cheap labor. "Companies would go in and essentially build a town," he says. "Textile manufacturing flourished, providing employment to hundreds of thousands of people, especially those without higher education. They were highly protected from international competition."
"This was primarily a small-town, rural industry," says Walden. "It was a way of life. That's largely gone now. Rural towns like Robbins have been scrambling, saying is there some way we can save our town? What can we bring in? But in terms of labor, it's never, ever going to employ the hundreds of thousands of people that used to work here."
After years of manufacturing job losses, North Carolina has seen a slight uptick, adding 5,500 jobs between February 2010 and last May, says Larry Parker, spokesman for the Division of Employment Security at the state Department of Commerce. "But the rural areas are hardest to rebound," he says. "The rural areas are still struggling, and that's where a lot of those textile manufacturing plants were."