If Lumberton were not pinned down as it is by major highways, then it’s economic fate might be similiar to that of Laurinburg, the Scotland County seat that once was much like Robeson County’s, but is now a shadow of its former self.
But, thanks to Hector MacLean, the former Lumberton mayor and state senator, Interstate 95, originally envisioned for farther west, was rerouted eastward in our favor, and slices through Lumberton, delivering each year millions of travelers who stop and leave their dollars. U.S. 74, which has aspirations of becoming a major interstate as well, plays an important second fiddle to the nation’s busiest highway, as does N.C. 211.
According to U.S. Travel Association, during 2010, tourists — a loose description at best — deposited $116 million in Lumberton’s coffers while gassing up, having a meal, spending the night, shopping, or, with less frequency, hanging out for a day or two to enjoy the hospitality. Despite the determined and deep recession, that was a 9 percent increase over 2009, and a nod is due local tourism officials who are tirelessly working to put Lumberton on the maps tourists use traveling up and down or down and up the East Coast.
Another former state senator, David Weinstein, also deserves a mention as he led the long and contentious fight for mixed-drink sales in Lumberton, which is why the city boasts some of the amenities that travelers seek out when spending the night, mostly a good meal and perhaps a cocktail.
Tourism trails only health care and welfare in contributing to the local economy, which includes far more than Lumberton, but all of Robeson County, and even points beyond. Those 116 million dollars that tourists left in Lumberton during 2009 are spent multiple times before exiting here, and have a half-billion-dollar ripple effect. Without them, our unemployment rate of 12 percent would probably double. If you have doubts, then ask the fine folks who live in Laurinburg.
The bad news is tourism jobs generally do not pay well and offer poor benefits, if any at all. That is why Robeson County’s poverty rate remains one of the highest in the state even as our unemployment rate lands us more in the middle; it’s not a lack of jobs, but a lack of good jobs.
Robeson County’s path to a more prosperous future remains unchanged, depending heavily on our ability to get residents properly educated or trained for technical jobs that are more rewarding than service jobs. That, however, is a long road — and leaves us grateful for the highway that deliver to us dollars and keep us moving forward toward a better day.