Affairs of state: North Carolina giveth and taketh in Morganton, adding a promising boarding school while facing a mess at its landmark psychiatric hospital.

Author:Mildenberg, David
Position:TOWN SQUARE: Morganton

It's said that if Charleston, S.C., added one more federal building, the peninsula would sink, a credit to a series of powerful lawmakers. In North Carolina, the same might be said for Morganton in picturesque Burke County, home to more state employees than all but two other N.C. counties.

Now, the city of 16,700 is prepping for another state institution that will boost the average IQ and the local economy. The N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, which has operated a Durham campus since 1980, is adding a $58 million Morganton site scheduled to open in 2021. The school will board about 150 high-school juniors and seniors, chosen for their smarts, and expand to 600 within a few years. They will join 100 teachers and staff and share some space with the adjacent N.C. School for the Deaf.

"The school is probably the biggest thing that has happened to Morganton since the decline of the furniture and textile industries," says Mayor Ronnie Thompson. "We'll have 600 of the brightest minds in the state living right here."

Hefty state investment attests to a history of pork-barrel politics and a superb location along Interstate 40, about halfway between Asheville and Statesville in rolling foothills bridging the Piedmont and mountains. Institutions include a psychiatric hospital, a home for the mentally ill and two prisons, helping sustain the metro area, which has lost 20% of its manufacturing jobs since 2007.

"Burke is in a prime place to be one of the more rural communities in the state that has a chance to succeed in the face of trying times," says Alan Wood, president of Burke Development Inc., the main industry recruiter.

Private-sector expansion is slow but steady, he says. Continental AG is investing $41 million at a 450-employee plant producing anti-lock brake systems. The German company plans to add 160 jobs over the next five years. Other local companies are adding 20 jobs here, 30 jobs there, Wood adds.

Morganton's tourism appeal is also gaining, bolstered by downtown craft breweries Fonta Flora and Catawba Brewery. The latter pub was packed on a recent Saturday night with about 150 folks serenaded by a band playing '80s rock. Nearby, Root &. Vine bistro had a waiting list. In 2011, Aimee Perez and Brian Miller opened the restaurant in a 116-year-old building that had housed a five-and-dime store. They later added a wood-fired pizza grill and about 50 seats.

Unlike many small-town peers, Morganton's downtown has stayed vibrant with a...

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