Fayetteville's downtown brims with leafy trees, loft apartments, busy local restaurants, an art-house movie theater and one of North Carolina's most historic buildings, the 185-year-old Market House. The scene consistently surprises out-of-towners, says Ralph Huff, the region's largest homebuilder. Many visitors arrive with a negative image of the city based on perceptions of crime, unplanned sprawl and a transitory military culture, prompting Huff, 67, to evangelize relentlessly. "Never does someone come to Fayetteville to see me that they don't get a one-hour tour of downtown," he says. "And never do they come away with the same opinion of Fayetteville that they had when they came."
Business leaders in the state's sixth-largest city know it has a branding problem rooted in years of slowing growth and a reliance on the region's massive military installation. In a September presentation, Robert Van Geons, the area's main economic-development executive, noted the message externally is, "We are better," while within the community, it is "We are better than you think."
After Cumberland County's population grew by more than 25,000 in each of the 1970s, '80s and '90s, the pace has slowed over the last decade and a half. From 2000-16, Cumberland added about 25,000 people, while 45 minutes north in much-smaller Johnston County, the population expanded by about 70,000. Fort Bragg, the area's dominant economic force, has benefited from federal consolidation of Army operations, but Fayetteville has struggled to attract new employers not affiliated with the military and replace manufacturing jobs in textiles and other traditional industries.
To stimulate growth, more than 100 business, government and institutional leaders are backing efforts to make the city more inviting to visitors and residents. Called Vision 2026, the group has endorsed plans to build a baseball stadium in downtown Fayetteville that will host a minor-league team starting in 2019. It's also pushing for a performing-arts center over the next decade. (Fervor for a proposed Civil War museum has cooled amid the raging controversy over Confederate-era statues.) Such projects are viewed as vital to persuade more young workers of Fayetteville's attractiveness and prompt potential employers to take note.
"At one time, people moved to where the jobs were," says former Mayor Tony Chavonne, a Fayetteville native who is a key civic booster. "Now, people go to where they want to live, and the good jobs follow them to those communities."
John Malzone has brokered commercial real-estate sales and rentals in downtown Fayetteville for nearly four decades. He has seen it wax, wane and slowly rebound. He's optimistic about prospects for the Houston Astros-affiliated minor-league team, a new hotel and a mixed-use redevelopment of the historic Prince Charles Hotel. "I told my wife: 'If I die, do not sell our property,'" Malzone says. "I'm down to four buildings, and three are downtown. Those are going to be tremendous income sources for us." The baseball stadium will prompt much more night traffic, he says. "Then you're going to see the national [retailers] start to come in. They're going to want to open places."
While the central business district charms, leaders have no illusions about the challenges in accelerating Fayetteville's economy. "Our problem is a deep-seated problem of decades of poor leadership," Huff says, without pointing a finger at any individual. He cites decisions to site the county jail on...