Rockingham: Star of the Sandhills

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. – Who’s to thank for helping the Star of the Sandhills shine again?

Is it the residents of Rockingham, for refusing to let the challenges of the recent past dim their hope for the future?

Or the Cole Foundation, for putting its heart, soul and resources behind a children’s museum and other projects that are generating excitement and building momentum?

Maybe two special men – with long connections to Richmond County – for asking at every turn of this ongoing effort, “What can we do to help”?

The answer is “all of the above.” To revive a city, it takes a community effort.

Like so many N.C. towns and cities, the passage of time hasn’t been kind to Rockingham, a city of 9,000 some 70 miles east of Charlotte. By the early 1990s, textiles and agriculture had died or declined. The city’s crown jewel, North Carolina Motor Speedway (“The Rock” as it was known), hosted its last NASCAR race in 2004.

Gone were those weekends of racing, revenue and national attention. Many young people were leaving for opportunities elsewhere. Former Mayor Steve Morris, now on City Council, says the downtown retail district was down to two businesses, his shop, Helms Jewelers, being one.

A Downtown Reborn

What’s a community to do?

The Star of the Sandhills, as Rockingham calls itself, turned to a community treasure and two of its leaders to help light the match that ignited progress.

Discovery Place Kids - Rockingham

Discovery Place Kids – Rockingham

The Cole Foundation was established in 1965 with gifts from Elizabeth S. Cole and her brother, Robert L. Cole, in memory of their parents, William B. Cole and Elizabeth Little Cole, and their sister, Catherine Cole. The Coles were textile mill owners, iconic figures in a town that thrived on textiles.

The foundation that bears their name has long supported numerous charitable organizations. When the Coles died, a majority of their estates came to the Cole Foundation. In 1989, to ensure long-term stewardship of the assets, Cole Foundation trustees conveyed them to Foundation For The Carolinas.

Trustees of the Cole Foundation continue to serve as advisors in how the funds are used, which stood at $38 million in 2022.

Through grants, the Foundation has supported hundreds of good causes, including Our Daily Bread food pantry, Camp Millstone (a 4-H camp for kids) and $300,000 a year in scholarships for students graduating high school.

In addition, several larger projects supported by the Cole Foundation are making a profound difference in Richmond County.

Made possible by $4.2 million gifts from the Cole Foundation and Community Foundation of Richmond County (also housed at the Foundation), Richmond Community College expanded into downtown Rockingham in 2021. The Kenneth and Claudia Robinette Building houses the Leon Levine School of Business and Information Technology. More than 400 students take classes there.

Levine, of course, is the Richmond County native who founded Family Dollar and now supports numerous good causes through his foundation. Years ago, his family operated The Hub department store in downtown Rockingham – beside where the college’s three-story, brick-and-glass building now stands.

“This building is going to bring new life to Rockingham and to downtown,” said Russell Bennett, chair of the Cole Foundation when the college opened.

Thanks to a $12 million community fund drive, Cole Auditorium opened in 1999 on the campus of Richmond Community College in Hamlet. The Cole Foundation made a $1,788,008 million gift to the project. The community center portion of the building hosts 300 events a year (pre- and post-COVID), including weddings, dance recitals and family reunions.

The 400-seat banquet hall gets a lot of use. The 9,600-seat auditorium does, too, hosting concerts and other cultural events. A highlight was a 2019 show by country singer Scotty McCreery, the N.C. native who shot to fame by winning American Idol.

However, Rockingham’s most unique project opened in 2013, made possible by those two “true Southern gentlemen.”

Ambassadors For Progress

Brian Collier, executive vice president of Foundation For The Carolinas at the time, had recommended to Cole Foundation leaders that in the quest to revitalize Rockingham, they focus on a handful of projects.

Advice taken.

Discovery Place-Kids opened in 2013 in an old furniture store in downtown Rockingham. Packed with colorful exhibits and activities that blend learning and fun, it attracts 40,000 kids a year from Richmond and surrounding counties. Enjoy dancing on the Sandhills Stage and discover the joy in movement and exercise. See what sinks or floats in the water table at the I CAN Imagine exhibit. Mindful of the communities it serves, admission is $1 for those who receive public assistance.

As with many civic achievements, Discovery Place-Kids spawned more success. There needed to be a place for children visiting the museum to eat their bag lunches. Now prospering across the street from the museum is Pattan’s Downtown Grille. The popular gathering spot welcomes the community for lunch and dinner, and Discovery Place kids to eat their PB&Js (at no charge).

There’s more. Several locally owned mom-and-pop shops have opened downtown.

“The foundations were the catalyst for the whole thing,” said Discovery Place President and CEO Catherine Horne, who grew up in nearby Chesterfield, S.C. Indeed, the Cole Foundation, in partnership with Foundation For The Carolinas, helped get the doors opened.

Community Stalwarts

Of course, to get anything done in a small town, it helps to have local leadership. Enter Russell Bennett and Neal Cadieu.

Russell Bennett

Russell Bennett

The two men, trustees of the Cole Foundation at the time, chaired the campaign that raised $14 million to build Discovery Place-Kids. By the force of their positive spirit and obvious passion for Rockingham, they brought together all facets of the community to embrace the cause.

“Russell and Neal are champions,” said Horne. “They said, ‘We need to do something for the community and future generations that will live here.’”

Whatever the project, that’s what they’ve always done.

If you’ve been around Rockingham long, you probably did business at Russell Bennett Chevrolet, which dated back to the 1950s. You’ve also likely benefited from the contributions that Bennett has made to the community.

He worked to expand medical care as chairman of the board of Richmond Memorial Hospital (now First Health Moore Regional Hospital – Richmond). He was an enthusiastic supporter of NASCAR when it called The Rock home. Russell passed away in 2023 at the age of 96.

Partnering with his friend, Neal Cadieu, the two community volunteers and advocates have made a huge difference in the region.

“Russell and Neal are both true Southern gentlemen,” said former Rockingham Mayor Gene McLaurin. “They are always available but never looking to be in the spotlight.”

Looking Forward

Walking to lunch with Neal Cadieu – he sets an impressive pace at 92 – it’s easy to see that he and Rockingham share a mutual affection.

Neal Cadieu

Neal Cadieu

Outside Pattan’s Downtown Grille, a friend stops him for a hug and to catch up, drizzle or no drizzle. Inside, another friend gets up to shake Neal’s hand and ask how he’s doing. He’s doing great, even better now that things are looking up for the city to which he has devoted his life.

“(Neal and Russell) are both from the Greatest Generation,” said Richmond Community College President Dale McInnis. “They both balanced their business interests with the community’s interests. They’re both just so positive all the time. It’s contagious. They would look for the projects that moved the needle. If Russell and Neal were behind it, everybody got on board. It immediately had credibility.”

Neal grew up in Hamlet, down the road from Rockingham. His parents, Neal Sr. and Sybil, owned the Richmond County Journal (now the Richmond County Daily Journal). Working for the newspaper – from “printer’s devil” to editor and publisher – inspired Neal Jr.’s civic pride.

That spirit has never waned. He and his wife, Joanne, share a downtown office in the old barber shop where he used to get his hair cut.

Cadieu sings the praises of Discovery Place-Kids and Richmond Community College’s downtown building. Both, he said, have begun drawing business and people back to the center city. Cadieu loves the fact that from their back door at home, he and his wife can see school buses driving children to the museum.

One day, Cadieu envisions downtown residences, coffeehouses and still more unique shops adding to the quality of life.

Every community needs men like Bennett and Cadieu. In their world, ideas lead to conversation, which leads to cooperation, which ultimately leads to progress.

One day, over lunch at Pattan’s Downtown Grille, Brian Collier of Foundation For The Carolinas asked his lunchmates, Cadieu and former Mayor Gene McLaurin, “What are we going to do next?”

Upon hearing the question, Cadieu smiled with anticipation, the wheels already beginning to turn.

Charlotte’s Ken Garfield is a freelance writer/editor who helps Foundation For The Carolinas tell its stories.