Rockingham, North Carolina
Over the last decade, gateway communities have realized that protecting and restoring their local river encourages recreation, connects the community to the river and creates an economic engine for the region. To illustrate the benefits communities have discovered by protecting and restoring local rivers, American Rivers developed a series of case studies highlighting gateway communities and how they have benefited from local river and land conservation.
The City of Rockingham had a mission: restore the degraded Hitchcock Creek and transform it into a popular outdoor recreation destination. By recovering their local river, city officials helped residents and visitors alike rediscover the region’s natural beauty and create a thriving hub for ecotourism.
In the Piedmont region of south central North Carolina lies the city of Rockingham, the county seat of Richmond County. Hitchcock Creek runs through the center of town, eventually merging with the Pee Dee River on the county’s western border. Rockingham is a small but active community, whose 10,000 residents have a deep connection to their local river.
As the industrial age emerged across the South, communities dammed local rivers and creeks to power textile and paper mills, the lifeblood of the regional economy. Rivers like Hitchcock Creek were heavily altered, with their ecology and character diminished in service of economic growth. But as these industries waned, the sad legacy of this service was left behind, rivers becoming passive eyesores and human health and safety hazards, while the plugs in the rivers remained, hampering important ecological function.
As the economy departed from a textile-driven past, communities like Rockingham have rediscovered natural beauty of these once free-flowing waterways that could be resurrected with proper foresight and planning. Over the last ten years, Rockingham community leaders have prioritized improving local amenities to stimulate their budding recreation and tourism-based economy — in part fueled by the renewed connection to Hitchcock Creek.
The century-old Steele’s Mill Dam was not just an eyesore for visitors to Hitchcock Creek — it diminished water quality, blocked migrating fish passage, and prevented people from safely enjoying the river. But in 2009, Rockingham, working with American Rivers and other partners, removed the obsolete dam, an important first step in restoring the creek and creating what has now become a premier paddling destination.
Steele’s Mill dam removal was the culminating event of a multiyear process started in 2001. Driven by Rockingham town leaders, the stakeholder group gathered community support, funding for design and demolition, and finally the removal itself.
Effort put forth by Rockingham and other stakeholders along the nearly ten-year process demonstrates the importance and ability of a connected, organized group of community partners. The dam removal alone was a great accomplishment for the community, removing a safety hazard and restoring natural habitat for hickory shad, blueback herring, striped bass, and Atlantic sturgeon.
“After the paper industries moved out of Rockingham, Steele’s Mill Dam no longer served a purpose. The community of Rockingham understood the opportunities a free-flowing Hitchcock Creek could have for the community. Ten years later, the social and economic benefits we’ve experienced in Rockingham has far exceeded our expectations,” Monty Crump, City Manager.
The benefits did not stop at the dam removal — Rockingham and American Rivers created a 14-mile Blue Trail, the river equivalent of a hiking trail. As part of this effort, Rockingham acquired and protected 100 acres of bottomland forest along the river corridor, conserved important wildlife habitat along the Blue Trail, purchased two river access areas, and acquired a boat launch, opening miles of paddle-ready creek for people to enjoy safely. The town’s hard work paid off, and in 2016, Rockingham was named Municipal Conservationist of the Year by the North Carolina Wildlife Federation due to their commitment to the river and surrounding lands.
Transformation to Popular Outdoor Recreation Destinations
Rockingham has discovered that a healthy Hitchcock Creek is an economic driver for the region and vital to its long-term economic growth. Since the dam was removed, Rockingham’s recreational pulse bustles along the protected Hitchcock Creek. Numerous access points, walking and biking trails, new parks and open spaces surround this once forgotten creek, and have transformed it back as the centerpiece of Rockingham. Since restoring the creek, the City of Rockingham has seen great community growth because of the revitalized Hitchcock Creek.
Rockingham Mayor Steve Morris says, “We have renewed a natural resource that will provide paddling, fishing and economic growth through tourism and recreation today and for future generations. Clean, pure water in the middle of an urban area is not often found today and we will preserve this for future uses.”
Richmond County has positioned itself as a leader in tourism spending in North Carolina. In 2016, for the second year in a row, Richmond County led North Carolina in direct tourism employment at 4.7%, and has one of the largest increases in visitor spending (4.4%) over the last year. Not only are more people visiting Rockingham and Richmond County, but these communities are benefiting economically from the increase in tourism as well.
By conserving and investing in Hitchcock Creek, surrounding lands and public access, and by leveraging proven conservation strategies, Rockingham has helped people rediscover and enjoy the area’s natural beauty. Once off limits to recreation, Hitchcock Creek is a source of pride and revenue for the Rockingham community. Rockingham, North Carolina is a true success story!