As Chatham’s growth looms, small businesses see opportunity

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SILER CITY — Sue and Rich Szary have become staples in the downtown Siler City community. Their retail business, Twin Birch & Teasel, has sold handmade products, offered fiber weaving classes and made the storefront a space for local artists to collaborate and create together for the last 12 years.

“It’s about experiences,” Sue Szary said. “We’re really enablers in this community and we like it that way.”

The fabric filled brick-and-mortar store for Twin Birch is about more than just selling products, it’s about the community. That’s the case for many of the local businesses in and around Siler City — owners know their customers and the customers trust them. It seems simple enough, but Szary said it’s part of the character of the small town.

“To us, this isn’t just a business, it’s not about money,” she said. “This is part of my life.”

Maintaining the character of the community may become an increasing challenge with the major growth in the area expected. In eastern Chatham, VinFast is poised to create 7,500 jobs; closer to Siler City, a major chip manufacturer or other large company may soon announce it’s locating at the nearby Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing (CAM) site.

The growth from the megasites, which will inevitably bring employees and housing needs to Siler City, is coupled with ongoing revitalization efforts in the downtown area. Small business owners in the town care about preserving the community-feel of commerce in the area, but several told the News + Record they viewed the growth as an opportunity to grow their business and welcome in new clientele.

“We can’t become a drawbridge community,” Rich Szary said. “We can’t just set ourselves down and not let anyone else in. We know this community is going to grow and change and that’s exciting.”

The Szarys both serve on the Siler City Merchants Association, which aims to assist in developing the town’s retail business. Angelynn Fox is the co-president of the SCMA and has owned Siler City Pharmacy for the last four years. She agreed with the Szarys’ assessment of growth in Chatham, saying she’s excited for the opportunity to grow the business and employ new residents.

“There may be a scared response because nobody really likes change,” Fox said. “Or we can look at it as opportunity. Here comes growth, here comes new potential clients and patients, and I think that’s exciting.”

Fox said growth is an obvious challenge, but it also means it’s a chance for the business to rise to the occasion. She said her passion has always been serving and caring for people, so more people means more care for others.

“An influx of people means there’s a real opportunity to come together,” Fox said. “The heart and pulse of what we do is to care for the community and that isn’t going to stop because these relationships matter.”

The pharmacy owner said change is one of the only constants in Siler City. She’s seen the population become more diverse with an increasing Hispanic population, and the agricultural roots of Siler City evolve over time. So to Fox, the next phase of growth only feels like a natural next step.

“We are an integral part of this community as the first place patients go when they have medical questions,” she said. “I’m so thankful that patients choose to come here even before they come to the doctor’s office.”

There’s a certain camaraderie between customers and the business owners of Siler City, Fox said. Employees know the names of their customers, which means a business is often more than its designation. Siler City Pharmacy serves as a directory of medical information, Twin Birch helps customers find the best art supplies in town — even when it doesn’t directly give them a profit.

Both Szary and Fox said preserving that camaraderie and character is important, even as the town grows adjacent to VinFast and the CAM site.

Phillip Pappas, the Small Business Center Coordinator for Chatham County at Central Carolina Community College, said he believes balancing these two concepts helps a better future for the town come to fruition.

“Overall, it’s going to be positive,” Pappas said. “There will be growing pains for sure, but the tide raises all ships. Expansion equals opportunity and that’s what we see in Siler and throughout Chatham.”

Pappas said he was hopeful the town will be able to both preserve character and grow. The Small Business Center is aiding in the downtown revitalization efforts and Pappas said it’s getting harder to find space for potential new businesses because many of the buildings downtown are getting filled up with other small, local businesses.

“There will be holes to be filled and new services needed that we can’t foresee yet,” Pappas said. “But I’m sure, over time, infrastructure will improve with an influx of capital from the industrial sites and that may mean more space and more space for small business.”

The town’s infrastructure needs at the moment have been well documented. Siler City officials have recognized the limitations presented by the town’s existing water and sewer infrastructure and are working to add capacity, scheduled to come online late in 2024. More is needed, though, to accommodate growth that will spring out of CAM development and other business. And many of the industries which have chosen the region — Toyota’s battery plant in Randolph County, for example — for development have water needs two or three times those of existing industries, the News + Record previously reported.

Despite these concerns, Pappas said in the long-term the county is poised to be an opportunity for small businesses to flourish.

“When you are courting a large industry, like a VinFast, you need to show them you are educated and you have to prove to them people are going to want to stay here,” Pappas said. “The local places make up the feel of a town because they’re deeply connected to their customer … small businesses can be competitive even with industry, given the right atmosphere and opportunity to innovate.”

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at brappaport@chathamnr.com or on Twitter @b_rappaport.

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