You can almost taste the day's specials at the Speedway Cafe in Rougemont even before glimpsing the hand-scrawled list above the lunch counter. On one recent afternoon, the aromas of summer squash with onions, savory pinto beans and pecan pie—only $1.60 a slice—waft through the tiny eatery, named for the racetrack around the corner.
Outside the cafe's front windows, a sudden summer downpour washes over the intersection of U.S. 501 and Red Mountain Road, where the popular lunch spot is wedged between a tavern and a gas station. This small cluster of businesses make up the community's brief commercial corridor. For most of its history, Rougemont, in far northern Durham County, has been a place to graze cows and goats and grow crops like tobacco and corn. And not much has changed.
"Progress has been ... gradual," says state Rep. W.A. "Winkie" Wilkins, who has represented a portion of Durham County at the General Assembly since 2004.
But this year, Election Day could mark the start of a new era for Rougemont, if voters allow it. After decades of working for the opportunity, the community's registered voters will decide whether Rougemont should become a town of its own.
"Right now, we don't feel we've got a lot of voice or representation," says Linward Hedgspeth, who has lived in Rougemont his entire 63 years. "I think that having the opportunity to make our own destiny would be a privilege."
Since the 1980s, a core group of Rougemont residents has been imploring members of the state Legislature to pass a law that would have allowed the special election, Hedgspeth says. After working with several representatives in the state House and Senate, the activists found an ally in Wilkins.
Over the past six years, Wilkins has filed four bills asking for the special vote, but he never could garner the support of other Durham delegates because Durham city leaders were opposed to the possibility of sharing Durham County with another town. If Rougemont were incorporated, city leaders said, it would complicate the long-discussed idea of consolidating Durham's city and county governments.
Those qualms were finally quieted this year when Wilkins worked with a fellow Democrat, state Rep. Paul Luebke of Durham, to craft a bill to satisfy the concerns. The bill, which became law earlier this summer, mandated that if Rougemont were to become a town and Durham decided to merge its city and county governments, Rougemont's town charter would be repealed. If Rougemont becomes a town, Luebke added, Durham's planning department and county commissioners would still handle planning and zoning issues. Luebke said that provision addressed his personal concerns about keeping the rural community from being overdeveloped.
"That was really my concern," Luebke said. "No one expressly spoke to that. But it has been in the Durham plan for a very long time that the Rougemont area remain rural."
If incorporated, the town's boundaries would be limited to a small portion of the community in Durham County, even though it extends into Person and Orange counties. The boundaries would be drawn along the area's major thoroughfares, including Red Mountain, Bill Poole and Moores Mill roads. There are just 691 voters in the would-be municipality, said Michael Perry, interim director of Durham's Board of Elections.
The town would be allowed to levy property taxes of five cents per $100 of property value, which would be in addition to any county taxes residents also pay. Most services would remain the same. The Bahama volunteer fire department would continue to provide fire, rescue and EMS services, and the Durham County Sheriff's Office would continue serving the area, with the potential to expand crime control for an extra cost.
When those Rougemont voters cast ballots in November, they'll also elect five people to the inaugural town council, should the community become its own town. Of those five elected council members, one will be appointed by the council as the town's first mayor. Ten people—both newcomers and lifers such as Hedgspeth and Edgar Johnson—have paid the $5 fee to file for the council slots.
"I'd like to have some say-so in what goes on," says Johnson, a 68-year resident. Thus far, there's been little representation of Rougemont's needs on county boards and committees, he says. "It's hard for someone to plan for me when they don't know me."
Most candidates say that if Rougemont becomes a town, its residents will be in a better position to manage the industry and other development that moves in. Several also say they want to bolster the community's public safety services and emergency planning, and that they hope to establish amenities such as a park and a local farmers market.
Most important, though, Rougemont residents say they need a public water system. Currently, at least 20 private wells along a stretch of U.S. 501 are contaminated with benzene, Wilkins says. The contamination is near the sites of current and former gas stations, he says. Federal health authorities have determined that benzene can cause cancer in humans.
Although becoming a town isn't directly tied to receiving water, supporters of the incorporation say if Rougemont were a town, it would give residents more leverage to negotiate water services from nearby municipalities, such as the town of Roxboro.
Some residents near the contaminated wells are already eligible for free hookups to water lines from Person County as part of a $1.5 million federal stimulus project. The option isn't yet open to properties outside the affected area, but incorporation supporters say they would seek additional services if Rougemont becomes a town.
Overwhelmingly, candidates and businesspeople—even workers at the Speedway Cafe—say dependable water services would boost economic development.
"I would love to see a grocery store," says Linda Harris, one of the cafe's cooks, who took a minute's rest at a stool at the lunch counter.
"Maybe a Sonic," a young waitress chimed in from across the kitchen.
Local organizers have held two meetings this summer about the potential incorporation. Voters can get more information from the Durham County Board of Elections, which also has a map showing which households may vote and could be brought into town limits. With just 10 candidates for five elected positions, there will be no primary. Voters just have to show up by Nov. 8 if they want to help build the newest small North Carolina town, from the bottom up.
A town built from scratch—like the breakfast biscuits Harris starts every morning at the Speedway Cafe.