Revitalizing Red Level

Published 8:09 pm Thursday, October 16, 2008

There are no cars on the street in the middle of the afternoon Wednesday in Red Level.

The once bustling town, which boasted a grocery store, a furniture store and more, has been reduced to one general store, where one can find bread across from the duct tape, and a small bank.

It’s hard times for the town of Red Level, Mayor Mike Purnell is quick to say, but thanks to the recent purchase of 32.5 acres off State Hwy. 55, he hopes the town’s economic outlook will soon change.

“Right now, it’s a struggle to keep up the town’s spirit,” Purnell said. “The town’s only grocery store is gone. The only way for us to come back from this is get some industry or commerce in this town.”

Purnell said he believed the town, whose population was 524 at last census count, began a steady decline in the 1970s when the agri-business was hit.

“We lost our feed mill and the cotton gin,” he said. “That was the biggest blow. It’s just gradually gone downhill from there. When Clark Hardware closed, that was a real injury to the local economy.

“There used to be a Judy Bond shirt factory here that employed about 200 people,” he said. “They moved to Costa Rica, then China.

“Then Barrow’s (Furniture) pulled out, the rug just went out from underneath us,” he said. “After that it was one closing after another. It ended with United Super closing. The only way we can get back on our feet is to move the traffic through our town.”

And since he and the town council recognized that traffic wasn’t going to suddenly start coming through what’s termed “downtown” Red Level, they decided to take a bold approach.

Their solution — purchase 32.5 acres off of Hwy. 55 and work to bring life back to Red Level.

“What we’re trying to do is promote development,” he said. “We’ve already had some inquiries about the property. What we’d love to see is a truck stop or a convenience store, maybe even a hotel. I’ve heard talk that in five years, the state plans to complete four-laning the north end of (Hwy.) 55 and that’s going to drive traffic.

“What we need to do now is get ahead of the game,” he said.

Red Level General Store owner Doug Sasser agreed.

“This store has been here for more than 100 years,” Sasser said. “The People’s Bank was one of the few banks that didn’t close during the Great Depression. Our people depend on us.”

Sasser has taken the town’s steady decline in stride. It has prompted him to change the way he does business.

“Used to, we were a straight just hardware store,” he said. “I did some pawning at one time, but I’ve gotten away from that. I started carrying food after United Super closed. This is the only place you can get milk and bread in town. I just got my beer license, so that’s going to help.

“Everyone’s been worried about Red Level,” he said. “We all want it to grow, but we don’t know what to do to make it grow.”

Purnell said he and the council have a few ideas to “bring the town back to life,” but they aren’t pinning all their hopes on their new land venture.

“Downtown we have a lot of things to offer commerce or industry,” he said. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to get a grocery store or service station.”

Purnell said city officials have been working with the Covington County Economic Development Commission (CCEDC) to “get the word out” about Red Level and the benefits the town has to offer.

“Red Level is a great place to live — we’ve got a great school, people who care about their neighbors and a willingness to see progress in our town,” he said. “Like I said before, we’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure we grow.”