The path from Raeford to the Cumberland County line was once a two-lane road that cut through corn and tobacco fields. Churches, houses and an occasional store dotted the rural landscape.
That's how Teresa and Stan Sprankle remember U.S. 401, also known as Raeford Road, when they moved to eastern Hoke County 20 years ago.
In those days, Stan Sprankle said, a traffic jam on Raeford Road could mean only one thing: race day at Rockingham Speedway.
No more. Developers, government officials and residents agree that eastern Hoke County and western Cumberland County are undergoing a transformation.
Within two to three years in Hoke County, two hospitals will open less than three miles apart along what is now the four-lane U.S. 401.
Cape Fear Valley Health System is spending $100 million to build a 41-bed hospital and outpatient health center on a 60-acre campus. FirstHealth of the Carolinas broke ground Friday on a $30 million, eight-bed hospital with a 24/7 emergency department.
A few miles away, in Cumberland County, the Department of Veterans Affairs is building a $120 million outpatient center. The facility will be near one of Womack Army Medical Center's off-post clinics, which opened last spring.
The Interstate 295 loop eventually will connect with Raeford Road near the Cumberland-Hoke County line, bringing even more potential for growth.
Dozens of signs dot the highway in front of fields or forests: There's plenty of land for sale.
Hoke was already the fastest-growing county in the state and one of the top-10 areas for growth in the nation, according to 2011 U.S. census population estimates. The growth is almost exclusively around the Raeford Road corridor. From 2000 to 2011, the population more than doubled - from 4,993 to 11,350 - in the area bounded by U.S. 401, Rockfish Road, the Raeford city limits and the Hoke County line.
The hospitals are likely to be a catalyst for more development. Expect doctors, dentists and other health care offices to open nearby. Other services should come, too, including florists, gift shops, pharmacies and restaurants.
Hoke County officials have been hoping for a commercial boom for nearly a decade. They say the county's reputation as mostly a bedroom community for commuters to Fort Bragg and Fayetteville could change within the next decade.
The county, which has a lower tax rate than its neighbors, is preparing Raeford Road for more business. Sewer lines should be completed by this fall, and a sewage treatment plant is set to open in 2014. The price tag for both is about $25 million, County Manager Tim Johnson said.
The sewer improvements open possibilities for commercial development along the roadway and for large subdivisions and apartment buildings nearby. The county has stopped developers from building along U.S. 401 until the sewer lines are finished, Johnson said.
"There's a lot of folks talking to us that are waiting on sewer," Johnson said. "We anticipate a lot of growth in that area in a hurry when all this stuff happens."
County housing projections for 2011-2016 show plans for more than 4,000 new homes. Near the Cape Fear Valley site - across U.S. 401 from Paraclete XP SkyVenture - 64 homes are close to being built and four apartment buildings are going up.
Home builder Ralph Huff of Fayetteville said about a quarter of the homes he sells are within a few miles of the planned hospitals.
"Right now in Hoke County, we're building in four different subdivisions that are within three or four miles of those hospitals," he said.
Businesses are following the people. The new Walmart and Food Lion on Raeford Road still look as though they were picked up and dropped into the fields, Wizard-of-Oz style.
Don Porter, executive director of Raeford/Hoke Economic Development, said his phone has been ringing more since the hospitals settled their dispute and both agreed to build on nearby lots. He said the county has received a commitment for a large development, which he is not authorized to name yet, that would bring hundreds of jobs.
"It's going to be a major development," Porter said. "It's a development that will have a multitude of businesses within it that the citizens are going to be very happy with."
The Sprankles, who moved to eastern Hoke County 20 years ago, recently sold their house and moved across the county to get away from the crowds. In the 1990s, when Raeford Road was being widened, they nearly bought land along the highway. They now think of it as their million-dollar miss.
Commercial developers in Fayetteville say they get more calls about land along Raeford Road near the county line than any other spot in the region. Land prices there range from $150,000 an acre to about $1 million an acre.
"When I think of it in terms of my real estate brokerage business and especially that my real estate brokerage business is almost solely dependant on commercial real estate transactions, I think I would be foolish not to have a finger on the pulse of Hoke County from the Raeford city limits eastward," said Bill McFadyen, broker at Franklin Johnson Commercial Real Estate.
"If you called me and said that you needed to build an office building on two acres, I could provide it. If you said that you wanted to build a 10- to 15-acre professional complex, I would know what phone call to make. If you said you wanted a half-acre lot to put up a 2,500-square-foot office and parking, I'd have a little more trouble finding that."
The boom everyone expects hasn't yet wiped away the rural character along U.S. 401. Stretches of the road just inside Hoke County are still fronted by homes, occasionally with horse pastures, small gas stations and businesses in old houses or trailers.
An isolated strip mall includes a barbershop, tattoo parlor, tobacco store, coffee shop, pizza delivery place and an income tax service.
Earline Gupton, who has been cutting hair in the strip mall for more than four years, looks forward to the day when shops and restaurants follow the hospitals along Raeford Road.
"We're hoping they'll put a new high school, restaurants, maybe a skating rink and a movie theater," she said, before stopping to consider the downside of all that growth. "We need more traffic lights out here. It's getting to be hectic. Traffic's going to be terrible."
Planners are trying to stay ahead of the traffic problems. The Fayetteville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which oversees road improvement projects in and around Cumberland County, is working with a consulting firm to study transportation in western and southern Cumberland County and eastern Hoke County, including the U.S. 401 area. CDM Smith, the consulting firm, began its work earlier this year and is still looking for suggestions from the public.
"People are definitely concerned about, 'Are we still going to be able to get up and down these roads?' " said Will Letchworth, manager of the study. "I think it's going to take some improvements."
The N.C. Department of Transportation counted 20,000 vehicles a day along Raeford Road near the new hospital sites. Letchworth's traffic model projects that the road, built for as many as 36,000 cars a day, will be at or near its capacity by 2035.
Hoke County officials expect to have to deal with increased traffic, as well as the need for new schools and more deputies. The county already is working to finance a new middle school in the eastern part of the county.
Tony Hunt, vice chairman of the Hoke County Board of Commissioners, said those are good problems because they are signs of growth. A commercial boom would mean a financial windfall in the county's tax coffers to help pay for the needed improvements.
"Our county has really struggled in the past because we have had a lot of growth, but it's only been residential growth," Hunt said. "We're just looking for that (commercial) growth, and being prepared for it is the biggest thing. It'll almost be like another city out on 401."
Will Gillis, 68, owns about 260 acres along Raeford Road and Old Raeford Road, including where the VA is building its outpatient center and where Fayetteville Technical Community College plans a western campus. The land has been in his family of farmers since the late 1700s. The land has been available for about a decade, but no one ever approached him with an offer he felt was right. He shied away from housing developments and smaller commercial ideas.
You can only sell land once, he said, and he wanted to see something built that would be good for his community.
Gillis never knew his grandfather, William John Gillis, who died in 1929. But the family story goes that the elder Gillis used to make a prediction that even 20 years ago may have seemed outlandish.
"They say that he predicted that he would not live to see it, but that Fayetteville and Raeford would meet in the future," Gillis said, "and it seems that prediction is rapidly coming true."