Maybe it only seems like everybody in Pembroke knows Carla Nelson, owner of a furniture store, laundromat, motel, empty thrift store and historic old hotel — all of which sit within a few blocks downtown.
Nelson, viewed by the mayor as one of the city’s biggest boosters, isn’t shy about her affection for a town she was “born and raised in.”
“I love this town,” she said recently. “Pembroke has potential, there’s no doubt. So anything I can do to draw businesses to Pembroke, businesses that will help the people, I’ll do it.”
Nelson has backed up her words with money.
She’s invested roughly $1 million in downtown projects since 2014, when Nelson and her husband, Franklin Wormsley, opened what is now Carla’s Furniture Gallery, Inc., on Pembroke’s main drag. It includes a laundromat, Carla’s Coin Laundry, that she and Wormsley have since renovated with new washers and dryers, new air conditioning, WIFI and more.
It’ll be nice, they say, a definite upgrade. The machines alone cost $200,000.
“When I purchased the machines, I was told it would take seven years to make back the money it cost,” Nelson said. “I do not care. Pembroke needs a laundromat. People depend on it.”
She’s bought the other end of the city’s main drag, formerly a thrift shop bordered by West Bacon Street. Ultimately, it could house Nelson’s furniture store while the current store becomes a place for local residents to buy appliances and electronics.
And then there’s the Tindol Hotel across the main drag. Nelson bought it, and the home beside it.
She’s trying to figure out what to do there, but her furniture store is thriving, Nelson said. She lists customers from several surrounding counties citing in-house financing, free delivery and personal service from employees like Erica Anderson, that allows her to compete with online retailers and big box stores.
“I believe the reason we’re so successful is the customer service we give and the way we treat people,” she said. “And everybody wants to come in and deal with Carla. I’ve worked very hard for that.” Nelson’s desire to grow downtown Pembroke is music to the ears of Renee Hernandez, director of Pembroke’s Downtown Development Authority.
“We may tease that we will have to rename Bacon Street to Carla Lane, but the truth is that Downtown Pembroke is better because of community members and entrepreneurs like Carla.” Hernandez said in an email. “Her desire to see Pembroke restored to its glory days - days of car dealerships, movie theaters, and hotels - is exactly in line with the goals of the Downtown Development Authority.
If you think about it, furniture isn’t something you buy on a regular basis, and yet Carla’s Furniture has a large enough customer base to make it work. Carla’s success proves that our town can support business. And, with inventory available in our historic storefronts, we’re ready for Pembroke’s next business success story.”
As tradition dictates, there will be a ribbon cutting, refreshments and door prizes when Carla’s Coin Laundry reopens at 10 a.m. Friday.
But it’s tradition in another sense, one that began in 1965, when Carla’s father Dennis Nelson opened The Pembroke Steel Company - a business that in its heyday employed 250 people.
Pembroke Steel is gone, shuttered in 1983 when the steel industry in the U.S. hit hard times. Pembroke itself has changed, too. Though still county seat, a town that once boasted car dealerships and a movie theater and was the center of Bryan County life has been outpaced economically and outgrown physically by Richmond Hill.
Pembroke’s population has grown slowly since 1960, when there were 1,450 residents - there are about 2,300 now but Richmond Hill’s has gone from 826 residents in 1970, two years before the city was chartered, to more than 12,600 in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Before she grew up, got married and opened furniture stores in Savannah, Carla Nelson used to park her car near the big oak on Highway 280 and count the cars driving past. You can see the same live oak from her furniture store now, and after her first husband passed away, Nelson said she would drive past the storefront she now owns.
“Every time I came by, I knew that was going to be my furniture store,” she said. “I told God that.every time.”
These days, one of the biggest discussions in Pembroke is how to grow.
But successful efforts to bring in more affordable housing and places for seniors to retire have coincided with a new well in Bulloch County which will double the city’s water capacity.
In the meantime, Nelson’s investments and efforts behind the scenes are making an impact, Pembroke Mayor Judy Cook said.
“Carla has become more than just a property and business owner,” Cook said. “She has realized the potential of downtown Pembroke as more than just a financial investment, but as an investment in our future.”
Nelson said her experience is proof that you can go home again, and be successful at it.
“I do believe, and people ought to see this from my business, that people will shop local if they believe in you,” she said. “If I could do everything here I needed to do, I’d never leave. I want that convenience for other people, too.”