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Regional Profile for May 2005

A Grand Design
For Progress

From agribusiness to a possible Dollywood East,
the 16-county
Northeast Partnership is a
region on the rise.

By Lawrence Bivins

The Currituck Beach Lighthouse is one of Northeast North     Carolina's many tourist attractions.

Broader highways. Expanded college curricula. Super-speedy Internet access. What may appear as fragmented progress to the casual observer are to Bill Owens the gathering components of a larger, grander design for Northeastern North Carolina. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” says the longtime Elizabeth City businessman and state representative. “You put a piece in here and there, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But when all the pieces are in, it becomes a pretty picture.”

Despite its historic significance — the Northeast is where the state and the country began — the 16-county region has not always been treated gently by the economic tides. Its agrarian landscape, sparsely populated communities and sheer remoteness made prosperity (measured in financial terms, at least) a stranger during the final decades of the 20th Century. While those very features, ironically, made the region a popular tourism destination, they did little to spur high-wage job growth.

These days, however, there is ample evidence that the region is on the rise thanks to leadership from Owens and others who’ve made bringing modern infrastructure a top priority. “Build it and they will come,” has been a guiding tenet for the Northeast in recent years, Owens says. “Our region has taken off as a result.”

Transportation upgrades alone have gone miles in integrating the Northeast with the rest of the state’s economy. Improvements to U.S. Highways 64 and 17 now enable rapid movement of beachgoers and business people from the Triangle and other Piedmont origins, slashing hours off the formerly tedious journey. Before long, Highway 64 will be four-laned from the Raleigh Beltline to Manteo and a U.S. 17 by-pass around the Town of Windsor will offer uninterrupted access from Williamston to the Virginia state line. Improvements to 17 by Old Dominion authorities will boost access to and from the population-dense Tidewater area. “That opens up a lot of opportunities for our corner of the state,” says Owens of the transportation improvements.

As much as cement and tar, the new highways began with the region’s exceptional leadership. Along with Owens, a House Appropriations Committee chairman, the region’s advocates in Raleigh include senior legislators Rep. Bill Culpepper and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight. “When I came to Elizabeth City ten years ago, this community was isolated from the rest of the state — certainly from the economic and power centers,” recalls Mickey Burnim, chancellor of Elizabeth City State University (ECSU). “We’re far better connected now, and that’s starting to pay off.”

Neither are equally effective local leaders difficult to find in the Northeast. City councils, chambers of commerce, county commissioners, economic development agencies and educational institutions across the region are flush with innovative ideas and a spirit of collaboration. In sparsely populated Hyde County, a community whose unspoiled coastal beauty has been appreciated by generations of naturalists, job growth remains closely tied to its fertile soils. In March, county leaders joined executives of Indiana-based Rose Acre Farms in breaking ground on a $55 million egg farm the company is building in Ponzer. The occasion was the culmination of nearly four years of work by county and regional officials. “This was really a team process,” explains Alice Keeney, Hyde County’s director of planning and economic development. She credits technical support from N.C.’s Northeast Partnership, the Edenton-based regional development organization, in attracting the company and the estimated $1.3 billion in economic impact it will have in the region over the next 15 years. NCCBI was also involved, advocating for the company with state government officials.

Drawn by the county’s rural landscape and ample grain harvests, Rose Acre Farms is constructing its facility on a 150-acre site in the community of Ponzer. Once operational, the facility will provide full-time employment to 125 people, positions running the gamut from packers and drivers to computer operators and managers, says Tony Wesner, the company’s executive vice president. “Positions will pay anywhere from $9 an hour to $80,000 per year,” he says. Though the county was a good fit for the facility on the basis of soil type and market accessibility, attitude was the deciding factor. “What drove the project more than anything was that the people of the county wanted us there,” says Wesner, whose family-owned firm maintains similar facilities in Georgia, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. At a series of hearings held in advance of the project’s approval, scores of local residents spoke in support of the company’s plans, which had drawn scrutiny from environmental activists outside the county.

Along with new jobs, Rose Acre Farms is bringing new hope for the region’s beleaguered agribusiness sector, says Wade Hubers, owner of Matcha-Pungo Farm in Grassy Ridge. For starters, the company will rely on millions of bushels of local corn and soybeans. And there are other possibilities, as well, he says. For years, Hubers and other farmers in the region have been eager to enter the burgeoning market for organic crops. But the county’s remoteness made finding reliable supplies of organic nutrients expensive. With composted waste from nearby Rose Acre Farms, Hubers can now move ahead with plans to double the acreage of his organic grains, which are sold as animal feed. “It opens up huge potential for us,” says Hubers. It is even possible that some of the organic feed will find its way back to Rose Acre chickens, completing the loop. “We’ve rarely had this kind of opportunity here.”

Agribusiness in the Northeast is nothing if not eclectic. Farther inland, the region’s soft, sandy plains are ideal for peanut growing. Jack Powell Jr., third generation owner of Bertie County Peanuts in Windsor, says the region’s “Virginia-style” peanuts are popular with consumers around the country. Sales of his firm’s unique “blister fried” product are growing thanks to the addition of email marketing and Web-based sales. “We farm as well as buy peanuts from local vendors,” says Powell, whose grandfather founded the company in 1915.

In Currituck County, rich soils and an ideal climate have yielded grains, corn, potatoes and soybeans since the nation’s earliest times. Many there would like to see the county preserve its agribusiness heritage and are working to effect solutions to make farming a more profitable and productive venture. “People want Currituck to retain its rural character,” says Wayne Leary, economic development director for Currituck County, “and there is now a push to preserve farmland and other open spaces.” On Knott’s Island, a ferry-accessible patch of earth punctuated by vegetable farms and fruit orchards, two wineries have proven successful in cultivating and selling European varietals, wines made from indigenous grapes and hybrids that combine the two. At least two other winery ventures are on the drawing board, says Leary, who sees wine grapes offering an economically viable alternative to turning county croplands over to residential real estate developers. “That’s a real option for our farmers,” Leary says.

N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, whose district includes Currituck and neighboring counties, believes the region’s economic future is closely tied to its natural amenities, cropland included. Winery ventures, he explains, are a case in point, building on, not supplanting, the region’s rural character. “Farming will always be a component of our landscape,” adds Basnight, a Manteo restaurateur. “It’s one of those things that make us special.”

             Potatoes are the region's number one cash crop.

Basnight says creating jobs in the Northeast doesn’t call for the same techniques deployed in bustling metropolitan areas. “We don’t need to look like Norfolk or Raleigh,” he says. The region’s popularity as a tourism and retirement destination will continue to offer lucrative economic opportunities, Basnight believes. “Our communities are renowned as places of relaxation and leisure,” he says.

Northeastern North Carolina’s charm, affordability and manageable pace are a business development draw as well. Last year, Halifax County welcomed PCB Piezotronics, Inc., a leading designer and manufacturer of industrial-quality sensors whose customers include NASA, Ford, General Motors and GE. The firm’s $5 million investment at Halifax Industrial Center added 250 manufacturing jobs to the region’s employment rolls. In announcing the move, David Hore, co-president of PCB’s New York-based parent company, cited the region’s “flawless economic development process,” as well as a $1.6 million grant from the state’s Job Development Investment Grant program (JDIG), the first instance in which the new incentive was applied in the Northeast. “The JDIG grant was extremely instrumental in our decision,” said Hore, whose company’s presence will ripple some $171 million in economic benefits through the region during the coming decade.

Last month, Syfan USA hosted a grand opening at its new manufacturing site in Martin County. The company, a unit of Israel’s Syfan Sa’ad, makes shrink wrap at the site, its first North American plant. Similarly, Syfan is the first international manufacturer to discover Martin County, a land of genteel equestrian farms and rock-bottom unionization. The com-pany’s move there brings 61 new jobs and an $11 million investment for the region. In adjacent Beaufort County, a $2.5 million expansion by Coeur Medical is adding 46 positions to the 60-person workforce it previously maintained in the historic town of Washington. The privately held company, which has its headquarters there, is a growing producer of high-pressure syringes used primarily for medical imaging procedures like CT-scans and MRI’s.

As the region readies new industrial product, leverages local and state incentive programs, and deploys cross-county teamwork in its marketing and project handling, sea changes in the American economy are also producing new job-growth opportunities. One example of this is found in Elizabeth City, which for over six decades has been home to a U.S. Coast Guard station. The presence of the mammoth base, which along with the Coast Guard itself is now organized under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, led Maryland-based Technical and Management Service Corporation (TAMSCO) to locate a $9 million “heavy lift/fixed wing” aircraft maintenance facility at Elizabeth City Regional Airport. The sprawling new complex — TAMSCO’s hangar alone will be large enough to accommodate four C-130 Hercules aircraft — will be the site of 200 aviation-related jobs.

“The Coast Guard is a tremendous asset to our community on any number of levels,” says Rhonda Twiddy, president of the Elizabeth City Area Chamber of Commerce. Working on the base are nearly 1,700 uniformed personnel and civilian employees. A large number of contractors add to the mix. “They bring people here from all over the world,” Twiddy says. The base maintains close ties with chamber and other leadership entities, and those serving at the facility are eager to be part of the surrounding community. “It’s always easy to find a soccer coach who was a Coastie,” Twiddy says.

A few miles away at Elizabeth City’s Commerce Park, Blackwater USA, an increasingly prominent security firm whose clients include law enforcement agencies, foreign governments and multinational corporations, is establishing a target-range manufacturing operation in a 40,000-square-foot shell building. A homegrown company founded in 1997, Blackwater USA began with 27 employees. But its blistering growth since then has brought its Northeastern North Carolina workforce to 400, including the 24 jobs being created at its Elizabeth City plant.

As the Northeast’s commercial, educational and medical hub, Elizabeth City’s fortunes are closely linked to those of the region writ large. As such, improvements at Elizabeth City-Pasquotank County Regional Airport benefit neighboring communities as well. Soon to complement the facility’s 7,219-foot runway will be a multi-million dollar instrument approach system, for example. Extensive downtown re-development activity, along with the opening this fall of a new waterside home for the Museum of the Albemarle, should sharpen Elizabeth City’s status as the “Gateway to the Outer Banks,” Twiddy says.   

Another milestone for the region takes place in the fall when 15 students enroll at Elizabeth City State University for the maiden class of its recently established School of Pharmacy. “The new pharmacy school is going to enhance our visibility and our reputation nationally,” says Chancellor Mickey Burnim. “It has the potential to become our signature program — what people think about when they hear Elizabeth City State University,” predicts Burnim, who says he has already detected a renewed sense of pride among alumni as a result of the new degree program.

For the moment, pharmacy courses will be offered in various campus sites. In time, the new school will be housed in a state-of-the-art building with an estimated $28 million price tag. Construction on the 70,000-square-foot facility is set to begin by the end of the year. The new building dovetails neatly with an amply ambitious schedule of physical plant improvements now underway at ECSU. Among those recently completed are the campus’s airy Student Center, a soaring Fine Arts Center and an expansive new Physical Education building. The structures, completed with a portion of ECSU’s $46.3 million share of state higher education bond proceeds, will go a long way in improving student satisfaction, a prime objective for Burnim when he took over as chancellor a decade ago. New residence halls, one of which was constructed solely with $13.5 million in privately raised funds, should similarly boost student recruitment and retention at the 113 year-old institution. Now in the works are an Information Technology Center and an electronic classroom for ECSU’s School of Education & Psychology.

“When I got here, we were losing 30 to 40 students each year,” Burnim says. The erosion reversed under Burnim’s leadership, and ECSU is now well on track to meet its strategic goal of enrolling of 3,000 students by 2008.  “For each of the last three years, we’ve been at record enrollment,” Burnim says. And the pharmacy school is only the latest addition to ECSU’s roster of curricular offerings in recent years, he adds. Ten new degree programs have been added under Burnim’s tenure, including three master’s degrees. “Moving to the master’s level was a significant step for us,” he says.

Under Burnim’s watch, ECSU has also sought to extend its reach off campus and into the local and regional economies. Students pursuing degrees in the institution’s excellent computer science program offer support to area firms and organizations, for example. And the new pharmacy program will have an economic development significance that extends well beyond the instruction it will offer. “We see the pharmacy school as a real entree for ECSU into the state’s vision for biotechnology,” says Burnim, an economist by training. His long-range vision includes a partnering of campus-based pharmaceutical and computer science expertise in a way that will attract bioinfomatics companies to the Northeast. “It won’t happen immediately, but I do expect it to happen,” Burnim says.

Educational innovation is easily found elsewhere in the region, as well. In December, Manteo resident Andy Griffith unveiled a unique plan to provide personal computers to the families of every public school student within the town limits, along with appropriate instructional software and wireless Internet access. Through the generosity of IBM, Charter Communications and Vital-Source, students in the town of about 1,200 will enjoy the most advanced educational tools regardless of their family’s income level.

“The idea didn’t originate with any one individual,” explains Manteo Mayor John Wilson. Hoping simply to offer wireless Internet access along the town’s picturesque waterfront, Manteo officials were approached by Charter Communications with an offer to provide town-wide wireless to students at no charge. When a local teacher pointed out that many students lacked a computer by which to access the Internet, the initiative entered its logical next phase, Wilson says. New IBM laptops were to be distributed at the end of March to all public school students age eight and older, with a limit of one per household. “They can keep the computer as long as they stay in school,” Wilson explains. And there is added largesse in store for visitors to the Dare County town: all are welcome to log-on to the wireless network at no charge for up to 30 minutes per day. “We’re the first town in America with its entire corporate limits blanketed by wireless Internet,” boasts Wilson.

It’s a far cry from where most of the Northeast was just a few years ago with regard to reliable and affordable Internet access. As recently as 2001, some in the region even lacked local dial-up service. But collaboration between state and regional officials, private foundations and Sprint helped link businesses, residents, educators and healthcare providers throughout the region via the latest technologies. Unveiled last summer, some $14.6 million in telecommunications infrastructure improvements will be completed at the end of April.

The venture deploys ultra-fast Gigabit Ethernet technology in linking local hospitals and health clinics in the region to East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine. “A patient’s diagnostic data previously took as long as 30 minutes to transmit,” explains Steve Parrott, Sprint’s state executive for the Carolinas and an NCCBI director. “It can now be done instantaneously.” The same ultra-speedy gear is beefing up the Northeast’s portion of NC-REN, the statewide educational and research network maintained by MCNC.

Also completed under the partnership has been a DSL-based broadband deployment in Sprint central offices in eleven Northeast counties. But Sprint’s partnership with the Albemarle-Pamlico Economic Development Commission (APEC) and other groups is about more than Internet backbone, says Parrott, whose company now provides DSL-ready lines to 65 percent of its Northeast customer base. “It’s one thing to say we want to connect people to the Internet. But it’s more important to ask what applications are needed to connect people in rural parts of the state,” he explains. Thus, the emphasis on applications for telemedicine and e-learning. The broadband partnership also includes UNC System executives, community college officials and public school leaders, all of whom are hoping to provide students from kindergarten through graduate school access to digital libraries, instructional resources and other network-based educational content.

Sprint’s ambitious schedule of telecommunications upgrades is great news for businesses in Northeast. “Being this remote, you have to have technology on your side,” says Art Keeney, president of East Carolina Bank (ECB). Headquartered in the tiny coastal village of Engelhard but with branches flung far across the eastern third of the state, ECB’s business model calls for the aggressive use of advanced digital voice and data networks and Internet banking applications. Founded 85 years ago, ECB is one of the state’s oldest community banking institutions. With over half a billion dollars in assets, it has enjoyed impressive growth over the last decade. “Teamwork and technology accounts for a lot of it,” says Keeney.

Along with more reliable and affordable broadband access, new natural gas pipelines are lifting the region’s job growth potential and improving the quality of life for residents. Supported by $180 million in state bond funds, APEC began laying pipe in April 2001, according to John Hughes, the organization’s executive director. “We hope to have it complete by mid-summer,” says Hughes. More economical than propane and cleaner than heating oil, natural gas is the energy of choice for schools, hospitals, correctional institutions, and large commercial and industrial operations, Hughes says.

Through much of the region, natural gas service had been available only when companies asked for it and local development leaders worked to secure it. Such was the case in 1998, when officials at Georgia-Pacific’s resin mill in Northampton County underwent a major round of upgrades. Gary Brown, the county’s economic development director, secured extensions to the plant from the nearest pipeline some four miles away, recalls Johnnie Martin, plant superintendent at the 105-worker mill. “He [Brown] was a big part of getting natural gas to this plant,” says Martin. “That’s been a large part of our success.”

More recently, Brown approached Martin to see what if any additional support was needed from the county. This time, Brown brought in colleagues from the Northeast Partnership and the N.C. Department of Commerce’s existing industry program. Working as a team, they asked how they could help, Martin recalls. The three listened as Martin spoke of the current high demand for the mill’s resins, which are used in wood products destined for the white-hot home-building industry. “They’re now working on a railroad expansion that will enable us to ship more product outbound,” Martin says.

The bulk of new jobs comes from companies already in a given community, as opposed to newly arriving firms from outside. With the nation mired in recession during 2001 and relocation activity in the doldrums, Northeast leaders began pulling state and local resources together under a single existing industry umbrella for the region. Two years later, after Hurricane Isabel dealt an ugly smack to much of the Northeast, the opportunity was ripe to move the new program into high gear. The partnership, whose own offices were rendered unusable by the storm surge, reached out to businesses needing answers on how to access state and federal emergency aid and other resources.

“There are many good things that happened in spite of the hurricane — or perhaps, because of the hurricane,” says Margie Brooks, executive director of the Hyde County Chamber of Commerce. Her organization, along with 19 other chambers throughout the region, works closely with the Northeast’s existing industry program. Beyond chatting with companies about the challenges they face, the program also seeks input regarding opportunities. That has led to the creation of a Web-based buyer-supplier network that aims to connect small firms in the region with the purchasing needs of larger employers like Nucor, Lowe’s and Weyerhaeuser. Partnership officials are also attempting to link firms operating below full capacity with those whose growing needs may necessitate additional space.

“There is a good opportunity to find commonalities,” explains John Gurganus, an existing industry specialist for the N.C. Department of Commerce based in Edenton. From a functional standpoint, the region’s existing industry program offers seamless service to companies that may need assistance at the local, regional or state levels, he says. For their part, business owners and plant managers appreciate visits from a single team instead of a flow of calls from various development officials who aren’t always communicating well with each other.

The regional partnership has been an added plus for the Northeast, says Rep. Bill Owens, especially for smaller cities and towns with limited resources and technical expertise. “It’s another example of what you can do when you work together,” he says. While much more work remains —Owens is eager to see upgrades begin on U.S. Highway 158, along with continued educational improvements — he is proud of what the region has accomplished in the past decade. “We’ve come so far,” says Owens, “and we’ve gotten here by working together.”


 Old and New Mix Draws Tourists Northeast

North Carolina’s Outer Banks are among the East Coast’s finest beaches. But there is far more than sand and surf to draw visitors to the Northeast — much more.

Thousands descend on the region regularly to appreciate its rich Colonial-era heritage. Manteo’s Elizabethan Gardens, Hertford’s 1730 Newbold-White House and a cluster of 18th Century homes and churches in Edenton have welcomed generations of history loving tourists. Later this year, two new museums will open that capture the region’s rich social, economic and cultural heritage. In Halifax County, the Roanoke Canal Museum & Trail Project Weldon will highlight a key piece of early American industrial infrastructure. The museum traces the navigational history of the Roanoke River from earliest times through the advent of hydroelectric power. Also, after several years in the works, the state will soon unveil the new home of the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City. The 50,000-square-foot complex will detail the Northeast’s earliest history, with displays of tools and artifacts from pre-Columbian times through the 20th Century.

In Chowan County, markers are now in place as part of the recently unveiled North Carolina Civil War Trails Campaign. The program, administered by the N.C. Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development, showcases key sites in the War Between the States. They include Edenton’s Harbor Waterfront, scene of the Battle of Albemarle Sound (see this month’s Tar Heel Travels for lots more about the Civil War trails statewide). Not far away, another sign recalls the War on the Chowan River, offering an overview of the Union naval gunboats that patrolled the full length of the river.

But few new tourism development initiatives have generated a buzz like that of the Northeast’s efforts to establish a live entertainment district comparable to those found in and around Gatlinburg, Tenn. Officials at North Carolina’s Northeast Partnership are working with Randy Parton, brother of country music diva Dolly Parton, to secure the necessary participation of private investors.

The initial phase of the multi-county venture is focused on Roanoke Rapids, where local, county and regional leaders hope to construct a 130-acre family entertainment attraction complete with music halls, hotels, restaurants, retail and more. The district would be located just off heavily traversed I-95. If all goes according to plan, a new 35,610-square-foot theatre designed to anchor the complex will welcome its maiden audience in May of next year.     -- Lawrence Bivins            



 Small Firms Flourish Given the Right Encouragement

Glenn Anderson has no regrets about opening Acoustic Coffee, though having his wife as a business partner introduces a new dynamic to his marriage. Mindy Edge figured Carolina Theatre & Grille would have a greater chance of success in her home town of Elizabeth City, and successful it has been.

Lacking a long list of industrial titans, the Northeast looks to small businesses for the Lion’s Share of its job growth. Entrepreneurial opportunities are what attract many new residents to the region — and offer younger natives an alternative to metropolitan migration. Support from economic developers, chambers of commerce, community colleges and other groups accounts for the success of many of the region’s business owners.

“Everybody’s been so supportive,” says Edge, an Elizabeth City native who returned home after working several years in Richmond, Va. Three years ago, Edge and her Connecticut born husband Bryan opened Carolina Theatre & Grille in the renovated Love State Theatre and two vacant storefronts next door. The couple received help from River City Community Development Corp. in drawing up a business plan, and they credit word-of-mouth referrals from the Elizabeth City Area Chamber of Commerce for many of their new customers. Today, the business employs 20 part-time workers. “It took us only a year to begin turning a profit,” says Edge, whose only regret about business ownership is the scant free time it allows her to spend with her husband and children.  

In Edenton, the place to be is Acoustic Coffee. It opened in 2002, not long after owners Glenn and Anita Andersen moved to Edenton from Charlotte. Glenn, a former engineer for Duke Power, says he and Anita decided to ditch big city living. Eighteen months later, the establishment was operating safely in the black. Andersen says. “It’s been hard work, but also the most satisfying thing we’ve ever done.”                     — Lawrence Bivins





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