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
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
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
“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. --
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