09/12/07 — Northern Wayne economic study released

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Northern Wayne economic study released

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on September 12, 2007 1:45 PM

PIKEVILLE -- Long feeling ignored and overlooked by the rest of the county, residents and officials from Fremont, Pikeville and Eureka are hoping that by banding together, they can bring not only some attention to northern Wayne County, but also some increased economic opportunities.

The first step toward that goal was taken about a year ago when all three towns began looking for some type of community assessment study and approached the Wayne County Development Alliance for help.

The results of that region-wide study were released Tuesday night -- and perhaps the most important recommendation was for Fremont, Pikeville and Eureka to continue working together.

"This is something that you have talked about for a long time. Finally now, you have put some meat on the bones," said Crystal Morphis, managing partner with Sanford Holshouser Business Development Group.

She explained that by going through this study -- an examination of the region's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats by objective analysis, conversations with town officials and local leaders and the results of a mail survey -- the three communities should be able to begin developing a plan for the future.

"You can't start moving forward until you figure out where you are and lay down a path. Hopefully that's what this study does," she said.

She began Tuesday's presentation began by explaining where the three towns stand.

Since 1990, with the exception of Pikeville, each has seen a reduction in population, which tends to skew older -- median age 40.4 years -- than the rest of the county, anyway.

In terms of education, while Eureka and Pikeville's numbers are in line with the rest of Wayne County, more than half of Fremont has only a high school education or less. Yet northern Wayne does have quality schools -- considered a strength by many -- with at least 60 percent of students at grade level at each.

And while the northern region's per capita income is several thousand dollars lower than the rest of the county's, its unemployment numbers aren't too different.

Yet, according to the WCDA, of the 33 new businesses opening in Wayne County since 2005, only one was in the northern half -- Benton & Sons in Pikeville. At the same time, of the seven businesses to close since 2005, one, S.E. Sasser Inc., was in Fremont.

But in order to improve that status quo, there are several challenges the towns will have to overcome.

Perhaps the biggest weakness for all three is public utilities -- water and sewer in Eureka and Fremont, and electric in Pikeville.

"Utilities is something that came up in every town. Utility capacity and utility cost are the most glaring issues," Morphis explained. "It's hindering growth."

Fortunately, she continued, all three towns are already working to address their problems and reduce their rates.

The second biggest weaknesses is the lack of available sites and buildings for companies looking to move to the region.

Morphis explained that it's a two-fold problem.

Despite the large undeveloped plots of land that exist in Northern Wayne, she said, few have been identified with owners willing to sell. The second piece of the puzzle, she continued, is constructing a shell building or utilizing a virtual shell building program to help attract new industry -- something likely to require the cooperation of all three towns and the county.

Having such infrastructure in place, she explained, is the second most important thing, after a strong labor force, to attracting new businesses.

Other challenges include the need to improve the appearance of each town, particularly in the downtown areas, the need to improve upon the historic lack of cooperation between the towns and between the towns and the county, and the need to expand the region's leadership pool.

But northern Wayne does have its strengths.

Primary among those is the U.S. 117 bypass, which, with its interchanges with both Pikeville and Fremont, has the potential to open up the whole area for economic development and residential growth, given the towns' proximity to Goldsboro, Wilson and the Triangle.

Other strengths identified in the study include the local libraries in Pikeville and Fremont, the existence of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in the county and the active civic, charitable and church organizations in all three communities.

The Daffodil Festival in Fremont also was identified a strength, as were the Northern Wayne Heritage Museum and the N.C. Cotton Museum in Pikeville, and the town ball park in Eureka.

And from those strengths, Morphis continued, are opportunities the three towns can take advantage of, such as heritage and agri-tourism and the preservation of historic homes. She also said that the region should strive to attract airmen and their families moving to Seymour Johnson, as well as work to find any available land to help bring in new industries to employ people currently traveling out-of-county for work.

But doing so, she added, will require much more cooperation than seen in the past.

She recommended that the three towns come together to create a Northern Wayne Task Force to begin to address these issues, as well as begin to look for more grant opportunities, expand community college outreach programs and increase regional involvement in county-wide programs like Leadership Wayne County.

She also recommended the towns undergo a joint utilities review, as well as begin looking for potential multi-jurisdictional business parks -- a process the WCDA has already begun.

"If they move forward with this first step of creating the task force and continue this momentum, they can have some success. But that first step is crucial," Morphis said. "I think they all see that there is a critical need to grow these communities and that they can only do that by working together."