11/26/07 — Duplin makes plans for growth

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Duplin makes plans for growth

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 26, 2007 1:45 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Sitting in the middle of North Carolina's five major military bases -- all of which are expanding -- and with several new projects already being discussed, the Duplin County Board of Commissioners has begun taking a serious look at how it will plan for its coming growth.

The first step in that process was the review and adoption of the county's new strategic plan, which was put together over the last few months by a group of about 50 residents.

Focusing on the major external and internal issues facing the county, the committee was asked to prioritize those areas it thought were the most critical.

And, said County Manager Mike Aldridge, it came as no surprise when education floated to the top.

Under that topic, he explained, areas of concern included the high dropout rate, the need for vocational education, better recruitment and retention of teachers, the need for more technology and, of course, higher quality facilities.

"Facilities came up about four times as much as any other issue," Aldridge said.

One way those facility concerns might be addressed, though, is through a local quarter-cent sales tax referendum that will be placed on the May primary ballot.

However, the commissioners noted as they rejected the school board's standing facilities plan, there will need to be a lot of public education and a proposal developed that everybody can support if the tax is going to be approved.

"In preparation for the sales tax vote, the citizens of this county have let it be known they will not support this facilities plan," commission Chairman David Fussell said Monday, urging the school board to revisit it.

But education was only one of the plan's four main target areas -- those that accounted for 71 percent of the participants' top concerns.

The second was the county's infrastructure, including its roads, rails, water and sewer and even Internet connectivity. Also included under the infrastructure heading was the need to focus on recreation facilities and the potential for countywide zoning.

The third area highlighted by the strategic planning committee was economic development and the need to increase the county's tax base, expand its retail economy, revitalize its downtowns, lower its unemployment and educate its workforce.

"I think people really want to see us develop Duplin County," Aldridge said.

And finally, rounding out the fourth priority, was the need for more affordable health care, better accessible emergency care and more opportunities for preventive care in schools and in the communities.

But, Aldridge noted, those four weren't the only things the committee discussed. Other areas of concern included effective county and local governments, public safety, agricultural and natural resources and cultural appreciation.

Now, he continued, the next step is to begin addressing those four priorities and implementing some of the strategies recommended.

"My thinking is, every time we come in here with something, we ought to be able to point and say this is how it lines up with the plan," he said. "And if it doesn't, we ought to have a good reason."

It was a plan that the commissioners enthusiastically adopted.

"We need to make this our plan," Fussell said.

And earlier in the meeting, the importance of having such a plan in place was highlighted by Earl Brinkley, Duplin's representative to the North Carolina Eastern Region.

Presenting a report recently compiled by the regional organization, Brinkley attempted to outline the type of growth Duplin County is likely to see in the coming years.

Situated within a two-hour drive of all of North Carolina's major military bases -- Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, the U.S. Army's Fort Bragg, the U.S. Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point and Marine Air Corps Station New River -- he explained that Duplin and other surrounding counties are poised to see a significant amount of growth, both in terms of their population and their economy.

Estimates, he said, are for approximately 61,000 people to move into the area over the next five years based on proposed Marine expansions alone.

Also contributing to the population increase, he added, will eventually be the new International Port at Southport -- also within a two-hour drive of Duplin County.

"This will basically be a whole new county being dropped into the region," Brinkley said.

And, he noted, Warsaw, which sits at or near the intersections of N.C. 24, U.S. 117 and I-40, will practically be in middle.

"Duplin County is on the threshold of dramatic growth and opportunity," he said. "But there are substantial challenges to address with regard to this rapid population growth."

To help prepare the seven-county region, the N.C. Eastern Region is beginning an analysis of the area's strengths and weaknesses, with an end goal of creating a regional growth plan. The results from the effort, Brinkley said, are expected to begin coming in early next year.