02/15/08 — After 30 years, Brinson decides to end his time in government

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After 30 years, Brinson decides to end his time in government

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 15, 2008 1:54 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Finally retiring after more than 30 years in local government, Woody Brinson seems to be cautiously optimistic about Duplin County's future.

"I think the next 20 years have got enormous potential for Duplin County and eastern North Carolina," said Brinson, 60, the former economic development director for Duplin County. "But we've got to be willing to invest in order to get the maximum benefit.

"The major problem we have in Duplin County and eastern North Carolina is that we have sat back too long and not invested in education and infrastructure like we've needed to. Now there's a big gap we've got to close and it's going to take money."

The problem, though, is not that Duplin County's not going to grow.

Because of the expansion of the North Carolina's military bases, especially Camp Lejeune, and the growth of the state's ports, county officials are expecting to see at least 20,000 new residents over the next 20 years.

The problem, Brinson explained, is that the county is not yet prepared to handle that growth.

"Duplin County's going to grow in spite of itself," he said. "We're in a good location for growth. But we'd have more and better quality growth if we'd properly prepare for it, bite the bullet and make the investment."

If, he continued, that means not lowering taxes so that the funds are available, then that's what should be done.

"I cannot recall a single business that did not come to Duplin County because of our tax rate," he said. "We've got to invest more before we start cutting more."

And, he believes that investment must first be made in the school system.

"We all want better paying jobs, but to have better paying jobs we've got to have an educated workforce," he said. "Our smartest and brightest students go off to college, and it's hard to get them to come back home to work."

That means that most of those young people who do remain are often the high school dropouts, he said.

"Our workforce is not getting better. It's getting worse. I know our workforce in Duplin County, and it's not as good as it was 20 years ago," Brinson said. "Instead of being a contributor to society, they become a user of social services."

He believes that one possible solution would be to increase the amount of vocational and technical training students receive in middle school and high school.

But education is not the only area where he says new investments must be made.

More must be done in terms of water and sewer despite all the progress made in recent years. And, he added, the county -- along with the state -- can't be shy about giving incentives to businesses, especially homegrown entrepreneurial ventures.

"I hate incentives and I wish we didn't have to do it, but when your competition is doing it, you're obligated to do it," he said. "We need to do more to help our homegrown business. We need to do more to invest in those people, because growth from within is more stable."

He explained that he stresses that homegrown importance because of the unlikelihood of Duplin County -- or even much of eastern North Carolina -- seeing any real growth from areas like the Research Triangle Park.

"We've heard it for years that the research is going to come out of RTP and that new plants are going to go in eastern North Carolina. But how many have you seen?" he said.

Instead, because of traffic and proximity, much of that growth is moving north and south of Raleigh -- not east of I-95.

But he believes that the industrial growth that Duplin is likely to see will continue to be driven by agriculture -- especially as alternative energies continue to increase in importance.

"That's our niche. The majority of our growth has come from agribusiness," he said.

He does not think, though, that hog and poultry waste will be the answer, simply because of the cost associated with transporting the wet or dry litter from the farms to a processing plant. He, instead, is much more confident in the future of crop alternatives, such as switchgrass -- even if it's something that will require much more state involvement and assistance than farmers are currently receiving.

However, Brinson emphasized that the most important thing that Duplin County can do is to begin working together -- and "taking the politics out of economic development."

"We're not united in this county. We've got to many personal agendas by too many people," he said. "It's time to quit talking about things (like the strategic plan) and take some action and do something. For so long we have been inside the box. We don't think big enough. We've got to expand our idea of our potential.

"I think the leadership and the desire are out there; we just haven't found the right group to motivate our people."

That, he continued, is partly why he's decided to retire -- to allow a younger generation the opportunity to step up and try its hand at the wheel, just like he did when he was elected mayor of Kenansville at age 25 in 1973.

"I just didn't like the way they were doing things," he said, explaining his decision to enter local government at that age. "A lot of this has got to come from new leadership. We've got to get more young people involved. We can't keep expecting our leadership to come from the retirement community. If we want to plan for 20 years from now, let's get the people who are going to be the leaders 20 years from now involved."