04/09/08 — Northern Wayne Task Force gathers to plan future

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Northern Wayne Task Force gathers to plan future

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 9, 2008 2:26 PM

Holding its inaugural meeting Tuesday, the Northern Wayne Task Force agreed that despite a past during which the region has felt largely ignored, now is the time to take responsibility for the area's economic future.

"I like the idea of working as a group instead of Fremont working by itself, Pikeville working by itself and Eureka working by itself," Pikeville resident Thigie Thigpen said. "I think that has been a problem in the past. But I don't think it was because of the past leadership; I just think it was because we didn't really know we could do this."

The "this," he spoke of was the creation of the task force -- the first step after The Sanford Holshouser Business Development Group presented the results of its Northern Wayne Assessment last year -- and the decisions it made Tuesday night to begin pursing a list of four recommended steps.

Those recommendations, which were narrowed from an initial list of 15, are the need to develop commercial businesses, especially along I-795; the need to improve the appearance of each community's downtown areas; the need to review and understand current infrastructure and utility capacities, as well as the future needs for residential and industrial growth; and the need to learn how to attract grant funding for each of those projects.

And while some of those areas might have interested some in the audience more than others, all three dozen participants seemed to agree that each is going to have to be addressed.

"Without utilities and infrastructure you don't have anything," Pikeville Commissioner Lyman Galloway said. "But one area is just as important as the other. They're all going to have to combine."

How that happens, though, Thigpen noted, might depend on a lot of factors, not the least of which is funding -- much of which he hopes they can find through various grant opportunities.

"Nothing can be done without money," he said. "Everything will have to follow the money."

But these weren't just pie-in-the-sky priorities. For each, the group also listed several specific action steps that it wants to take.

Under commercial development, participants decided to begin investigating what it would take to attract truck stops or other service stations, restaurants, motels and auto centers.

Under utilities review, the group decided it needs to become more involved with the larger Wayne County Utilities Commission and to find out exactly how much capacity for water, sewer, electricity and natural gas exists in the northern area and how that compares to potential needs.

Under downtown improvements, the group tossed out ideas for lighting, sidewalks, landscaping, facade improvements and an increased number of festivals.

And under grant writing, members are planning to meet with the county's grant writer to begin defining what funds are needed and what sources exist.

Other recommendations made, but not acted on Tuesday night, included the need to create more community leaders in northern Wayne County, the need to become more involved on countywide committees, the need to identify and to help develop -- possibly with other entities -- potential industrial sites and shell buildings, and the need to focus on attracting military families and improving historic homes.

It was, many of the members felt, a successful meeting despite the daunting challenges still ahead.

"My definition of northern Wayne County goes from Belfast to the Wilson County line to the Greene County line to the Johnston County line. That's a big area," said Fremont resident Darron Flowers. "We've looked at each other individually, but we need to begin looking at each other collectively. As long as we stay independent and work independent, we're working against each other instead of for ourselves."

And so, emphasized Al Delia, the group facilitator and director of North Carolina's Eastern Region, overcoming those old habits is going to take a commitment by the whole committee.

"Don't let this die on the vine," he said, urging participants to begin immediately scheduling future meetings for the individual sub-committees, as well as for the task force as a whole. "These are your towns. This is your county. You've got to make this happen. It's in your hands. Nobody's going to do it for you."

But for Thigpen, even though he believes this is likely to be a long-term process, he left Tuesday optimistic that the first step toward progress had been made.

"I'm 42 now. If I live to be 65, I think we'll see some results of this meeting," he said. "But this is really for the kids and grandkids, and it's got to start somewhere."