06/17/12 — Fremont hoping to kickstart economic development

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Fremont hoping to kickstart economic development

By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 17, 2012 1:50 AM

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W.T. Smith enters his restaurant, Capitol Cafe, in Fremont, which he has operated on the corner of Main and Goldsboro streets for 21 years.

FREMONT -- A community-wide celebration is being planned for August to help launch Fremont's participation in a state program that local leaders hope will kickstart economic development.

A local delegation led by outgoing Mayor Leroy Ruffin was in Raleigh earlier this month to meet with Gov. Beverly Perdue and N.C. Rural Economic Development Center President Billy Ray Hall, who recognized the town for being accepted into the N.C. Small Towns Economic Prosperity Program.

The program is designed to assist struggling small towns with economic renewal. It incorporates community coaching, leadership training, planning assistance and grants. The next steps for Fremont include the creation of a leadership team, which must represent all segments of the community, and a kickoff event to increase awareness of the program and invite widespread participation.

The program is open to municipalities with a population of 7,500 or less. Thus far, 67 towns have participated.

The state sent out requests for proposals, and Fremont was among the 39 towns to apply and 11 accepted, said Town Administrator Kerry McDuffie.

"The Rural Center is providing us three things," he said. "It is giving us $25,000 for planning. It will provide technical assistance by providing an economic development advisor, and once we develop the plan for economic development the state will give us $100,000 to implement it. It will be used as seed money.

"The most important part is the technical assistance. They know where all of the resources are. We feel like this is a huge advantage for the town of Fremont, but we know it will be a lot of work."

The state did not provide any specifics of what it wants in the plan, rather it wants the municipalities to develop something "unique" to them, he explained.

"What works at Southport, a beach community, might not work for Fremont," McDuffie said. "What works for a town in the mountains might not work either. It will take about a year to develop the plan. They want all of the $125,000 spent within two years."

The town will hold its first planning meeting July 24 from 7-8 p.m. at town hall. The meetings will be held on the fourth Tuesday of each month. A light dinner will be provided.

"Anybody who wants to come out and be a part of the decision making is welcome," McDuffie said. "The more people, the more ideas, the better the process will be. Anyone living in Fremont or who has a business in Fremont is welcome. They do not have to live here."

A kickoff community celebration event is being planned, possibly for Aug. 7 to coincide with National Night Out, he said.

During the ceremonies in Raleigh, Mrs Perdue and presented Ruffin a plaque recognizing Fremont as a participant in the program.

Fremont also was recognized with a brick bearing the town's name on the Rural Center's Town Square. On the Town Square, part of a courtyard at the center, a sundial is surrounded by bricks bearing the names of the 67 towns that have participated in N.C. STEP since the program was launched in 2006

"You've got to inspire your people to believe that good things can happen in little bitty places," Mrs. Perdue said during the ceremony.

Representatives of towns that joined the program in 2010 offered words of encouragement and counsel.

"This process will bring together people who truly believe in the value of your town and what it can become," said Dan Ryan, a town council member from Maysville in Jones County, but there will be obstacles.

"STEP challenges business as usual," he said. "It means change, and change is scary."

Towns that joined the program earlier have seen more than 1,800 volunteers participate in the strategic planning process and project implementation. Approximately 660 jobs were created through the first 200 projects implemented. The volunteers also have learned to find and leverage resources, totaling nearly $19 million so far.

The N.C. Rural Economic Development Center is a private, nonprofit organization whose mission is to develop sound economic strategies that improve the quality of life in rural North Carolina, with a special focus on individuals with low to moderate incomes and communities with limited resources. The center operates a multifaceted program that includes conducting research into rural issues; testing promising rural development strategies; advocating for policy and program innovations; and building the productive capacity of rural leaders, entrepreneurs and community organizations.