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Ramping up Hometown Strong: Gov's cabinet chiefs visit EC

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Michael Regan (right), secretary for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, attends an economic forum at Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, Monday. Regan is seated beside Ronald Penny, secretary of the N.C. Department of Revenue and a former Elizabeth City resident.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Two cabinet secretaries and a slew of other state officials visited Elizabeth City Monday for a kickoff meeting of “Hometown Strong,” Gov. Roy Cooper’s new initiative aimed at building prosperity in rural communities.

Cooper unveiled the Hometown Strong initiative in late April, announcing state officials would partner with Pasquotank and five other counties to open communication with rural communities and identify how the state could help them grow.

On Monday, the secretaries of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Revenue, Michael Regan and Ronald Penny, respectively, joined various other state officials in meeting with leaders of both Pasquotank County and Elizabeth City.

“We are here not to talk, but to listen to you,” Penny, a former Elizabeth City resident, told the gathering at Museum of the Albemarle.

He pledged that Cooper, as a native of a small town himself, is committed to seeing all parts of the state prosper.

Local leaders stressed that northeastern North Carolina has great potential for economic growth, but it continues to need investment in infrastructure to catalyze that growth.

“The bottom line is money,” said Mayor Bettie Parker.

Parker made the comment after Elizabeth City-Pasquotank County Economic Development Commission Director Wayne Harris outlined well-known local issues and opportunities. Among them were development of Interstate 87, expanding broadband access and projects that would increase tourism, including construction of the Mid-Currituck Bridge and development of a “Harbor Town” ferry system between Elizabeth City and other “Inner Banks” communities.

Parker thanked Regan, Penny and the other officials for attending, but reiterated the area needs to not be forgotten or “put on the back burner.”

Pasquotank Commissioner Jeff Dixon noted the Hampton Roads area is one of the top metropolitan areas in the country, and Elizabeth City lies less than an hour south of it.

“We're poised to be the next Rock Hill,” said Dixon, referring to the growing South Carolina city south of Charlotte.

He also noted that land is increasingly scarce in Tidewater Virginia, particularly Suffolk, making northeastern North Carolina more attractive to businesses.

Pasquotank Commissioner Joe Winslow similarly said the county is part of a Foreign-Trade Zone, helping attract international companies, and urged development of Interstate 87. The interstate will be the “gateway to the Albemarle” for many businesses, he said.

City Councilor Johnnie Walton added Elizabeth City and Pasquotank are poised to be the “hub” of the region, meaning investment here would support growth in neighboring communities.

Also on hand Monday was former Elizabeth City mayor Joe Peel, who highlighted the many acres of land ready for development at the city-county aviation park. He also called on the state and region to better develop eco-tourism, including by adding bicycle lanes to local roads.

In an interview prior to the meeting, Regan explained one of his concerns is helping the area with infrastructure, particularly water infrastructure. The region and the state need to to accept the realities of climate change and sea-level rise, he said, adding that the state is capable of adequately preparing communities for those challenges. Studies of Elizabeth City in recent years have found sea-level rise could make parts of the downtown very vulnerable to flooding, if not leave them permanently underwater.

The solutions to those problems, including berms, flood gates or simply buying out flood-prone properties, could cost millions of dollars.

Other state agencies represented at Monday’s meeting included the military affairs commission, human resources and the N.C. Department of Transportation.

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