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Cooper's Hometown Strong to focus on 3 goals in Pasquotank

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Gov. Roy Cooper's “Hometown Strong” initiative will focus on three goals in Pasquotank County: building a nearby part of Interstate 87, growing Elizabeth City State University, and revitalizing Elizabeth City's waterfront. The N.C. Department of Transportation will lead efforts to support development of the Raleigh-to-Norfolk I-87, which will include U.S. Highway 17 in area counties.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, September 23, 2018

In Pasquotank County, Gov. Roy Cooper's “Hometown Strong” initiative will focus on three goals: building a nearby part of Interstate 87, growing Elizabeth City State University, and revitalizing Elizabeth City's waterfront.

Pasquotank County commissioners voted 5-0 to approve those priorities last week. Commissioner Lloyd Griffin was recused from the vote, at his request, to avoid a conflict of interest. His family owns property that could be affected by the waterfront revitalization effort.

Hometown Strong is the Cooper administration's effort to have the state better communicate with and serve its rural communities. Pasquotank is one of six rural communities chosen through a pilot project to receive increased attention and help from state officials.

The initiative brought high-level state officials, including N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan and state Department of Revenue Secretary Ron Penny, to Elizabeth City to meet with county and city officials in June. That site visit and other talks with local officials led to the proposed priorities, Pasquotank County Manager Sparty Hammett told commissioners.

Each priority will be handled by a different state agency, but it’s unclear what new actions they’ll take under Hometown Strong.

The N.C. Department of Transportation will lead efforts to support development of Interstate 87 between Elizabeth City and Hampton Roads. Creating that stretch of I-87 requires upgrading U.S. 17, which will take numerous costly projects over many years. DOT can’t unilaterally decide to prioritize I-87 over other road projects; all road projects have to compete for funds through the state’s road-funding formula.

Accelerating I-87 would take action and funding from state lawmakers. Those lawmakers this year approved additional road funding over the next decade, but that legislation didn’t give any special priority to I-87.

In an email last week, a DOT spokesman said only that DOT has started a feasibility study to “better inform decision-making about this important transportation link between North Carolina and Virginia.”

The N.C. Department of Military and Veterans Affairs will lead efforts to support enrollment at ECSU “by means such as developing an unmanned aircraft systems program,” according to the priority list.

In an interview Friday, ECSU spokesman Rob Kelly-Goss said DMVA Secretary Larry Hall will visit the university on Tuesday to learn more about its programs that could entice more veterans to enroll at ECSU.

In addition to plans to start a unmanned aircraft systems degree program in fall 2019, ECSU is also working on degree programs in emergency management and homeland security. The three programs should greatly appeal to both veterans and active-duty service members, Kelly-Goss said. He noted the emergency management and homeland security programs will be available online to accommodate students serving around the world.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality will lead the waterfront revitalization effort, and the priority list suggests two projects. The first envisions using the state’s Brownfield Program to encourage environmental remediation at the Elizabeth City Shipyard. The shipyard property is owned by Griffin's mother.

The list also suggests supporting development of a “small-boat cruise industry in the region” to provide tours. That's an apparent reference to a UNC-Chapel Hill professor's Harbor Town proposal to create a high-speed ferry service on the Albemarle Sound.

DEQ officials Bruce Nicholson and Brad Atkinson discussed the waterfront revitalization goal in a phone interview last week. Nicholson is the agency’s Brownfield Program manager and Atkinson is a Brownfield projects manager.

No one has submitted a Brownfields application to DEQ yet for the Elizabeth City Shipyard, but it's an eligible project, both Nicholson and Atkinson said. They also explained the state's Brownfield program doesn't provide grant dollars for cleanups, but works with developers to craft agreements that limit liability for redeveloping sites with environmental issues. A separate, federal Brownfield program does provide grants to local governments taking on cleanups, they noted.

The state's program is open to both public and private developers, and doesn't dictate how a property is used, Nicholson and Atkinson added. That would leave open the possibility of commercial or residential projects, though they noted each project is assessed for risk of human exposure to any contaminants left on-site.

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