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Shipyard, Perquimans marine park funds not in House budget

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The proposed N.C. House budget does not include requested funding to buy and cleanup the former Elizabeth City Shipyard property or to develop the Perquimans Marine Industrial park.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Two major investments in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties were not included in last week's House budget, casting further uncertainty on whether they'll end up in the final state budget.

The House of Representatives voted 61-51 in favor of House Bill 966, the $23.9 billion budget bill that passed almost entirely on party lines, with all Republicans in favor and all but one Democrat opposed, according to the General Assembly's website. It's gone to the Senate for review, though that body is expected to pass its own, separate version of the budget in coming weeks, setting up negotiations between the two chambers and possibly Gov. Roy Cooper.

Apart from contentious provisions about education funding, employee raises, tax cuts and more, the House budget stands out for another reason: it does not include the $80-million-plus that Cooper has proposed for rural communities. That includes $26.4 million in “locally identified projects” the administration is supporting based on meetings with small communities, including through Cooper's “Hometown Strong” initiative that saw state officials working more closely with Pasquotank County and a few other pilot communities.

Among other appropriations he proposed, Cooper called for about $14.8 million for the Marine Industrial Park in Perquimans. He identified the park as one of three “transformational projects” the state could fund for rural communities, the others being in Rockingham and Kinston.

The $14.8 million would cover almost half the estimated cost of the park, which has been in the works for a decade. It includes constructing a 2,500-foot-long boat basin by land the county owns near its recreation center, plus other infrastructure improvements intended to draw boat builders and other marine businesses that could be a big boost to the small county's economy. County officials estimate the park could employ up to 500.

However, the project has progressed slowly, as the county has assembled only a small fraction of its estimated $30 million cost, including almost $3.6 million in other grants.

Cooper also proposed $1 million to help Elizabeth City buy and clean up the Elizabeth City Shipyard, a years-running goal for the city council. Cooper may not have labeled it transformational, but city and downtown leaders often do, arguing the project's redevelopment would greatly add to public, and possibly commercial, use of the waterfront.

The House member serving Perquimans, Rep. Ed Goodwin, R-Chowan, voted for the House budget, while the one serving Pasquotank, Rep. Howard Hunter III, D-Hertford, opposed it.

Goodwin could not be reached for comment last week, but said in March he supported the Perquimans project, and would try to get other lawmakers to do the same.

In a brief interview Friday, Hunter identified several reasons he opposed the House budget, arguing it provided inadequate raises for teachers and state employees, and failed to expand Medicaid. Expanding Medicaid has been a top priority for state Democrats, but Republicans have blocked it over concerns about costs and growing government.

Hunter also reiterated his support for the local projects. He also shared a comparison of Cooper's budget to the House budget; that document notably claims the House budget not only doesn't fund the locally identified projects, but “transfers more than $14 million away from two rural economic development programs,” the Utility Account and State Rural Grants for infrastructure.

Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, represents northeastern North Carolina, including Perquimans and Pasquotank. Steinburg reiterated his support for the Marine Industrial Park and shipyard acquisition, but couldn't speak to why House members didn't fund them.

Steinburg continued he was “particularly surprised” the Marine Industrial Park wasn't funded, explaining he believed it offered the “quickest return on investment” of local projects. There are companies right now looking to invest in the park, he said.

The shipyard acquisition would also be “huge” for Elizabeth City, he said, calling it the “last link” in the city's waterfront. Even when he first saw it decades ago, he saw the need for its redevelopment, he recounted.

Local officials and lawmakers couldn't explain why the House budget didn't include the projects, and said they weren't aware of specific objections to them.

In theory, some lawmakers might oppose the special appropriations – earmarks – which would be funded outside of normal, competitive grant applications. Opponents of earmarks generally argue they make funding decisions too political; they can allow influential officials to fund their interests at the expense of projects with greater overall benefit to the public.

Asked about possible concerns over earmarks, Steinburg stressed he believed the Marine Industrial Park and the shipyard purchase stood strongly on their own merits.

“These are things where you can get a lot of bang for the buck,” he said, referring to their potential economic impacts.

Steinburg also said he hasn't fully reviewed the House budget, and so didn't have an opinion on it yet. It won't be the final state budget, however. He said the Senate will draft its own budget, which is expected late this month, setting up negotiations between the two chambers on what to send for Cooper for his signature.

Local officials are encouraging lawmakers to broadly support rural investment, Elizabeth City Downtown Inc. Executive Director Deborah Malenfant explained in an interview this week. She said rural officials, and the N.C. Downtown Development Association, are lobbying lawmakers to support all rural communities, not just a few.

Asked about possible objections to certain projects, Malenfant said, “I don't get caught up in the political part of it,” and promoted the rural investments as economic development initiatives.

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