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Harbor Town Project about more than fast ferries

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By Peter Thomson
Columnist

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The other day Professor Nick Didow of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina made a presentation at Museum of the Albemarle. Because of his success in bringing dark fiber to rural North Carolina, when Nick talks, people in this area listen intently. You see, dark fiber is the stuff necessary to have high-speed, really high-speed internet, and until Nick’s project (which later became MCNC) it was not available to us in Elizabeth City except at extraordinary cost. Without it, small towns cannot be competitive for a high-tech business. But Nick, with early help from our own economic developer Wayne Harris, got it done and created competition for the entrenched providers. The project was an outstanding example of regional economic development.

Fact is, up in Raleigh Professor Didow is known as one of rural North Carolina’s greatest advocates, and goodness knows we need one. Some of the folks up there seem to have forgotten that 90 percent of the jobs created in the past 10 years have been in the cities, while the rural population has decreased and been left out of the job boom. Well, Nick certainly hasn’t forgotten. His newest proposal is once again ambitious in scope and transformative in nature. It’s designed to help the towns of the Inner Banks come together to form a tourism destination. The MOA presentation was entitled “Albemarle Sound, Tourism Based Economic Development Project,” and if some of the attendees thought it was really was about fast ferries, they missed the point.

Individually, none of the towns on the Inner Banks have enough attractions to make tourists excited to come and stay. Plymouth, Edenton, Columbia, Hertford and Elizabeth City each have historical downtowns and historic, ecological and artistic things that they treasure. But there’s not enough of them to create a strong destination.

What Professor Didow proposes, through the help of premier institutions and the direction of residents in each community, is to use state money and expertise to develop strong singular attractions. He proposes to use more grant money to develop a waterfront infrastructure and a revolving fund to start downtown businesses to serve a tourist population. He would then, with these plans in place, join up the towns with a fast-ferry service. So, first create the attractions and the ability to take advantage of incoming tourism dollars, then join them together to make a whole much greater than the individual parts.

He points out that the Albemarle Sound is the largest body of water in the U.S. without a ferry service, either public or private, and that tourists like to travel on the water. Historically, there have been successful ferries here, and recently the Bonnie Blue ran tourists here from Norfolk for a profit. However, local efforts in the past have foundered because the different towns did not have enough attractions to warrant such a service. Now the plan is to expand the attractions, then use a ferry system to join them together into a premier destination.

For tourism directors of the region, it’s a dream come true: available dollars for development and outside expertise to make it work! For economic developers, what’s not to like: substantial outside resources coming to our region to change struggling individual towns into modest tourist meccas, brought together by a transportation system that people love to ride.

It’s a bold plan but falls in line with Gov. Roy Cooper’s announced intentions to bring prosperity all parts of the state. But it’s not easy. Professor Didow is putting in necessary windshield time explaining the plan and gathering information and support from the communities. While the numbers his group believe in are conservative, he listens intently to developers, county managers, mayors, city managers and the like to find out how this kind of initiative affects the different areas, and what can be done to integrate local wishes into an overall plan. So while the final roll-out, later this year, will be similar, it’ll have a lot of local input in it.

With the laying of dark fiber across the state, Nick Didow proved that Raleigh could be jolted into having an appreciation of the problems of the rural areas of the state. Let’s hope that he becomes equally successful with an audacious, comprehensive plan to make the Albemarle a tourism destination.

Peter Thomson is a resident of Elizabeth City.

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