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Does your candidate back the HTP? They should

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By Peter Thomson
Columnist

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The news from downtown Elizabeth City is encouraging with new retail, restaurants, offices and specialty shops moving in. It’s a tribute to the folks who have encouraged them to come: City Council, Elizabeth City Downtown, Inc. and our economic developer.

Perhaps now is a good time to worry about getting enough customers to town to keep these new enterprises open and thriving. While some are unique ventures that could well bring folks in from surrounding towns, all need continuous customer traffic — the stuff that allows stores to expand and landlords to charge more. It’s the lifeline that every retail business and commercial entity needs to survive and flourish.

That’s why the Kenan-Flagler Business School’s Harbor Town Project, or HTP, is so important to our area and why Elizabeth City City Council and the Pasquotank Board of Commissioners support the idea for Elizabeth City and the entire region.

While our town is doing OK today, to make things really hum — to create new jobs, help existing entities and continue to attract new business — we need an increased number of visitors with disposable income. That’s what HTP can deliver: regional growth that’s sustainable.

In its opening phase the HTP will beef up our tourism attractions with the help of state institutions like the School of the Arts, UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and others. It then will use a fast-ferry system to connect the towns to one another and to the Outer Banks. The ferries will make money by the third year of the project, but the important earnings will be in the downtowns and tourism-related businesses and amenities.

This will mean new jobs throughout the region — not just ferry system jobs, but downtown jobs based on increased customer traffic in the five harbor towns. According to the Kenan-Flagler Business School, the system’s first-year ridership would be more than 100,000. It will then build from there. If even half of those folks come to Elizabeth City, it would make a tremendous difference here.

That’s why, for the first time that anyone can remember, there was agreement between our town, Edenton, Hertford, Plymouth, Columbia and their respective counties to support this project. They recognized that HTP would create a regional tourism industry using the history, natural and cultural assets that exist now, and then improving and connecting them.

Here in Eastern North Carolina, we need jobs now and for the next generation. The retail/hospitality industry is unique in that it has many entry-level jobs that offer the possibility of advancement. Increased tourism traffic will result in immediate help to those who want to work while offering a new career path in management and marketing to the next generation. The end result? An emergent new tourism industry, a region once again connected by water, a new tourism brand (IBX) and increased wealth throughout the region.

We are in the final days before a statewide election which has been notable for its personal attacks and lack of concrete proposals to make this part of the world better. Kenan-Flagler’s proposal deserves to be supported on its merits by both political parties. It’s an initiative supported by all five counties and all five cities that needs help from our state representatives to come to being. It seems fair to ask your candidate, “Do you know about the Harbor Town Project? Do you support it? Will you help to make it happen?

Peter Thomson is a resident of Elizabeth City.

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