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Vessel eyed for sound cruises

HERTFORD — Area officials are hoping to use a smaller cruise vessel on the Albemarle Sound next summer to help show the tourism-boosting potential of a larger project using passenger ferries.

During a meeting Monday in Hertford, officials associated with the Harbor Town Project said they were hoping to attract the 85-foot-long Belle of Washington to the region for Albemarle sound tours. The vessel, which can accommodate as many as 60 passengers, could be used every other month between April and October, officials said.

“Having the Belle of Washington in the Albemarle Sound region during the summer of 2020 will be a wonderful opportunity for everyone to enjoy. It’s exciting, people are enthusiastic about it,” said Nick Didow, an associate professor of marketing at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flager Business School. “When the Belle was here before, it was wonderfully successful. We are just really excited about what this summer is holding. It is a major step forward in the Harbor Town project.”

The Harbor Town Project was launched several years ago as a way to boost the economies of the “harbor towns” ringing the Albemarle Sound region. The project proposes spending almost $14 million to purchase ferries that would operate between towns like Hertford, Edenton, Plymouth, Columbia, Elizabeth City and Kitty Hawk. The project also envisions a public-private partnership to upgrade historic and eco-tourism sites along the sound, making them more attractive to visitors.

Besides Didow, state Rep. Ed Goodwin, R-Chowan, is another chief proponent of the Harbor Town Project. Goodwin encouraged area officials to continue to support the project at Monday’s meeting.

“The idea is still in the forefront — I’m keeping the stove warm, keeping the pot hot,” said Goodwin, who formerly managed the state ferry division. “Interest is still there in the General Assembly and I’m going to still keep on pushing it. I hope your support and encouragement and desire for this project never fails and you see it come to fruition.”

Goodwin said the passenger ferry project that he worked on that links Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island has been a huge success. He noted the number of ferry passengers far exceeded what was expected when the ferry division started the route in May. He suggested a ferry vessel operating on the Albemarle Sound could also be popular with visitors.

Goodwin in fact had arranged for the 150-passenger ferry used for the Cape Hatteras-Ocracoke route during the summer to begin pilot runs across the Albemarle Sound in September. Because of Hurricane Dorian’s arrival off the North Carolina coast in early September, however, the ferry’s owners moved the boat out of the storm’s path and the proposed week-long trial was canceled.

Goodwin said he doesn’t know yet whether he’ll be able to arrange use of a passenger ferry for a similar trial in the spring. However, state funds set aside to pay costs associated with the trial — $70,000 — may still be used to support a future project, he said.

“I’m absolutely optimistic that something will be accomplished and the project will move forward next year,” Goodwin said.

The Belle of Washington made a two-day loop of the Albemarle Sound region in May 2018, embarking from Elizabeth City and making stops in Perquimans County, Edenton, Plymouth and Columbia before returning to Elizabeth City. The tour was scheduled as part of a year-long celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Albemarle’s founding.

TDA online content now available only to subscribers

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Currituck may seek own review of solar farm's safety

CURRITUCK — Currituck County officials have elected to wait until repairs to a storm-damaged solar farm in Grandy are closer to completion before deciding whether to hire an engineer to review the work and ensure the facility is safe.

Dozens of solar panels at Ecoplexus’ 100-acre site on U.S. Highway 158 were damaged during Hurricane Dorian in September. Approximately 55,000 solar panels cover 58 acres on the site with the rest of the land serving as a buffer between the solar farm and adjacent property owners.

Currituck officials said Ecoplexus advised the county that the solar panels damaged during Dorian were under construction at the time the storm hit. They’ve told the county the solar farm, located on the former Goose Creek Golf Course north of Uncle Graham Road, will be safe once it becomes operational.

To make sure the solar farm doesn’t pose a risk to nearby property owners, County Manager Ben Stikeleather told the Board of Commissioners during a work session Monday that the county could spend $1,550 for an independent review of Ecoplexus’ repairs and possible safety enhancements at the site.

Commissioner Paul Beaumont said he believes a better design at the solar farm that included lock washers and lock nuts on the panels could have prevented the damage. He believes the county needs to hire an independent engineer to inspect work at the site. He said that if an outside engineer suggests adding extra safety precautions and Ecoplexus doesn’t follow through then “it is even more on them.”

“I want to be the county that stands up for the people so they don’t get smacked by something that comes through that fence,” Beaumont said, referring to the buffer that surrounds the solar farm. “When your engineer design fails as abysmally as that one does and starts slinging stuff around, I think we have an obligation, especially at $1,500, to step in. I’ll go down as the commissioner that said, ‘I was trying to protect you.’”

Beaumont mentioned a video filmed by a homeowner who lives next to the solar farm that shows the solar panels being damaged during the storm.

“Those folks were told by Ecoplexus that these things were not going to be a threat,” Beaumont said. “When you watch that video, and when you see that section let go, it’s a miracle it didn’t wipe out those people’s back window. There are families that don’t sleep well at night because they fear that thing coming through their window.’’

Commissioner Kevin McCord read an email he received from Ecoplexus in late September that states the company is going to take extra steps to make the facility safe.

In the email, an Ecoplexus executive based in California stated the company is going to do a full review of what went wrong at the solar facility and why. That includes determining what percentage of the facility suffered damage and what was the difference between sections of the facility that failed and those that didn’t. The company also said it will take steps to make sure that failures don’t happen in the future. Ecoplexus also plans to send a letter to adjoining neighbors outlining any corrective measures it takes, according to the email.

“They basically said they will do whatever” is needed, McCord said.

The board decided to wait until it receives further updates from Ecoplexus before possibly seeking an independent review by an engineer.

“If we are not satisfied, we can go after a separate analysis,” Board of Commissioners Chairman Bob White said.

Currituck County Public Information Officer Randall Edwards said Tuesday that repair work by Ecoplexus on the damaged sections is ongoing but he did not know when the project would be completed.

Citing concerns about the potential of a solar farm to flood adjacent properties and negatively affect neighboring property values, the county denied Ecoplexus’ initial attempt to build the solar farm in April 2016.

The San Francisco-based company challenged the county’s decision in Currituck Superior Court, where Resident Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett sided with the county in early 2017.

Ecoplexus, however, won a reversal in the case from the N.C. Court of Appeals in 2018. The court ruled unanimously that Ecoplexus had made its case for obtaining a county permit for the solar farm.

Hooked on Telephonics: 100-plus turn out for jobs event

More than 100 job-seekers turned out for an event at College of The Albemarle on Wednesday to learn about new employment opportunities at aerospace communications manufacturer Telephonics.

Among those attending the informational session hosted by Telephonics and the NC Works Career Center was Rayshawn Stallings, an 18-year-old graduate from Northeastern High School currently taking math and other core classes at COA.

Although he already has a job, Stallings said he is interested in additional employment and decided to check out the Telephonics presentation.

“I’m just good with technology,” Stallings said, explaining why he thought he could be a good fit for the company. “I’m going to see how this meeting goes.”

Jack Enright, senior vice president at Telephonics, said renovation of the company’s additional location in Elizabeth City — a former bank building on Corporate Drive — will be completed in December. An open house will be held in January and at that time those interested in working for the company will be able to take both written and skills tests to see if they qualify to apply for the 75 new jobs the company is creating.

COA expects to begin offering the two-week prerequisite training for Telephonics in December. Enright said the training will prepare people to take the tests at Telephonics and apply for jobs there. Those selected to be hired will be provided additional training, he said.

“We’re giving folks a good path forward to come to Telephonics bringing with them some skills that they can offer us,” Enright said.

Enright noted the equipment manufactured by the company is used by the U.S. military and allows for no margin of error.

“They press a button and it needs to work every time,” he said.

The company’s partnership with COA and NC Works is important, Enright said.

“I really need what they’re doing,” he said, referring to both the community college and state employment service.

Pasquotank Commissioner Cecil Perry brought two young men to the event to hear the Telephonics presentation and said he had talked to numerous others about it.

“I put it out there,” Perry said. “I’ve been in the churches and so forth.”

Telephonics actually held two sessions for its presentation on Wednesday, one from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the other from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. About 100 people attended the first session.

Matthew Fowler, director of the NC Works Career Center in Elizabeth City and Edenton, said the event was part of an effort to close the skills gap and enable local residents to stay in Pasquotank County and work for a local employer.

Perry, a member of the COA Board of Trustees, said he is very glad to see the college involved with the Telephonics expansion. He also believes incoming COA President Jack Bagwell will grow the college’s role in providing this kind of customized training for local employers.

Christian Lockamy, economic development developer for Pasquotank County and Elizabeth City, said he, too, is glad to see Telephonics partnering with COA and NC Works to close the local skills gap.

Fowler said customized training enables people to stay here and find employment that will pay enough to provide for themselves and their families. NC Works would like to see more businesses partner with COA to offer customized training, he said.

Fowler said Telephonics wants to hire people from the local area for its new jobs. However, company officials recognized there is a skills gap that could limit opportunities for local residents to compete for those jobs. That’s why Telephonics worked with COA to develop a two-week customized training course that will provide basic skills needed to work at the company, he said.

Explaining how the training will work, the process for enrolling in the training, and the process for applying to work at Telephonics was the focus of Wednesday’s information sessions.

Jason Gold of Acceleration Educational Services Inc. helps clients with disabilities to find employment. He attended the session Wednesday to explore opportunities that might be available for some of his clients.

“Even though my clients have various kinds of disabilities they still are able to work in a competitive world,” Gold said. “I came to see what types of options they have.”

Gold explained that Acceleration is state-funded and partners with Vocational Rehabilitation. Acceleration provides services in a seven-county area, he said.

Those interested in registering for the training should contact COA at 335-0821, ext. 2229.