2018: Year EC starts tapping its unrealized potential


By Peter Thomson

Friday, January 12, 2018

“Are we there yet?”

“Almost there. Just be patient.”

For years Elizabeth City has been regarded as a town of untapped potential, but some entrepreneurs gave up hope after buying development property and finding themselves stranded by a national downturn. Others left town in frustration over the difficulty of doing business here. This year we hope to find out that things have really changed.

Our ex-mayor, Joe Peel, used to tell folks that while, in the short term, a major infrastructure upgrade is painful for business, in the end there would be a jump in development once the roads and bridges were finished. Now things are happening and he looks like a pretty good prognosticator.

Truth is, in a state economy where rural towns generally lose population, business and infrastructure, we’ve done better than most. Luckily for us our economy is driven by the U.S. Coast Guard base, Sentara Albemarle Medical Center, our universities and local government entities — and this has allowed us to weather the worst of the recession. Now, if all goes well, by next year the entrance to town from the Camden Causeway Bridge will have changed dramatically. The Weatherly buildings will morph from a dilapidated factory to upscale loft apartments, the New Fowler Building with its new historical façade, (thank you, City Council), will be used as retail or office space, and the Hurdle Hardware Building, boarded up for years, will be a thriving craft brewery and meeting room.

Now that is change!

And, (as they say in the commercials), that’s not all. New business owners downtown mean that the Arcade, Stalks, the Wig Shop, and the Kramer Building have new impetus for fix-up. People are excited about the possibility of a new eight-screen multiplex theater on Halstead Boulevard Extended, likely to spawn new casual restaurants and stores. Further out, new grocery stores will provide impetus for growth of the “strip” and help make Elizabeth City a true regional shopping center. With The Coast Guard housing conversion, the continued growth of single-family houses near Tanglewood Pavilions and the rebound in home prices, Realtors are smiling for the first time in years while our economic development folks are the busiest they’ve been in a decade fielding inquiries and showing off our town.

Credit for the change belongs to a lot of folks. After Vision 20/20 our city councilors and city manager had new information on how to make Elizabeth City more business-friendly, and they acted on it during the long years of recession with new hires, new rules and new incentives. Elizabeth City Downtown, Inc., under the management of Deborah Malenfant and an active and motivated board, has made a huge difference. Arts of the Albemarle was the anchor for the development of a renewed art-centric downtown, while new city initiatives and Jump Start grants helped fill vacant downtown stores.

They say that a rising tide lifts all boats, so let’s hope this lasts. There are still large projects waiting to happen: the Southern Hotel project is stalled while its developer tries to work out funding (although they do own the buildings and are maintaining them); the Elizabeth City Shipyard remains as a potential re-development site for a strong and cagey entrepreneur; the old hospital site offers the best views of the river and is underutilized by its present structures; and on North Hughes Boulevard empty factory buildings need new owners and new purpose.

But things are happening. Change is in the air as Elizabeth City starts to realize its potential.

“Are we there yet?”

“Hang on, we’re getting close.”

Peter Thomson is a resident of Elizabeth City.