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Hometown Strong must include long-term investment

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By Peter Thomson
Columnist

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Dear state cabinet members, executives and aides:

Thanks for coming to Elizabeth City, and especially thank you for not saying, “Sure is a long way from Raleigh!” We’ve heard that a lot. You were thoroughly welcomed by civic leaders but you’d be welcome even if you weren’t important folks.

You heard a lot about the needs of the region: Mayor Bettie Parker hoped you’d support the Harbor Town initiative with its fast ferry system; Pasquotank Commissioners Lloyd Griffin Jr. and Joe Winslow told you how important getting Interstate 87 done would be to the region; Commissioner Jeff Dixon and Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Economic Development Commission Director Wayne Harris talked to you about the importance of aviation and the U.S. Coast Guard base; while others spoke about the ongoing improvements at Elizabeth City State University and all.

You took notes and listened intently, which was what Gov. Roy Cooper said that “Hometown Strong” was all about.

Here are a few things we didn’t have time to talk about. We like it here, some really love it here. It’s a unique corner of the world where historic small town meets expanding big city exurbs. We like having visits from boats from all over the world, movies on the green and a Saturday farmers’ market.

We’re not prosperous in spite of doing everything we can to bring in industry and jobs and maybe, just maybe, some of this is because of what the state of North Carolina has done over the years. While high-tech commerce and industry have been attracted, almost 95 percent of the new jobs have been in urban areas. The other 80 counties are sort of the red-haired stepchildren. So while banking and big Pharma and IBM and all are great, here we’ve lost most of our manufacturing and are trying hard with limited resources to educate our kids and find jobs for our young graduates.

And while unemployment figures are down, it’s not because there are a lot of good-paying jobs here. We’re happy for the state employees that just got a $15 minimum wage and we’ve got friends who qualify for that, but it doesn’t help those who work in retail and make less money … with no benefits. Many here are working two or more jobs to make ends meet.

Low school funding hasn’t helped. North Carolina is apparently 38th in per-child school funding, and while that’s the average across the state, urban counties have the money to help out while the poor ones don’t. It makes finding great teachers more than hard. So a major reason we’d love to have more industry, visitors and customers is to bring in more revenue and help our kids get the education they deserve.

We’ve done the studies. In fact, we’re studied to death. The Goss Agency folks told us that to attract visitors we’d need to have regional attractions. The Westrec folks told us that boating could be a great industry, but only with a large initial capital investment. Vision 20/20 (with 1,800 citizens taking part) helped us understand what we need to do, but we simply don’t have the resources to do it. So we press forward, trying squeeze a dollar till the eagle grins.

We hope that the Hometown Strong task force heard and saw enough to understand that an investment in Elizabeth City — in prioritizing I-87, in supporting the Harbor Town initiative, in helping ECSU and the Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies, in helping us get green energy and data processing firms — is not a series of grants but an investment in a region so long underfunded. Give us the tools and we can take it from there. So have a good trip home and, y’all come back now, you hear?

Peter Thomson is a resident of Elizabeth City.

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