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OTHER VIEWS

New economic, tourism directors will play key roles

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By Peter Thomson
Columnist

Sunday, July 8, 2018

In the next little while Elizabeth City and Pasquotank County will be getting both a new economic developer and a tourism director since our area’s two main salespeople have gone on to other things: Wayne Harris to retirement and Christina Rehklau to family on the West Coast. Each has brought substantial skills to their jobs. Wayne brought a background as a financial writer who loved computers and Christina is a knowledgeable and informed Google Ad guru. They leave having pushed the rock forward, but we’re still in dire need of more visitors and more jobs.

Neither position is easy or straightforward. The economic developer reports to both the county and the city, follows up leads, goes a-lobbying to Washington and Raleigh, works with NC East and the N.C. Department of Commerce, while serving on the boards of Elizabeth City Downtown, Inc., the Tourism Development Authority, Committee of 100, Economic Development Commission, Airport Authority, and (usually) others. It’s a half-in, half-out job in which one encourages local investment while trying hard to sell the town to outsiders.

On its face, being tourism director is simpler: beat the drums and get visitors to the area. The director reports to the Tourism Development Authority Board of Directors, which has both city and county representatives, and coordinates with other tourism entities both governmental and private while overseeing the advertising of the town and figuring out how to make us look good. Sounds easy, but there’s a major problem: darn few tourists. While we get a goodly number of folks staying the Friday on the way to the beach and a few history buffs, most of the other visitors are motivated to come here either because of family gatherings, Elizabeth City State University’s annual homecoming, or work, or something other than tourism.

Fact is, folks come to town and are charmed by the history, the arts, the location and the friendly people but there are just too few of them. Under Ms. Rehklau, the Elizabeth City Area Convention & Visitors Bureau did the research and found out that to attract tourists, they had to make up packages promoting attractions across the whole of the Albemarle so that folks would stay for more than a day. This is why, for the new tourism director, it would be a great relief to see the Harbortown Project initiative of Professor Nick Didow go forward. It does exactly what our CVB found out was needed, and does it while being financed by others. For the first time we’d have enough attractors to become a tourist destination with fast-ferry links to other towns.

On the economic development side things are moving forward. With the wind farm, designated I-87 and the new cross-ocean fiber seated in nearby Virginia Beach, for the first time we’re being looked at by data banks and tech companies. Long term there is a real possibility of a paint-stripping hangar for the U.S. Coast Guard and others, while ECSU is growing again, which is always good. NC East under John Chaffee is bringing us visits by targeted small industries, and with (hopefully) a new multiplex theater, new brewpub and new retail, shopping is getting better. The Committee of 100, with the help of the city and county, is working to attract retirees and ECDI is working to bring them, and millennials to a walkable downtown with new amenities. So it’s a good, uptick moment for our new economic developer.

Both jobs require bright, up-to-date sales types who can work with legislators, boards, citizens and investors — in other words people who can be all things to all people. And they’ll have to defend their work in an area which is mostly gray, ‘cause who’s to say why a tourist comes here — or doesn’t — or why a business decides not to locate here.

So we’re hoping for that special type of individual who gets along with everyone but retains a burning desire to make things better and works hard at it. Please welcome them to the community.

Peter Thomson is a resident of Elizabeth City.

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