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  • Allen Turner

Fair Bluff Chamber hears about economic development, recognizes several citizens for service at annu

The Greater Fair Bluff Chamber of Commerce held its annual banquet Thursday night, the fourth since the town suffered from flooding following hurricanes Matthew and Florence in 2016 and 2018 that have left the business district a commercial desert but failed to kill the chamber, which is in at least its fourth decade of promoting the community and its businesses.

In addition to recognizing several citizens for special service, the chamber heard a report on economic development news in Columbus County and installed new queens to represent the town in the coming year.

Columbus County Economic Development Director Dr. Gary Lanier and Columbus Jobs Foundation President Les High were the featured speakers.

Columbus Economic Developer Gary Lanier, center, and Les High, left, of the Columbus Jobs Foundation are featured speakers at Thursday’s Greater Fair Bluff Chamber of Commerce banquet. Chamber president Kathy Ashley is seen on the right.

Lanier talked about positive economic indicators in the county, such as 286 more people being employed here currently than in 2018 and the unemployment rate dropping from 5 percent to 4.6 percent during the same time period. However, the county’s population has declined by 1,674 over the last eight years, from 58,098 in 2010 to an estimated 56,424 in 2018. A small portion of that loss can be attributed to the fact there were 661 deaths in the county but only 566 births.

The economic developer, who had been plant manager at Penn Ventilator but chose to remain in Columbus County when the company moved years ago, said that while Columbus County’s unemployment rate of 4.6 percent in December 2019 was much better than its record high of 15.1 percent in January 2010 and almost as good as its record 4.4 percent rate in April of 2018, the county is competing for new manufacturers and other employers against places like Wake County, which has a current unemployment rate of 2.7 percent and Mecklenburg, with a rate of 3.1 percent.

“Although we’ve got 1,031 people in Columbus County who are available to go to work right now,” Lanier said, “Wake County has 16,970 available employees and Mecklenburg has 19,432. If you were a CEO looking at putting a new facility that would employ 500 people, you’d look more favorably at a place that had 32 potential employees available for every position than you would with a place like us with just two potential employees available for every position.”

Lanier said his office has been actively recruiting agriculture-related businesses and tech sector industries.

Both Lanier and Jobs Foundation President High said that Columbus County came “just this close” to getting an Atlanta-based IT company to locate a 130-person expansion here last year that would have paid annual wages averaging $38,000, but that South Carolina gained the facility because the state was able to provide economic incentives that North Carolina does not.

Lanier praised the Columbus County commissioners. “Every time I’ve gone to them asking for their support in recruiting a company, I have been told, ‘You do whatever it takes,’ and that’s what we’ve done. This computer software company came down to us and South Carolina and we didn’t lose that because of anything we’ve done or didn’t do at the local level. They were extremely impressed with us at the local level, but our state level incentives versus South Carolina are lacking.”

“We threw the kitchen sink at them, we offered them everything we had to offer, but we lost out.”

High said that the Jobs Foundation is a voluntary, private non-government team with a 24-member board of directors that works with Lanier’s government office for economic development in Columbus County.

“What has surprised me,” said High, “is how often Columbus County has had some pretty big chances and makes it to the final three, six or seven locations. We’re close and getting closer. We’ll start to pick up some wins.”

Les High, president of the Columbus Jobs Foundation, addresses members of the Fair Bluff Chamber of Commerce.

For instance, High said Columbus Jobs Foundation board members were meeting Friday with a group of investors who are looking to build a 100,000-sq. ft. facility in the industrial park. “We’re among their final three choices so we’re going to work very hard to bring them to Columbus County,” he said.

He touted the Foundation’s revolving loan fund, which has helped Shizzy’s Wild Cat Rescue under construction in Fair Bluff, among others. “That’s a nontraditional business loan, but Shizzy’s has an opportunity to make a difference in Fair Bluff and I think it’ll be a real attraction, particularly if we can pair it with the state park. He will perhaps have some animals here in the next year.”

High added, “Again, that’s a nontraditional type business, but our board made it a point after Fair Bluff went through Matthew and Florence that, if we could direct money to Fair Bluff, we were going to do so.”

The Jobs Foundation has five goals this year, High said. An entrepreneurial center is planned for downtown Whiteville. The Foundation also wants to establish a workspace there where people who work from home can use the center. “Instead of just being at home all day and not seeing anybody, they can work at the center and interact with other people and entrepreneurs. They can live in a great, small town like those we have but work for a company in California and make a really good living doing it.”

John Scott receives the community service award from Carol Williams.

High said the Foundation sees housing as a big opportunity as beach populations begin to come closer but said the area has to be amenable to change. Bobby Harrelson, a native of a Green Sea, S.C., who spoke at the Columbus Jobs Foundation annual meeting and has been a major player in economic development in Brunswick County, told the group, “If it weren’t for Yankees, I’d still be picking cotton. You have to embrace change.”

Having clean communities, thriving downtowns and sewer service are critical. “We do have sewer in Columbus County into Old Dock, Pireway, and Nakina and we hope to build capacity in other areas,” High said.

He added, “Housing growth means we can create small business jobs like landscapers, plumbers, electricians and others. Those are not jobs that will just go away. In addition to creating jobs, housing developments will increase our population and add to the tax base.”

Jeff Prince, left, owner of Fair Bluff Auto, receives the “Business of the Year” award from Gene Martin as Chamber President Kathy Ashley, center, looks on.

Natural resources provide non-traditional routes for economic development that fit into the Foundation’s goals, High said, especially the Lumber River and Lake Waccamaw state parks.

“Fair Bluff is a priority of ours. We all know that retail was struggling here even before the storms and we know the downtown will probably have to be torn down. That’s a shame, but at least the town has a clear vision for the future.”

High compared Fair Bluff to Damascus, Va., a town that repurposed its vision and has grown since the loss of textile industries made it a ghost town. Damascus is home to the Virginia Creeper trail, a bikeway that utilizes a former railroad bed running 20 miles from atop a nearby mountain. Hundreds of people ride the Virginia Creeper every week. The scenery is stunning and cyclist rarely have to pedal. “Damascus is now a major tourist destination. T’he town is full of bread and breakfasts, outfitters, restaurants and shops all because its citizens had a nontraditional vision for the future and embraced change.”

“What if Fair Bluff partnered with Lumberton and Conway and created a terrific blue trail that people come to every weekend? If you dream big, I think it can.”

The fifth goal is the continuing to recruit the tech company that Lanier mentioned. “This would have been a game-changer. When we saw this opportunity, we flew eight people to Alabama on short notice. It would have affected every corner of Columbus County because our kids could get good jobs right here at home. We threw the kitchen sink at those folks and, even though we didn’t win the day, you would be pleased at how the county commissioners, both school systems, the City of Whiteville – everybody who had some role in this – really came together and put forth the best package we could. It was heartbreaking to me but it’s an opportunity. We continue to maintain contact with that company. They’re going to expand again and, when they do, we’re going to try to make sure they come to Columbus County.”

Phyllis Elvington, left, who has led the Fair Bluff Baptist Church in the absence of a pastor for at least 18 months, receives this year’s special appreciation award from Gene Martin as Chamber President Kathy Ashley, center, looks on.

High noted the positive economic indicators for the county in the past year, such as a major expansion at Black’s Tire. He mentioned Carolina Botanicals in Tabor City and touted the $20 million investment BB&T will make under its new corporate name, Truist Bank. Five hundred employees will work at the center.

“That we have decided to rebuild our schools, despite population loss, is a big win. We’re putting $75 million of our own money into rebuilding our schools and building them better,” High said. ‘When we bring clients here and show them what we’re doing in education, you can imagine what a big difference that makes because a trained workforce is probably the most important thing they’re looking for. And that’s not bond money or grant money. That’s money that Columbus County citizens have chosen to spend on their schools. That commitment shows to potential investors.”

High also said that Columbus Regional Healthcare struggled after the two hurricanes but has a robotic surgical center, a wound care center, cancer and an orthopedic surgery center that draw people from miles around. “Their robotic center trains people from larger hospitals,” he said. “Thank goodness, the hospital has turned things around, because saving the 600 jobs they bring to the county is so incredibly important.”

High said 2019 was a better year than many people had thought it would be and that he sees positive things happening in the future. “It’s a two-pronged approach. We’re hitting the traditional and the nontraditional on every front. If we can keep this momentum going, and we do have momentum, then we’re going to have very successful years ahead. I think our best years are ahead of us.”

Several people were recognized by the Chamber with special awards.

Carol Williams, left, was scheduled to get a special appreciation award at last year’s Fair Bluff Chamber of Commerce banquet but illness prevented her attendance. Gene Martin makes the presentation Thursday night. Williams, long active in church and civic work, probably is best known as being the force behind the successful Building Bridges Afterschool Learning Program that was established several years ago. Chamber of Commerce President Kathy Ashley is pictured in the center.

John Scott, a Fair Bluff native who moved up north for his working career but returned home to retire several decades ago, received the “Community Service” award. “Ever since he came back home, he has demonstrated that he believes in doing for others,” Martin said. “He’s very sincere and helpful and, if he tells you he’s going to do something, you can take it to the bank. He’s been the handyman to this community and if he doesn’t see a friend or neighbor every day or so, he calls and checks on them. He’s been active in Sandy Grove Missionary Baptist Church for 50 years, including service as an usher.”

Instead of a single “Citizen of the Year,” the chamber chose to honor a married couple, Brice “Buddy” and Carolyn Elvington. “They are givers and they give from the heart,” said Chamber Director Rev. Neill Smith. “That comes because they know they are blessed people and a town no matter its size needs a bunch of Mr. Buddys and Miss Carolyns. People like them make a town click as they serve others with a smile on their face.”

Jeff Prince, owner of Fair Bluff Auto, was presented the “Business of the Year” honor after having lost not one, but two, businesses in two different floods and coming back to reopen both times. “We thank him for his enduring partnership and tremendous support of the town, which has been demonstrated by his dedication and service,” said Chamber President Kathy Ashley.

Making a Difference

A “Making a Difference” Award was supposed to have been given at last year’s dinner but, because the recipient was ill, the chamber held over the presentation until this year’s dinner. Carol Williams is very active in civic and church affairs and is perhaps best known as the driving force behind the Building Bridges Afterschool Learning Program, which has been in successful operation for several years. “She has worked with many children and has made and is making a huge difference for the good in our town,” said Ashley. “She makes a difference every day.”

Chamber President Kathy Ashley presents a check for a donation to the Fair Bluff Depot Museum to Dr. Ray Thigpen, president of the Fair Bluff Historical Society.

Ashley also recognized Phyllis Elvington with a special presentation award for her “faithful, dedicated service and labor of love to the Fair Bluff Baptist Church.” Elvington and her husband, Charles, moved to Fair Bluff before the first flood and since have been flooded out of their home twice but have remained and contributed to the community. Most recently, Elvington has led the Baptist church while it is without a pastor. “She brought the church back to life and she has given us the will to go on,” said Ashley.

Ashley also presented a check to the Fair Bluff Historical Society for the Depot Museum in memory of Betty Willis, who died last month. Accepting on behalf of the society was its president, Fair Bluff native Dr. Ray Thigpen, who exhorted attendees to join the Historical Society as it prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary. He said that he, David Small and Dr. Dan Strickland are already planning anniversary events which will occur during the next Watermelon Festival. In addition, he and Small are authoring a book on the history of Fair Bluff that will be released at about the same time.

New royalty to represent the town at festivals and other events for the coming year were installed during the Fair Bluff Chamber of Commerce banquet Thursday night. Leah Redwine was crowned Fair Bluff Queen and Katherine Edwards was crowned Princess, succeeding outgoing Queen Jada Faison and Princess Kellyn Jarvis. Pictured, from left, are Jarvis, Edwards, Redwine and Faison.

The town’s unofficial royalty, Queen Jada Faison and Princess Kellyn Jarvis also relinquished their crowns during the dinner to new Queen Leah Redwine and Princess Katherine Edwards, who will represent the town at festivals and other events throughout the state in the coming year.

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