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Will Dulah, Dothan or Pireway be our largest towns?


By Les High

Chairman

Columbus Jobs Foundation


When I was born in 1961, the population of Whiteville and Columbus County was about 5,000

and 50,000 people, respectively. It hasn’t fluctuated much over the past 61 years.


That is going to change.


Southern Columbus County is about to explode, with 5,000 to 10,000 new homes predicted in

the next five to 10 years bringing an estimated 25,000 new residents.

Surely Dulah, Dothan or Pireway could never become population centers of Columbus County.

Or could they?


It was only a matter of time before Brunswick and Horry counties spilled into Columbus County.

The pandemic caused innumerable disruptions, but few were more consequential than the

population shift from the Northeast to the South, from the cities to the country.

You should see Columbus County Economic Development Director and County Planner Gary

Lanier’s desk, which is overflowing with documents and drawings of proposed housing

developments.


Already, developments with more than 1,500 homes are on the cusp of being submitted for

approval.


The first hint of the coming charge began a couple of years ago when a Wilmington developer

proposed to build a 49-unit manufactured housing development on land off Antioch Church

Road south of Whiteville. The homes are said to be nice.


Understandably, residents near the development were upset. Opponents urged county

commissioners to kill the project, which they did. The company, Thriving, LLC, had already met

the county’s limited zoning restrictions, so they sued and overturned the commissioners’

decision. Thriving also plans to build a 24-unit townhome complex in south Whiteville.

More developments from other companies are coming, with most in southern Columbus

County. Eastern Columbus will soon follow if key pieces of infrastructure are built: sewer lines

and a water treatment facility.


It’s widely known that water is essential for development, but the Holy Grail is sewer.

Why is Dothan poised for growth? First and foremost, it’s near the coast, but it’s also adjacent

to a Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority sewer line that runs from the state line to Old

Dock. Smaller developments can get by with septic systems, but not larger ones.


What does the future hold?


With more people headed to the South, Columbus County is at a crossroads. It’s time for

residents to start thinking about what the future will look like.

If we’re smart about how we approach the coming tide, we can avoid the mistakes made by

others.


We’ve already taken the first steps. For example, the Antioch Farm subdivision dust-up forced

county commissioners to place a moratorium on new projects and create a planned

development ordinance that puts restrictions on larger developments.


It’s time, however, for deeper conversations. We’ve had these discussions at Columbus Jobs

Foundation board meetings, and there are plenty more questions to be asked.


For instance, do we want the county to remain mostly like it is or do we welcome thousands of

new residents, many of whom don’t talk like us.


I do know this from my years as vice-chair and chairman of the Columbus Jobs Foundation:

industrial development and recruitment is brutal and fiercely competitive. Nine times out of 10,

we don’t make it past the first paper cut for a variety of reasons.


We do, however, have a massive advantage over rural counties who are not near a major city or

the ocean.


If we want new jobs and opportunities, increasing the number of houses and residents is most

effective way. Most of the hundreds of new jobs created by residential development will be in

the service industry – plumbers, electricians, landscapers, painters, etc.


Budding entrepreneurs


That’s one reason why the planned entrepreneurship center in downtown Whiteville – in

partnership with the growing Southeastern Community College Small Business Center – is

another key piece of infrastructure.


Many Columbus County residents are incredibly talented at a variety of trades, but running a

business can be risky and non-intuitive. The entrepreneurship center will give these budding

small business owners the knowledge and tools to be successful, and when they’re ready to

tackle the challenges of calculating and reporting payroll taxes – among a myriad of other

tedious tasks – they’ll move out and make room for other aspiring business owners.


I could go on about the prospects for Columbus County, but let me tell you what we’ve been

talking about and will continue to talk about at the Columbus Jobs Foundation.


• We were early advocates for increasing essential quality-of-life infrastructure. The

transformation of Fair Bluff into an ecotourism center based around the Lumber River is already

underway. Partial funding has been secured for a bike and pedestrian trail from the Waccamaw

River through the state park. Both projects will put Columbus County on the map in many ways.

• Vibrant downtowns are critical.

• Regional wastewater treatment facilities and partnerships are not only key, they are the key.

• A high degree of emphasis needs to be placed on planning in both the county and

municipalities.


At a previous Columbus Jobs Foundation meeting, I encouraged board members to engage with

their friends and neighbors about the good things that are happening in the county, and if they

hear negativity about the Fair Bluff or Lake Waccamaw projects, for example, they should

explain how these are all part of a master plan to help the county prosper.

Of course, many people want the county to stay just like it is.


I totally understand because many lifelong residents of the slower pace of life and the

outdoors.


Can we have it both ways, where we create hundreds of new jobs and grow the tax base

through residential development while protecting our long-standing traditions and way of life?

It will be a difficult tightrope to walk, but changes are coming quickly and we need to be ready.