Look back: Comeback trail

 In Look back, May 2016

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By Edward Martin

Northeast North Carolina grows on you, the wide rivers and emptiness that intimidate some from the urban Piedmont. “If you see a tree in Pasquotank County, it’s probably in a swamp because everything here has been cleared for agriculture,” laughs Wayne Harris, economic developer for the county and Elizabeth City.

It is, as described in the title of a July 2013 Business North Carolina story, “A Place Apart.” It’s pleasantly apart because many here, in generations-old farmhouses in hamlets such as Bear Grass and Merry Hill, still welcome strangers, including a magazine reporter driving a puny, foreign sports car.

That hasn’t changed, but in the three years since the story, much has. The region’s economy, social affairs and everyday life gravitate more to maritime Virginia than North Carolina. “We’re 45 minutes from Norfolk and three hours from Raleigh,” says Stan Walz, chief executive officer of Elizabeth City-based VectorCSP LLC.

The story detailed the region’s rotten luck: In a year’s span beginning in 2011, it was hit by tornadoes that killed 24, two devastating floods and a crop-killing drought. “The outlook is brighter now,” says Walz, whose company is part of the region’s strongest sector, defense and government contracting. Since 2002, Vector has grown to about 150 employees in Elizabeth City and Baltimore, Md., on the strength of its logistics and aviation consulting and management.

Much of the northeast’s economy is linked to U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, the nation’s biggest Coast Guard base. Recently, the service has spent millions on adjacent real estate, easing fears of cutbacks. The base and contractors such as Vector employ about 2,200, with average pay in the mid-$50,000s.

Another brightening spot is infrastructure: The designation of an interstate corridor from Raleigh to Norfolk and expansion of Hampton Roads Foreign Trade Zone 20 links the region more closely to Virginia’s bustling ports. “We hope that will attract some of the overflow from Hampton Roads,” says Edenton Mayor Roland Vaughan. 

Construction of the $410 million Mid-Currituck Bridge is scheduled to be completed in 2020, providing a quick link to affluent Duck and Corolla. The project has inspired downtown Elizabeth City revitalization projects, including a $13 million remake of the vacant Southern Hotel.

To the west, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is slated to run through Northampton and Halifax counties, dangling the prospect of abundant natural gas to potential industries. Solar farms now dot the region, boosting local tax revenue. Construction is underway on the northeast’s largest-ever project, a $400 million Amazon wind farm near Elizabeth City.

What’s the same? The region is still poor. The bulk of its counties still rank in the lowest quarter of incomes in the state, and education still lags. Its charms have pitfalls, too. Pollution concerns dog a growing wood-pellet industry, and some say giant wind turbines will give it an unwanted industrial character.

  State lawmakers’ decision to quit funding economic-development agencies such as NCEast Alliance penalizes rural areas because of their limited industry base, says CEO John Chaffee. Even so, there is hope. “We’re averaging one visit every other week from a prospect,” he says, including many foreign investors. “We aren’t out of the woods yet, but we’re getting there.”

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