Columbus County claws its way back from Florence’s strike

 In October 2019

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 Todd and Lori Collins rebuilt their Whiteville jewelry store, which was flooded by more than 2 feet of water during Hurricane Florence.

A year after Hurricane Florence wreaked $24 billion in damage across the state, hard-hit Columbus County is fighting its way back with a little help from jaguars, tigers, lions and leopards. They will inhabit the new Shizzy’s Wildcat Rescue nonprofit in Fair Bluff, a $400,000 investment led by Shazir Haque that attracts tourists heading to the nearby beaches.

“We just love animals,” says Haque, who lives in Greensboro. “When somebody does something foolish like purchasing a big cat for a pet, we want to create a home where they can go forever when they have to give them up.”

Like adjacent southeastern North Carolina inland counties, Columbus is remaking itself after stormy weather compounded an already struggling economy. Shizzy’s is taking shape at a flooded-out Ford dealership that deeded its 56 acres on the Lumber River to the 27-year-old entrepreneur. The project is a needed bright spot for a county where a fourth of the residents live in poverty.

In Whiteville, Columbus County Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Holcomb says many Lake Waccamaw residents are rebuilding, and business owners such as Todd and Lori Collins, who run Collier’s Jewelers Inc., flooded by both hurricanes Florence and Matthew two years earlier, have bounced back a second time. “From downtown Whiteville’s perspective, they’re a ray of hope for us as an anchor store,” Holcomb says.

After Florence, the chamber quickly raised $40,000 for a North Carolina Small Business Recovery Fund, aided by contributions from other N.C. chambers and groups. It then awarded $500 grants to business owners seeking to recover. “The reality is,” Holcomb says, “a $500 grant isn’t going to replace inventory or re-floor your store, but if nothing else, it’ll show the community cares.”

Unfortunately, the county took another blow when Cary-based Cornerstone Building Brands Inc. closed its vinyl-fencing plant in Fair Bluff in August. About 42 of the site’s 58 former employees found other jobs within a month, Columbus County Economic Development Director Gary Lanier says. With a general uptick in business and the county’s population down by about 2,500 since 2010, according to Census Bureau estimates, the unemployment rate is at 5.6%, compared with 13.6% five or six years ago.

“Some of the worst news that a town that’s already on its knees can get is that one of your major employers is shutting down,” he says. “But the positive note is the overall economy is pretty good, and a lot of factories around the county are looking for quality people.” Local economic pillars include International Paper Co. with 700 employees and Tabor City’s Atlantic Packaging, a maker of packaging materials and equipment that employs 200.

Fears that more frequent, intense floods are in store inhibit investment. Haque, who has a master’s degree from UNC Greensboro, is elevating movable enclosures for his animals. “Climate change is real,” Lanier says. “The water is going to keep rising, and storms are going to be more significant. It’s going to happen again.”

Now, with scant local resources, much of the rebuilding so far has come from elsewhere, including investors such as Haque, whose engineer father brought the family to North Carolina from Pakistan four years ago. “Any significant revitalization is going to have to come from somebody with compassion and passion for the area who wants to take a significant risk in identifying small, niche shops,” Holcomb says.

Haque has relied on social media appeals and support from celebrities such as Canadian actress Jessica Parker Kennedy, known for her role in television’s Smallville, to raise the refuge’s seed money. “The owners of the dealership deeded the property to us, which is allowing us to use what we’re raising to build,” he says.

State and federal programs are providing area communities with more than $11 million for repairing and rebuilding municipal drainage and water systems and $8.2 million to buy flooded homes or repair salvageable ones. But progress is excruciatingly slow, hampered by limited funds and red tape such as asbestos-removal regulations, says Al Leonard Jr., who serves as town manager of Tabor City and nearby hamlets including Fair Bluff, Cerro Gordo and Boardman.

“In Fair Bluff, 72 homes were destroyed,” he says. “Some have applied to be bought out and others repaired and elevated. That has begun. We’ve got three houses done, 69 to go.”

Without a buyout program for commercial buildings, he says the region can’t attract new businesses. One sign of hope is an $800,000 federal award to Tabor City to convert a former Heilig-Meyers furniture store into a business incubator. But even that comes with a sober reality. “We’re in the middle of the poverty belt, and local governments certainly aren’t flush with cash,” Leonard says.

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