Thursday, April 18, 2024

Tiny Tyrrell County wants to grow

Drive through the small town of Columbia on your way to the Outer Banks and the signs of a shrinking population are easy to spot. There’s a big “for sale” sign on the Columbia Crossing Restaurant & Good Times Tavern, which served its last meal earlier this year after 12 years in business. Next door, a big red sign advertises a winery, but the tasting room that once served as a gathering place recently moved to Manteo.

Already North Carolina’s least populous county, Tyrrell County’s economy suffered dual blows when the state shuttered its prison in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic strained the eateries and other businesses that rely on beach-bound traffic from U.S. 64.

The latest U.S. Census numbers were sobering: Tyrrell (pronounced TERR-il, not Tie-RELL) went from 4,407 residents in 2010 to just 3,245 residents in 2020. That’s a 26% decrease, the largest decline of any N.C. county.
Local leaders are skeptical about those numbers, pointing to a potential overcount in 2010 and the Census Bureau’s well-publicized 2020 pandemic challenges. There were fewer door-to-door census takers last year, and many in Tyrrell lack reliable internet to fill out the online surveys.

The real story, locals contend, is that the remote county —located 150 miles east of Raleigh and 40 miles west of Nags Head — is poised for a turnaround. It’s growth that would seem incremental anywhere else but it’s a big deal for a place with a few thousand people spread across nearly 400 square miles.

Near the shuttered restaurant, the new Waypoint Oyster Bar food truck has a busy lunch crowd, enjoying fried seafood at picnic tables set up in the parking lot of a carwash. The truck is run by Columbia-based Capt. Neill’s Seafood, a crabmeat processor. Best known for selling pimento cheese crab balls at the N.C. State Fair, they’re working to open a restaurant in Columbia’s historic downtown.

The restaurant will be across from Pocosin Arts School of Fine Craft, which is undergoing a $1.8 million renovation. The school has attracted artists and crafters to Tyrrell County for decades, while a series of popular Zoom workshops during the COVID-19 pandemic have raised its profile.

Its leaders are hoping that success will translate to more in-person programs —and lots more visitors to the county— once the revamped facilities are complete.

Meanwhile, new residential development could be coming to northern Tyrrell along the banks of Albemarle Sound. It’s one of the few places in the state where waterfront property is still used for farming. County leaders hope new utility service can change the calculus for coastal developers.

How they got here

Tyrrell County’s population peaked in 1940 at 5,556 and has hovered around 4,000 for several decades. But fewer job opportunities in the rural community have forced some residents to move elsewhere or endure lengthy commutes, typically to tourism industry jobs in neighboring Dare County. The unemployment rate was 4.9% in August compared with the state’s 4.3% average.

Agriculture remains a big industry for Tyrrell, with drained swamplands providing fertile soil for potatoes, soybeans and other crops. Advances in farm machinery mean that fewer workers are needed.

Forestry industry giant Weyerhaeuser owns thousands of acres of timber. But the Seattle-based company no longer operates sawmills in the area.

Aiming to create hundreds of jobs, the state opened the Tyrrell Prison Work Farm outside Columbia in 1998. As staffing shortages plagued the N.C. Department of Public Safety in 2019, it temporarily shut down the prison and shifted workers and inmates to facilities in nearby counties.

Many of those workers moved too, rather than drive nearly an hour to their new workplaces. Columbia’s restaurants and shops suffered with fewer workers coming by on breaks.

Now the prison is open again but housing about a quarter of its 640-inmate capacity. Seventy-nine people work there, according to a DPS spokesperson, down from more than 150 in years past. The state’s plan is to gradually add newly assigned offenders and a proportionate number of staffers with no specific deadline, spokesperson Brad Deen says.

On the rebound

Getting the prison back to full staffing is just one piece of the economic puzzle for Tyrrell County.

To reverse its population decline, it will need more people like Jordan Davis. Davis, 34, grew up in Tyrrell before attending UNC Wilmington. He initially took an insurance job in Carteret County after graduation but felt the pull of home and moved back to Tyrrell to help run the family farm.

Now he oversees 2,500 acres of corn, soybeans and potatoes. The latter is Tyrrell’s biggest crop, with growers producing millions of pounds a year that wind up as chips from brands such as Utz and Lay’s.

Tyrrell has “the most fertile soil in North Carolina” — nutrient-rich “blackland” soil that was a swamp before it was drained with a system of pumps and dikes decades ago, Davis says. That asset is also a limitation because federal environmental rules restrict expansion of Tyrrell’s farmland. The government owns more than half of the county, much of it comprising Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

With so much land that doesn’t generate property tax revenue, it’s hard to fund the infrastructure needed to help the county grow, says Davis, who is the county’s youngest elected county commissioner. Tyrrell has to rely on grants and other resources to expand water lines and add government services such as emergency management.

Enter David Clegg, who’s served as county manager and county attorney since 2013. The bow-tied and bespectacled career government administrator led the N.C. Division of Employment Security under Gov. Bev Perdue and served as county manager in much larger Brunswick County. Working in Tyrrell is his retirement gig.

He splits his time between Columbia and Raleigh, finding that his “highest and best use” for Tyrrell is advocating for its needs in the state capital. His lobbying has paid off in securing funding to extend water lines to isolated areas of the county, adding trash pick-up and partnering with neighboring counties on EMS and 911 services. Tyrrell shares those and other services, like a library system and social services, with rural neighbors like Hyde and Washington counties. But there’s no desire to fully merge because the counties are North Carolina’s original divisions. Tyrrell was established in 1729.

Since Clegg arrived, the county has received $18.5 million in outside funding, with another $2.6 million on the way. Annual property taxes and other revenue totals about $7.5 million.

“We’re filling in the canvas to allow for whatever that next chapter is, presenting a much better picture of Tyrrell County as a place to be,” Clegg said.

The next step is addressing the county’s broadband infrastructure needs. During the pandemic, many of Tyrrell’s 525 public school students didn’t have reliable home internet, so the county sent school buses to distribute printed materials and return at the end of the day to pick up students’ completed assignments.

Clegg doesn’t think Tyrrell will benefit from the legislature’s new broadband grant program, which partially subsidizes private internet providers to build new fiber lines. The county’s population is too spread out for private investments to pay off even with state support.

Instead, he’s secured grant money to mount wireless internet technology on water towers, grain silos and other tall structures. State laws largely restrict local governments from offering internet service, but Clegg says he’s “willing to face the potential litigation.”

Clegg’s other major goal is widening the final 27-mile stretch of U.S. 64 between Columbia and Manns Harbor. It’s the only section of the highway between Raleigh and the coast that isn’t four lanes. The project would create a faster connection for Tyrrell residents headed to Manteo and Nags Head and help prevent major traffic jams during a hurricane evacuation from the Outer Banks.

The N.C. Department of Transportation lists the project as unfunded, which Clegg attributes to an overemphasis on traffic counts in the DOT’s prioritization system. The project carries a price tag of as much as $400 million, largely because it includes a replacement of the 2.8-mile Alligator River Bridge, which opened in 1962. “Give me 20 miles and a bridge, and we’re in business,” Clegg says.

Sound views

The county has some of the most affordable waterfront property along North Carolina’s coast, but a lack of public utility service has made developers hesitant. With water lines extended to some soundfront communities in recent years, Clegg sees potential along the shores of Albemarle Sound and the Scuppernong River.

It’s the windier side of the sound, so he thinks a golf course could appeal to players who enjoy competing against challenging weather conditions.

Raleigh real-estate investor Scott McLaughlin grew up spending summers on his grandparents’ farm in Tyrrell and has a second home there on the waterfront. He also owns hundreds of acres of undeveloped land and is mulling a project.

“It’s kind of a slice of heaven,” he says. “Those that know it and love it kind of enjoy it not being so crowded. It is ripe for development.”

A waterfront lot that sells for about $150,000 in Tyrrell would cost $600,000 in other counties, McLaughlin says. He is noticing increased interest, particularly from people who can work remotely, with some properties selling for above asking price.

Real estate prices in Tyrrell are a far cry from the state’s hot urban markets. Recent listings include a four-bedroom house on the riverfront in Columbia for $210,000.

McLaughlin says he’s working on plans for some of his land in Tyrrell but it’s too early to announce specifics. “I wouldn’t be putting my money where I didn’t think there was a future.”

Tyrrell officials hope to grow tourism inland from its waterfront. Hunting, fishing and birdwatching are already popular, but with few lodging options in the county, most ecotourism visitors don’t spend the night.

It’s a place where bears outnumber people — Davis says he once saw 18 furry beasts gathered in one of his fields. It’s home to the carnivorous pitcher plant and the endangered red wolves. A limited marketing budget also holds back Tyrrell. While drivers on U.S. 64 see billboards promoting Tarboro and Martin County, they have to stop at the small visitors center in Columbia to learn what’s on offer there.

“Someone with a vision can do a lot right here,” Davis says. When you’ve got only 3,200 residents, a little growth can make a big difference. ■


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