Development Summit sees room for growth

Published 9:52 am Tuesday, October 6, 2009

MURFREESBORO – A gathering in the Mulberry Grove Room on the Chowan University campus may mark an important milestone for Murfreesboro’s future.

More than 70 of the region’s most prominent community members recently came together to spark the fuel of progress. The topic of the day – economic growth in Murfreesboro.

Spurred by the recent surge in enrollment at Chowan University and the progressive leadership of Murfreesboro, the Economic Development Summit got the town, the university, land developers, construction contractors, property owners, financiers and more all on the same page in order to see new growth in our area come to true fruition.

Spearheaded by Murfreesboro Mayor Lynn Johnson, the meeting addressed the need and the readiness to grow within the area and focused on the possibilities of attracting a hotel chain, eateries, retail business, waterfront development, retirement communities and even a bowling alley and movie theater.

In examining the challenges ahead – housing, infrastructure, transportation, etc. – it’s important to partner with everyone in order to find ways to make a difference.

“We can go out and find funds that people can grant to us that we can use to help people help themselves,” explained Sally Surface, Executive Director of the Choanoke Area Development Association (CADA). “It’s all about building community wealth and building individual family’s wealth – through fellowship, through job development, through partnership.”

It will take a team effort like this in order for the Murfreesboro community to overcome its growing pains after the wastewater moratorium was lifted. But with growth once again being possible, the area is ready and willing.

Kay Thomas explained that the Murfreesboro Historical Association has a twelve block, nationally recognized historic district where they own 17 preserved buildings, and now in its 25th year, the NC Watermelon Festival draws 40,000 people to a town with a population of just 2,500. Thomas also pointed out that the Murfreesboro Historical Association’s Candlelight Christmas Tour is one of the only events that has a full progressive dinner and a 12-site stop.

Murfreesboro Town Administrator Cathy Davison noted that through the Greater Communities Initiative, Murfreesboro received a marketing package that included a blueprint for attracting such tourists – those that want to come for a day or two to enjoy the Historical Association events, the arts and athletics at Chowan University, and the golf, horses and rivers in our region.

“There is so much potential in Murfreesboro for it to be a year-round multi-day tourism destination,” Thomas added, “but we don’t have accommodations to handle the crowds.”

Through increased enrollment, new standing in the CIAA conference and more, Chowan University is also starting to bring a lot of traffic to town. With over 100 CIAA events being held on campus this year alone, traveling teams and their supporters will be flooding Murfreesboro.

“We all know what the needs are here, a hotel is a must,” stated Chowan University Vice President for Development John Tayloe. “We are bringing record numbers of visitors to campus and hotel feasibility studies are showing this, proving the dire need for a hotel.”

Towards its own development, Chowan University also used this summit as an opportunity to address the growing student population’s needs such as new parking lots and residence halls. The University is already putting together a plan of action for the expansion of campus facilities, renovations and capital improvements.

“We know who we are, we know who we serve, and they’re coming in droves!” Tayloe added. “So we need to further partner with the town of Murfreesboro to meet these ongoing needs.”

With such an influx of future graduates, Murfreesboro also sees the need for stimulating job creation to accommodate their careers after their diplomas are in hand. In attendance, the Mid-East Commission of Planning, Community Services and Economic Development offered valuable insight towards attracting new job growth with the advantages of being designated as a socio-economic Tier 1 County in North Carolina.

As a Tier 1 County, there are incentives offered such as certain grants based on job creation. With the Community Development Block Grant, Hertford County would qualify for the program maximum of $15,000 per new job created, up to a total of $1 million. Additional incentives to create new work could come from the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center (The Rural Center) as well, but training for these new jobs will be essential.

“We do have the resources to train workers in existing industries and also train them towards the future as the environment changes,” offered Walter Dorsey of the Mid-East Commission, as well as Director of the Region Q Workforce Development Board. “So we have to maintain that flexibility. That’s why we are here today to work on any efforts we can to help Murfreesboro, Hertford County, and the rest of the region.”

This flexibility and other adaptations are what will pull the region out of these trying times. It was the purpose of this meeting to inspire such progressive thinking through smart planning, and even some creative strategies from outside the box. One such idea would see the area follow suit with successful communities like Southern Pines and Pinehurst, who have developed an impressive equine industry.

“In working with the Farmer’s Market, an increase in the equine presence in the area could possibly be an answer for our farmers,” said Mayor Lynn Johnson about the development of 17 miles of riding trails outside town. “Our farmers could sell off just a few acres of their land for the riders’ trails and then turn around and grow crops specifically for supporting the horses along the rest.”

Citing survey studies, North Carolina has developed a $2 billion a year equine industry that is worth looking into in order to bring some of that to the northeast. New industries like this would revive rural settings throughout the whole region.

“We have the trail rides happening in Northampton County but that’s sponsored by Murfreesboro and reaching out to our neighbors,” Cathy Davison added, “Because it takes all of us coming together to make it happen.”

The main pillars of Murfreesboro – the Town of Murfreesboro, Chowan University, Murfreesboro Chamber of Commerce, Murfreesboro Historical Association, and others – have definitely come together in this cause for growth. With the Economic Development Summit being such a big success, now more and more groups are finding ways to give northeast North Carolina a better and brighter future.