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Warren County

Meeting Economic Challenges With A Progressive Outlook

By Mary Elle Hunter

      Nestled in the scenic, seasonable northeastern Piedmont section of North Carolina, adjoining the Virginia state line, Warren County is approximately 50 miles north of Raleigh, 90 miles south of Richmond, and roughly three hours from the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean beaches.  Situated along the major routes of Interstate 85 and historic U. S. Highway 1, the county serves as a gateway to the Carolinas from the north.

      Once known as one of the wealthiest regions within the state due to the prevalence of tobacco and cotton plantations, Warren County is rich in historical tradition and southern values.  There are over fifty sites listed in the National Register of Historic Properties, and the county seat is Warrenton, founded in 1779.  With two other incorporated municipalities and several small crossroads communities, much of the county's more than 400 square miles is rural countryside and rolling farmland.

      Warren County is classified as economically challenged with residents' average annual median household income at $28,500.  However, according to Linda Worth, County Manager, We don't let that keep us from taking every opportunity to progress.   For example, we constructed a $3.5 million county recreation complex which was dedicated in 2008, partially funded by grants.  And we seek out grants from every source possible to better the quality of life of our residents.

      One of the most important additions to the infrastructure of the county over the course of the last few years has been making public water available throughout much of the county.   We now operate a public water facility and water is available to approximately 85% of the more than 19,000 county residents, says Linda Worth.

      Another recent accomplishment supplied broadband internet access to an increased number of county citizens.  It was made possible by the E-NC Authority, a state initiative to link all North Carolinians - especially those in rural areas - to the Internet.  Linda Worth explained that the Legislature appropriated the funds to the Authority and Embarq became the supplier.   We went from approximately 47% to 86% of our citizens having access to the Internet.  The purpose of E-NC Authority is to use the Internet as a tool for helping people by giving them access to commerce, health care, education and government services.

      Although Warren County has not been hit as hard as some of the other counties in the state and regions across the country, Linda Worth emphasizes that we tended to be very conservative in putting together the county budget.  As a result, the decreases in the budgeted amounts received from sales taxes were minimal, but they have seen a reduction in some state grants that had been previously awarded to the county, as well as a drop in fees and taxes relating to real estate, such as excise taxes on deeds and fees for services for building inspection.

      We have tried to be very proactive in meeting the problems of less income for the county, says Linda Worth. We have reduced our departmental budgets within county government and we have a hiring freeze in place on all non-essential jobs - those that don't have anything to do with law enforcement or public safety and health. 

       One crucial position which is vacant at the present time is the director of the county's Economic Development Commission.  While the search for a replacement is taking place, Peggy Richardson has been appointed Interim Director and is working closely with the nine-member Board of Directors, and its chairman, Ted Echols. 

      Initially in late February, the Board met with representatives of the community planning division of the North Carolina Department of Commerce in an effort to consider placing a greater focus on small business and tourism development rather than industrial recruitment.  Peggy Richardson points out that the EDC has no plans to abandon the capability to recruit new industrial or distribution jobs to the county.  Rather what the EDC is discussing is that Warren County has important, virtually untapped, assets other than industrial sites upon which to grow a viable local economy.

      We have a wealth of natural resources for developing a strong cultural heritage and recreational tourism economy, such as access to and shoreline on over 70,000 acres of fresh water in Lake Gaston and Kerr Lake, as well as a remarkable number of historic and architecturally significant structures.  With our agricultural background and abundance of fertile soil, we can encourage development of a local food system, drawing value-added food processing industries and distribution facilities to our industrial sites.   We have livestock producers and a growing number of niche crop interests capable of satisfying the growing demand for high-quality products.

      In addition, we have a hardworking and creative population, unique sole proprietorships, small businesses and talented entrepreneurs, artisans and craftsmen.  The Commission believes we can better utilize Warren County's strengths and assets by branching out from the conventional plant relocation approach to economic development toward an ‘economic gardening' local strategy.

      Unemployment in the county rose from 6.4% to 11.2%, a fact that reflects the statewide and national economic slowdown.  More particularly, the figure is due to over half of the county's workforce commuting to other counties for employment, and the announced closings and layoffs throughout the region have had a sizeable impact.  However, Warren County's number of manufacturing jobs has remained fairly steady, owing to growth in its existing industries.

      Elberta Crate & Box Company, with headquarters in Georgia, has expanded its operations in the county.   Cast Stone Systems, a local manufacturer of architectural precast concrete components, purchased a furniture plant which went out of business in 2006 and has added fifty jobs in the past three years.  Ted Echols, president of the company, says, We have been able to get a very capable, dedicated locally-based workforce, and we feel like we have the capacity to grow right here, depending, of course, on what the economy does.

      The recent appointment of an Executive Director of Triangle North, Bud Cohoon, also promises to have a positive influence on the promotion of the 860-acre Triangle North Warren industrial site.  Cohoon says, we're implementing an aggressive marketing plan, including a recently developed website and direct mailings to consultants, clients and allies that should be successful in recruiting logistics companies to the Triangle North Warren site. 

      Triangle North is an award-winning rural economic development initiative created through a unique multi-county collaboration and cost-sharing arrangement by Franklin, Granville, Vance and Warren counties, and is marketed by the Research Triangle Regional Partnership, of which Warren County is a member.

      According to Peggy Richardson, the Research Triangle Partnership offers Warren County world-wide visibility, research capabilities and a great staff of co-workers to support local efforts.  We take frequent advantage of their data resources, collective marketing and liaison opportunities.

      Reflecting the present progressive and constructive stance of the Economic Development Commission, Chairman Ted Echols believes that the Commission is responding to the current economic climate by taking advantage of the county's natural assets.  This will be accomplished by developing tourism income, strengthening support for local entrepreneurship, and ensuring a comprehensive response to the needs of our existing business and industry, including our agricultural community.  And we're seeking a broad set of skills in our new director; someone capable of recognizing our assets and putting them to work.

Reprinted from Carolina Business online.

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