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Warren County

A Place Where Pride Runs Deep

By Mary Elle Hunter

      A quotation that the Chamber of Commerce of Warren County uses on its website aptly describes the quaint charm of Warrenton, the county seat.  It's a place where neighbors still call out greetings to each other from their front porches, and where residents pride in their peaceful city runs deep.  That pride is reproduced throughout the county and to the smaller communities of Norlina and Macon, both of which grew in the 19th century from the development of railroad lines and depots.

      The Things to Do listing on the Chamber's website includes the Norlina Junction Park and Museum, that is housed in a vintage rail car, and displays many railroad and related artifacts and documents which played a significant role in the life of Norlina.  Also listed are Lake Gaston and Kerr Lake, important to the economic growth of Warren County.

      Kerr Lake serves as a water source for Warren County and both lakes provide hydroelectric power.  Camping, fishing and boating activities, as well as housing developed around the lakes have brought visitors and new residents to the county.

      Toni Haavisto, Executive Director of the Chamber, is enthusiastic about the work that is being done with the Department of Commerce to develop a Tourism plan.  We have had several chamber-wide meetings with officials of the tourism division of the Department, attended by county representatives.

      Kay Mitchell-Thomas has been assigned by the Department to work with us in the conception and implementation of a plan.  She and other representatives have presented us with several steps that we need to take to promote a tourism initiative, and a resolution was recently passed by the Board of County Commissioners, as well as some of the stakeholders in the plan, in the initial phase to move the plan forward.

      Depending on gas prices, it is anticipated that visitor spending at both the lakes will remain steady during the summer.  In addition, Toni Haavisto mentions that although real estate sales and consumer spending are down in Warren County, as is the case across the state and the nation, there have been no small business closings among the 178 chamber members so far in 2009.         

      Businesses in the area have taken a proactive position in view of the recession, says Toni Haavisto.  The antique stores for which Warrenton is known have been expanding their operations to include the use of ebay to buy and sell their merchandise and the bed and breakfasts are offering more package deals.

      The restaurants have added to their menus and are offering extra events, such as wine tastings.  Some of them have opened for special occasions, like Super Bowl Sunday and New Year's Eve.   And a lot of the specialty stores are using their web sites to attract customers from outside of the county.

      One of the festivals in Warren County and neighboring Halifax County that draws anywhere from 7,000 to 10,000 visitors during its three-day run is the annual Haliwa-Saponi Pow-Wow.  Held during the third weekend of April, the Pow-Wow features the heritage of the local tribe, with dancing, food and crafts of the Native American culture.

      Another cultural opportunity available to Warren County residents is the Lakeland Theatre and Cultural Arts Center.  Located just across the Halifax county line in Littleton, included in its program of events are regular community theater performances and experiences for young people such as a Summer Camp, a special Youth Workshop and a Broadway Bound education trip this summer.

      The 3,612 students in the eight schools in Warren County are the beneficiaries of a progressive school system that is under continuing pressure to provide excellence in education.  Dr. Ray Spain, Superintendent of Schools, observes that funding is a crucial factor in operating the school system.  We are in a low wealth district and the county doesn't have many big businesses to sustain a substantial tax base.  Consequently, our efforts are dependent to a significant degree by the funds we receive from state and federal programs.

       Despite the challenges the Warren County School District faces, important strides have been made in recent years.  This year the Warren County Early College high school opened its doors.  Modeled after the similar early college curriculum in place across the state, spearheaded by former Governor Easley, the program is run in conjunction with the Vance-Granville Community College at its branch campus in Warrenton.  Fifty-eight students are currently enrolled, and according to Dr. Spain, We have been very impressed with the interest level of the students.

      In addition, a new tech high school is in its second year of operation.  Presently attended by 124 students in the 9th and 10th grades, the innovative school is organized around project-based learning activities.  The courses or disciplines being taught abstain from using textbooks, rather are integrated into projects worked on in groups of three or four students.  The projects may extend over a few weeks, or for as short a period as two or three days.  The outcomes are judged by a panel made up of individuals who may include business people or other community members, as well as faculty of the school.

      One of our initiatives in Warren County, says Dr. Spain, is to offer parents a choice of which of the three high schools they wish to have their offspring attend.   The students apply in 8th grade for admission to one of the three.  The plan has been very well received by the community.  Parents seem to be pleased with the option of choice, and it has created an increased measure of parent involvement in the schools.

      Although it is too early to tell what influence the choice of high schools will have on the drop-out rate, it is hoped that the efforts to reorganize the system into smaller schools, paying more attention to the needs of the individual students, and putting them in a more personal setting, will have an impact on the overall drop-out rate.

      Noting that most of the drop-outs occur in the 9th and 10th grades, Dr. Spain points to a program started last year in the traditional high school, in which schedules for 9th graders were redone, with a view to offering them a different level of service and giving them a lot more personal attention.

      Patrick Draffin, Public Information Officer for the school district, believes that the Warren Education Fund has also made an important difference in the classrooms throughout the district.  The fund started in 1986 was the result of a grant from the Fund for Rural Education Enhancement (FREE), and the goal was to furnish start-up money and technical assistance to get the Warren Education Fund off the ground.  Since that time, based on private donations to the WEF, an estimated $10,000 has been awarded to teachers and the school system to support various projects.  The WEF provides funds allowing school system staff members to take that extra step in the classroom, for which tax dollars are unavailable. By lending a hand to public education, the Warren Education Fund makes an investment that will grow in the lives of the students it touches.   Dr. Spain says he is excited about the working relationship that the school district has with its Board of Education and with the County Commissioners.  The Commissioners have supported us in so many ways.  And I also believe community interest has played a large part in moving the county forward.

      Citing the example of the recent Golden Leaf Initiative in which the county was asked to identify some major needs, Dr. Spain said that as a result, the Golden Leaf organization funded two projects - one of which covered technology for the school district.  Even though we don't have a lot of resources, there is a renewed interest in working together to provide a better environment for the youth and the citizens of Warren County.
Reprinted from Carolina Business online.
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