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I love Columbus County

I am still thinking of retiring somewhere in the middle of the triangle formed by Whiteville, Tabor City, and Chadbourn, if I can find forty acres that hasn't been clear-cut for agriculture. The key word, however, is that I will be RETIRING, not looking for work. The simple fact is that the deck is heavily stacked against Columbus County. In theory, it could attract a major industrial employer very easily. Building a large production facility in the Eastern portion of the county (Bolton/Lake Waccamaw area) could draw on a large unemployed/underemployed work force from Columbus, Brunswick, and even New Hanover Counties. Build something out near Evergreen and you could attract labor from Lumberton, Whiteville, and Tabor City. Sidney could be ideal for a large factory or distribution facility, midway between Whiteville and Tabor City. Several factors, however, make any prospective employer look elsewhere immediately. First, is the lack of skilled employees available. That's not a slam against Columbus County - it's a simple statement of fact. The County has traditionally been centered on agriculture and light manufacturing, neither of which prepares you for working in a modern industrial manufacturing facility. Second is an aging population. That's a problem that has been plaguing rural America for thirty years. Junior doesn't want to stay on the farm and plant tobacco, corn, peanuts, or soybeans like daddy did. Junior wants to go to the bright lights and big city to make some money. (There are exceptions, and God bless them, because they're the only thing standing between us and the complete extinction of the family farm.) Spend time in Columbus County, however, and you are struck with the distinct absence of gainfully employed young people just starting out raising a family. There are no "yuppies," to use an old but accurate term. If they went away to college, odds say they never returned. Even if they went to Southeastern and learned a trade, most headed to Wilmington to find work. Now, some will argue that a large employer would keep the young folks at home, but it hasn't panned out that way anywhere across the country. Young people reject the idea of growing up in a small town and "going to work at the mill" just as quickly as they reject farming. They've been exposed to TV, and they know there's a big world out there with many more opportunities than they will ever see in Vinegar Hill. Third is the political base in Columbus County. It's a Democratic stronghold, and no major manufacturer is going to build a large production facility knowing that the UAW, IBEW, or some other union is going to show up a year after the plant opens to triple the cost of doing business....because Columbus County workers WOULD vote in a union at the first opportunity, and kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Fourth is a limited road system. There is ONE good highway in Columbus County, US 74, running East-West. The major North-South roads, US 701, NC 211 and NC 87 are all two lane roads passing through many small towns en route to a major market. The sad fact is that any shipment destined for an area outside the state must drive many miles out of the way to reach the Interstate (the proposed I-74 will eventually help that) or navigate winding two-lane roads that can be closed for hours in the event of an accident. No one will ever open that facility in Sidney as long as 701 is a two-lane road. So when you look at what Columbus County CAN'T offer, you can see why unemployment is higher there than in the state as a whole....and it's destined to get higher. Perhaps the county needs to re-invent itself? Brunswick County did, and moved from a primarily agrarian ecnomy to a tourist/retirement Mecca. Granted, the ocean made their job a lot easier, but could Columbus County do something similar? There's a LOT of land to build dozens of championship golf courses on. There's a lot of undeveloped land in the Hallsboro-Mark Pine corridor that could be made into a huge natural-wilderness state park. There's no magic wand that can turn the clock back and return downtown Chadbourn, Whiteville, or Tabor City to vibrant, booming shopping districts unless you attract an entire new population of residents and appeal to their niche marketing needs. The county needs to think outside the box, and realize that in a nation gradually moving toward a service based economy, providing the best and most interesting services may be the key to future economic growth.

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