By Ivey Schofield
Elizabethtown has plans for four major projects that could help transform the small Bladen County community into a hub for growth and innovation.
Home to about 3,200 people in southeastern North Carolina, Elizabethtown is set to get about $20 million in state and federal grants. Town officials say they want to use the money to address a number of issues, including housing, health care, infrastructure, recreation and economic development.
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“I’m so excited. For the first time in a long time, there’s a lot of grant money out there,” Mayor Sylvia Campbell said, referring to the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2021. “Thank goodness we’ve gleaned something out of COVID.”
Here’s a breakdown of the projects in Elizabethtown.
The town plans to expand the Curtis L. Brown Jr. Field airport in hopes that more businesses and individuals will use the facility.
The airport already has an annual economic impact of $21 million, said Rusty Worley, Elizabethtown’s director of planning and code enforcement.
In 2021, Elizabethtown received $795,000 from the U.S. Department of Transportation to improve the airport over the next five years. So far, the town has used a portion of the funds to create a 10-year master plan and is currently in the process of finalizing it, said Dane Rideout, the town manager.
This year, the town is asking for $2.5 million from the state legislature to create an “incubator” – or hangar and apron space that will eventually offer jobs in manufacturing and aviation maintenance – at the southern end of the airport.
Chuck Heustess, Bladen County’s economic development director, said the expansion plan, dubbed Project Samuel, is a really big deal.
“I may be as excited about the opportunity to really create an economic development tool out of our airport than anything I’ve seen here in the last 20 years,” Heustess said.
Since October, when the town installed a new computer system at the airport and dropped fuel prices, about 1,000 planes have utilized the air field each month – triple the number previously, Worley said.
Planes that use the airport’s hangar as home base generate property taxes. For example, the owner of a plane might owe the county $22,000 and the town $17,000 for one year of use.
Meanwhile, Elizabethtown allocates $205,000 a year to the airport, and Bladen County contributes $45,000.
“It’s a huge investment by the county and the town, financially, to maintain that, and nobody has been working toward developing the vision and trying to recruit in folks to change that,” Rideout said. “We’re trying to change that.”
Starting in April, the town plans to use its partnership with a faith-based aerospace company to create a flight school and offer enrichment opportunities for students in Bladen County Schools and Bladen Community College. This summer, the airport will host camps for middle and high school students interested in learning more about aviation.
“I think it will mean a great deal to our future generation. A lot of them don’t realize the opportunity that is at that airport,” Campbell said. “It just opens up a whole new world to them.”
Elizabethtown has plans for a mixed-use project at the Elizabethtown Industrial Park near the airport. The “live, work, play” project would include homes, health care and business offices, a day care center, a hotel and a 5,000-seat amphitheater.
The town has invited several developers to build 145 single-family homes ranging from 1,200 to 2,500 square feet for people who qualify for workforce housing by earning between 60% and 120% of the area’s median income. Police officers and teachers typically fall into this category.
Bladen County needs more housing, said Rideout, who has been living in a 900-square-foot condo for the last couple of years because he hasn’t been able to find a home.
“We’re leaking our own success and job creation to outside areas because there’s no place to live,” Rideout said. “Our goal is obviously to keep the money in the county.”
The town already owns the land, which officials say should help keep costs lower for homebuyers.
Rideout, who is a veteran, has been working with the Wounded Warriors Project to reserve five to seven homes for soldiers from Fort Liberty, formerly Fort Bragg, who need temporary housing.
Alex Munroe, who owns Cape Fear Vineyard and Winery at the industrial park, said he plans to donate some of his proceeds to the Wounded Warrior Project.
Munroe is expanding his business to a new 10,000-square-foot building at the industrial park, which he says will increase onsite sales by 30%.
“Our challenge has always been finding help and finding housing for when we find people to help,” Munroe said. “This will kill two birds with one stone.”
Rideout said several other businesses have committed to the space, including Cape Fear Distillery, an urgent care, health care specialists including a speech pathologist and eye doctor, a tiny-home manufacturing company and a pharmaceutical company.
“We can’t build it fast enough,” Rideout said.
But first Elizabethtown must expand utility lines to the project site.
In 2022, the town received a $365,000 grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation for roads, water, sewer and sidewalks. It is now applying for a $691,000 match from the U.S Economic Development Administration to complete those projects by the end of 2024.
The town is also applying for a $2.2 million grant from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality for a storm water project on King Street and a $2 million Community Development Block Grant for a city-wide sewer collection system.
“It’s not a shiny object – water, sewer, stormwater,” Rideout said. “But if it’s broken, you’ll get all kinds of attention, and that affects property values.”
Elizabethtown is already working to double its sewer capacity, a $13.6 million project funded by the American Rescue Plan Act. The plan is to create a regional wastewater system that will treat waste from Bladenboro, Dublin and potentially White Lake.
In the last two years, the town has allocated $100,000 of its own budget to fixing its geographic information systems, which companies use to determine water and sewer capacity.
Worley said Elizabethtown was a finalist for a drone manufacturer because of its GIS system. Ultimately, the company chose not to move to North Carolina, he said.
Past the Cape Fear Farmer’s Market on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive is New Town, a small community where most residents are Black.
Elizabethtown officials admit the neighborhood has been neglected for years.
“It’s very clear that New Town has taken a backseat to a lot of initiatives in this area,” Riedeout said. “One of the town council’s top priorities was to get after New Town from a holistic perspective.”
In 2021, Elizabethtown received $950,000 in federal money from Community Development Block Grants to rebuild three dilapidated homes and install new sidewalks and lighting.The town is partnering with Habitat for Humanity to replace more homes.
Last year, Elizabethtown got nearly $2.6 million from the block grant program to create a community center – an 11,000-square-foot building with a playground, indoor event space, office space, tutoring services and a small-business development center. The town invested $135,000 for the project, which is expected to open in 2024.
This year, Rideout said, Elizabethtown is a finalist for a $1 billion grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to revitalize the New Town area. The plan addresses infrastructure, including sidewalks, bicycle lanes, street lighting and greenspaces, and economic development opportunities like the creation of a business incubator for minority-owned companies.
Heustess said he hopes all of the projects will just be the beginning.
“If Bladen County is going to succeed and grow, the easiest place to have it happen first is Elizabethtown,” he said. “Then from there, we want to take the success we have and recreate it in other towns.”