By Justin Smith, The News Reporter
The Columbus Jobs Foundation (CJF), a non-profit organization that supports economic development in the county, laid out a vision for the year ahead during its fifth annual meeting Thursday night.
The successor to the former Columbus County Committee of 100, CJF operates the Southeast Regional Industrial Park and administers a revolving low-interest loan fund to support small business. As a non-profit, the organization serves as a conduit for grant funds, such as a recent grant from Duke Energy that will help extend a water line to the new Helena Chemical facility and the eastern part of the Southeast Park.
“We can do things that government can’t do,” said CJF President Les High, who is publisher of The News Reporter. “We’re called on to entertain clients, and we have found time and time again that even if we don’t land clients, that they’re very appreciative of what our business community does in terms of being hospitable and making them feel welcome.”
High shared the organization’s four goals for the upcoming year with the members assembled for the meeting at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Whiteville:
n Developing an entrepreneurial incubator that would provide workspace and resources to start-up businesses. Tom Hall, executive director of the Thomas Entrepreneurship Hub at UNC Pembroke, delivered a presentation about the incubator he runs in downtown Pembroke and offered his assistance to the Columbus Jobs Foundation;
n Promoting housing development in the eastern and southern parts of the county to take advantage of growth from Wilmington and the Grand Strand;
n Creating a paved trail that would connect Waccamaw Shores Road and Lake Waccamaw State Park. The 10-foot-wide trail could accommodate triathlons and other fitness activities; and
n Developing a Lumber River State Park presence in downtown Fair Bluff, which was devastated by Hurricanes Matthew and Florence.
High said Rep. Brenden Jones will convene a meeting of the county’s legislative delegation to discuss how they can support the initiatives.
Although 2018 will be remembered as the year in which Hurricane Florence caused widespread devastation in Columbus County, High said it was a “remarkably good year” for economic and business development. He pointed to a long list of highlights, including: BB&T’s plans to build a new $20 million regional headquarters and service center in Whiteville, school construction projects in Tabor City, Cerro Gordo and Whiteville, a $26 million natural gas conversion plant expected to break ground next month in Clarendon and an Advanced Manufacturing Training Center under construction at Southeastern Community College.
Other highlights include new town halls in Fair Bluff, Whiteville and Cerro Gordo, significant road infrastructure projects that will move U.S. 74 closer to becoming I-74, the growth of Tabor City auto parts distributor DMA holdings, and R.J. Corman Railroad’s efforts to secure a major rail prospect at the former Georgia-Pacific site.
Additionally, High said Shizzy’s Wildcat Rescue is moving forward in Fair Bluff, Malec Brothers plans to remain in Columbus County while opting not to apply for a methyl bromide permit, Cape Fearless Extreme has opened its ziplining attraction near Delco, Helena Chemical is constructing a new facility west of Whiteville, and Tabor City has secured an $800,000 federal grant to create a business incubator in a downtown storefront.
High ended his comments by asking members to consider creative possibilities for the county.
“Don’t think I’m crazy, but I want to throw something out there that I think is going to be our future, and I think we have a bright future,” he said.
By the middle of the next decade, driverless cars are going to be a boon for areas like Columbus County, High said, because they will allow people to live in rural communities and effortlessly commute to jobs hours away and be productive during the drive.
“I don’t think the jobs are ever going to leave Raleigh, Wilmington and Myrtle Beach in a big way,” High said. “But what we offer is a great quality of life.”
He explained that continuing to make Columbus County a desirable place to live will be the key.
“We have really begun to work on our infrastructure, but we have to keep it going. We have to keep pressure on for good roads, for good schools, to protect our environment — to do things like the path behind Lake Waccamaw — have good infrastructure like water and sewer, and strong downtowns.”