Does Beaufort's future reside in the Emerald City? | Eastern North Carolina Now

    Publisher's Note: This article originally appeared in the Beaufort Observer.

    Who IS the Wizard?

    Have you ever wondered why it seems that Beaufort County is almost always behind other counties? We have. And we would suggest it has nothing to do with being a "Tier 1" county. That is the result, not the cause of our being in the back of the pack. We would suggest the real reason is the dismal quality of leadership that has afflicted our county, and the municipalities within the county, for years. In today's Charlotte Observer we see just one example.

    Union County has a problem. Their economic development program leaves much to be desired, at least it would appear that way to them. But at least, unlike Beaufort County and the City of Washington, they are trying to do something about it. The county is spending $20K on a study to decide the best approach to economic development.

    You can read the story by clicking here.

    Union County shares much in common with Beaufort. It borders Mecklenburg as Beaufort borders Pitt. It, like Beaufort, has seen what growth it has experienced in the last two decades driven by residential development. Both are bedroom communities.

    What many people do not realize is that just about the only growth that has taken place in Beaufort County has been rooted in Pamlico Plantation and Cypress Landing, both residential communities that have attracted people to move to the county to replace the young people who graduate from high school and college and leave the county.

    Ironically, it appears from the newspaper article that Union may be considering embarking on an economic development strategy that has failed in Beaufort. They seem to be poised to try to "recruit industry." That has been just about the entirety of Beaufort's strategy over the last decade. It has failed miserably as we have more than amply documented here. Yet, our leaders, like buggy makers of the past, continue doing the same old things and expecting different results.

    And another striking parallel between Union and Beaufort is with the hospitals in each county. But that is a story unto itself for another day.

    But here's the big difference between Union County today and Beaufort...they are looking at all of their options. Beaufort continues to simply plod along the same path it has always followed...which is, allowing fate to dictate rather than taking charge of our future.

    No other more important example of this is that of the health care system in Beaufort County.

    Our county commissioners appointed incompetent people to oversee the hospital and low and behold they did an incompetent job. As a result, the hospital got into such bad financial shape the county has now given it away in order to save it. And the extent of the wisdom of our decision makers was to beg a single-source bidder to just take it off our hands.

    That paragraph is sure to inflame the rabid supporters of University Health Systems. So be it. But to those willing to take a strategic view of the future of our county let us explain what we mean by "giving away" Beaufort's hospital.

    We have given away control of our health care future to those who have only one interest: The viability of an external (to Beaufort County) organization that will be controlled almost exclusively by people who have no accountability to the citizens of Beaufort County. Any reasonably objective person would have to admit that the strategic decisions that will be made about our health care system will be made by someone other than those accountable to the people of Beaufort County.

    But while those wearing the rose-colored glasses of Greenville/Pitt County will come to realize it over time, we will go ahead and say it now: We have put the destiny of our health care in external hands. But the health care system is not the point of this article, only an example of the problem we are talking about.

    The Problem, to put it in a nutshell, is our leadership's lack of strategic thinking ahead. It is a mindset that accepts that trends, patterns and forces will shape our destiny rather than our shaping our destiny, or even getting out ahead of what happens to us.

    Let us use another example very unlike the health care system.

    Suppose ten years ago we had decided that our future economic welfare resided to our west--that being a bedroom community to the ECU medical complex was a more viable economic development strategy than trying to get a plastic maker or whatever to move to the industrial park. How would we have spent $39.6 million in school construction differently? And would we have jumped onto the Highway 17 bandwagon rather than working to get a four-lane connector from U.S. 264 to Memorial Drive in Greenville? Would we have decided that a four-laned N.C. 33 would do us more good than a four-laned U.S. 17 to Williamston? (Imagine a four-lane road parallel to N. C. 33 and the Tar River that emptied into the Medical District in Greenville, connected to the current U. S. 264 just north of the river with a bridge much like the U.S. 17 Bypass bridge. And then imagine water and sewer serving the entire western portion of Beaufort County. And then imagine bright, shiny, new high-performing schools with stable student assignment plans bordering the mess they have in Pitt County with constant reassignments, busing and law suits.) Just imagine a half dozen Cypress Landings in that corridor. Imagine if we could advertise that we "have the lowest electrical rates in the region..." Just imagine that we could "brand" our community college as the most modern in the state, rather than trying to keep it from being absorbed by Pitt Community. (Does anyone see a pattern here?) Just imagine if the north and south sides of Beaufort County were connected between Washington and Bath and Chocowinity and Aurora. Just imagine ...

    Ahhh, and that is our point. We don't imagine what our future could be. Or more precisely, we haven't had leaders who imagined what the options were and effectively engaged our people, particularly developers/producers, in choosing and implementing the best of those options rather than leaving it up to a bunch of people sitting in a boardroom in another county to decide for us.

    To see what we mean one need only review the debate about the location of the U.S. 17 Bypass. Boil it down and you will hear the leadership on the County Commission explain that "D.O.T. has already decided...(where the bridge will go) and it will only delay it to think about an alternative..." Now we're talking about how to pull traffic off 17 into downtown. How long will it be before we buy another study about how to save us from ourselves?

    We don't usually like these expensive studies. Lord knows we've got enough of them to tell us how to salvage "the downtown" while we build a bypass and a rest area to attract traffic outside the commercial heart of the county so people can get from Virginia to South Carolina faster. But we do think Union County is on to something in bringing in an outside group to gather data and identify issues and options. And that's likely to be more productive than coming up with a "brand" or tinkering with image things. Had we had forward-thinking leadership we would have been using the last ten years to craft a plan that would have taken advantage of the greatest economic engine in the region rather than getting ourselves into a situation in which we simply had to beg that engine to take a $50 million investment off our hands because of a cash flow problem.

    We would not have spent $7 million on a "rust belt strategy" of economic development that has failed as badly as the Global Transpark's "build it and they will come", scratch "dream" and make it "nightmare."

    Al Klemm is fond of saying "I envision a thriving UHS medical complex in Beaufort..." and that no doubt will happen. But The People of Beaufort County will not control how that happens or what happens. We will not control how much money is taken out of Beaufort County as opposed to how much is brought into Beaufort County. We will simply have to take what some people who have no allegiance to Beaufort County sitting in a boardroom in Greenville will decide FOR US. And we have no guarantee anybody from Beaufort County will be at that table. And we'll spare you here the metaphors of "slaves and master." So much for "economic development."

    As Dorothy convinced the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow, we don't have to let the Wizard control our destiny. We need to confront him and show him how it's going to be. Our destiny does not (or should not) reside in the Emerald City. The Wizard resides in Beaufort County. Greenville is the Yellow Brick Road.

    We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
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