Three cities near the heart of everything came together Thursday to forge a single, unified vision of the future.
Leaders from Dunn, Benson and Four Oaks took an initial first step in the creation of a joint body formed to map out a pathway that takes advantage of what’s already here and what could be down the road.
City councils from all three municipalities agreed to move forward with the formation of the I-95/I-40 Crossroads of America Economic Planning Alliance, a bold initiative to incorporate community partners, spur growth and raise the overall quality of life for the people in those communities.
“We feel like we have an opportunity with Interstate 95 traveling through all three of our communities, as we’re all strategically located around the interstate,” Dunn Mayor William Elmore said. “We just have an opportunity to market ourselves together as one regional group. We feel like through that we could be looked at by retail and manufacturing in ways that we cannot do on our own. It’s a united front and the three communities working together.”
Elmore, along with Four Oaks Mayor Linwood Parker and Benson Mayor Jerry Medlin, got the ball bouncing on the new alliance earlier in the year, following a formula that worked for similar economic development plans. Parker laid out the vision to council members, telling them that what they do now will ripple through their communities for the next 25 years. With the intersection of two of the country’s largest interstates within shouting distance of the area, Parker said the new alliance can help maximize the opportunities offered by such an advantageous location.
“We became the crossroads of America,” said Parker. “We can go just a few miles and hit 40 and go see the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean or go [on I-95] to Bangor, Maine, or Miami, Florida. And yet there has never been a concerted or connected effort to market this region. We could continue, but the one thing they tell me is doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.”
City managers presented the nuts and bolts of the alliance, highlighting the advantages of working together and showcasing examples of successful economic development such as Rooms to Go, Berry Global and Ashley Furniture Home store.
Benefits of a regional approach included a broader base of resources, a centralized economic development operation; cohesive short and long term planning; a focused approach to addressing strategic issues such as workforce development; and increased coordination resulting in an efficient use of resources.
“We need to create good paying jobs that are in manufacturing,” Parker said. “It really doesn’t matter if it comes to Dunn or it comes to Benson or Four Oaks, the main thing is we want to make sure it comes to one of the three.”
Location drove the message, as the area serves as an epicenter for many thoroughfares, airports, colleges, military bases, two large rivers and acres of untapped potential. What the region needs, Benson Town Manager Feed Nelson explained, is a collective vision, a developed workforce, an identity, infrastructure improvements and both short- and long-term plans for growth.
“The idea of a regional approach to economic development is the way to go these days,” said Nelson. “We’re not the only ones who are thinking about doing this. A regional approach to economic development has been going on for quite some time. We definitely need to get onboard.”
Identifying opportunity zones for commercial and industrial development, formulating relationships with community partners and conducting a strategic visioning campaign made up the alliance’s goals, but Parker said the real measure of success comes down to the people who live here. Parker pointed to Dunn’s average median household income of less than $30,000 a year as proof that leaders need to do more to help the rising tide raise all ships and not just a select few.
“The threads that unite us are many,” said Parker. “We’re all connected. We got one important thing to accomplish: The biggest problem with the country today is income disparity, the difference between being able to get by and being able to prosper.”
Several representatives raised questions regarding the partnership, ranging from tax status to by-laws. Benson City Councilman William Neighbors asked whether or not a combination of public and private involvement was good for the alliance’s prospects.
“I’m a business owner,” Neighbors said. “I don’t believe government is a business. I don’t think it should be run like a business. I believe government is a service and economic development is a very important part of that service. I think it is our job as city commissioners who are elected to office to provide that service based on the input and direction of the people who put us here.”
Parker assured Benson representatives that the alliance is in the early planning stages and tweaks to certain by-laws or representation from the private sector can be addressed moving forward.
-Dunn Daily Record