During its Monday afternoon meeting, the Warren County Economic Development Commission Board of Directors studied findings from an Aug. 27 county strategic planning session as part of the process to create a strategic plan for local economic development.

The August session was facilitated by Bruce Naegelen, Darren Rhodes and Amy Suggs of the N.C. Rural Economic Development Division, N.C. Department of Commerce.

On Monday, Naegelen told the board that the strategic plan would serve as a one-year plan of work to guide the EDC in fulfilling its task of growing Warren County’s economy to increase job opportunities, enhance the tax base and improve local quality of life.  

He said that August session participants identified the following as strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to the county’s economic growth:

Strengths: abundance of water/infrastructure, access corridors, active government with business, agriculture, attract young entrepreneurs, clean air, cleanliness of downtown Warrenton, community college custom training, conducting business, dedicated leaders, diverse and talented retirement community, drive of residents, education system, entrepreneurial spirit, established businesses, faith community, friendly, several specific businesses, grassroots organizers, historic landscapes, history and heritage, loyal residents,  Kerr Lake, Lake Gaston (with its businesses and chamber of commerce), land available, location, low cost of living, low crime, natural scenic beauty, naturally evolved small business network, no traffic, population diversity, proximity to populations and workforce, quality of life with rural/family atmosphere, recreational  leisure, skilled residents, Soul City/New Town Development, support structure of business and the local wood products industry.

Weaknesses: ability to start and run a business, aging and declining population, citizens understanding new business opportunities, declining enrollment in school system, division between Norlina and Warrenton, financial institutions closings; lack of: affordable housing, amenities (theaters, entertainment, retail), available industrial inventory, available structures for businesses, broadband internet access (personal and business), community connectivity, development around interstate, funds/ecosystem for entrepreneurship, hotels, housing options of all types, medical care facilities and physicians, private investment (resources), regional collaboration, resources for entrepreneurship, resources for tourism (no tourism development authority), retail, sewer at Lake Gaston and sustainable growth businesses; leadership stretched thin, limited number of local jobs and trained workforce, low wages, negative perception by outsiders and acceptance of that perception by residents, not telling “our story,” poor appearance of businesses, perception that school system is not good, social and economic divide between lake and county, transportation options, underutilized cultural diversity, vacant buildings and their poor appearance,  vacant and abandoned property; Zip code confusion.

Opportunities: business retention efforts, community college role in workforce development, develop public/private partnership to bring resources together, expand healthcare/urgent care, façade improvements, forums/town hall meetings for ideas and integration, inspirational messages in public places, leverage quality of life attributes, location — make people stop in Warren County, marketing and branding, people, reclaim state owned and managed properties, rural land management, strength in diversity, supplemental agricultural income, tapping into strengths of existing organizations to eliminate overlap, tourism development authority, Triangle North industrial site, well poised for growth in education and economic development.

Threats (which county cannot control): acceptance of poverty as the norm, access to grant money, citizens not knowing what is available, complacency, declining volunteerism, dependency on “free money” versus work ethic, e-commerce, exodus of youth, expansion of poverty, lack of communication, lack of money for nonprofits, lack of availability of investment in infrastructure, turnover of teachers and effective leaders.

Naegelen invited the EDC board and members of the public to revise the lists. Afton resident Deborah Ferruccio noted the county’s status as the birthplace of the Environmental Justice Movement as a strength. During the public comments portion of the meeting, she identified herself as a member of the citizen group Warren County Voices NC, offering the organization’s assistance. Ferruccio praised the strategic planning efforts, saying that the county must be proactive in relation to economic development.

EDC board members added the following to the list of the county’s strengths: recreational activities and services, opportunities available through local schools (technology and robotics, school choice,  global school, Google school, year round schools), good race relations and older population with life wisdom and experience.

In considering weaknesses, the EDC board changed “division between Norlina and Warrenton” to lack of connectivity between Macon, Norlina and Warrenton. The EDC board and Ferruccio identified the following as additional weaknesses: aging and declining population from a workforce perspective,  lack of high-impact land use regulations, lack of preparedness for inevitable catastrophes and roadside litter.

Additional opportunities were listed as leveraging opportunity zone and build on the county’s status as the birthplace of the Environmental Justice Movement.

An added threat was  accepting litter as a part of life.

Naegelen told the EDC board that the August session allowed the following to be identified as the top issues that face Warren County: small business retention, entrepreneurial development, marketing, communication, building re-use site development and workforce development.

A draft action plan to address these issues was developed as follows: 

Small business retention: continue business education/collaboration with other businesses, define types of businesses (inventory), think strategically like an entrepreneur, mindset training, determine/engage business/industry to discuss issues, aggressively market strategies offered by the EDC, focus on Norlina special business events – identify people not affiliated by support structure, promote the local “edible triangle” connecting Macon, Norlina and Warrenton through restaurants and food trucks. Those identified to lead the action strategies were chamber of commerce, municipality and community leaders, community college, school system, local churches and business retention support program.

Entrepreneurial development: develop an entrepreneurial hub. Those to lead the effort would include the EDC, county, towns, community leaders and progressive thinkers.

Marketing: tourism marketing video under development by EDC and video for EDC/business. Partners in the process would include EDC, school system, local chambers of commerce and Haliwa-Saponi Tribe with video to include special events and cultural festivals.

Communication: develop community buy-in for economic development vision through avenues such as forums and meetings, communicate through social media, news and other outlets, determine/engage business/industry to discuss issues. Partners working in this effort would include County Economic Development Director Stacy Woodhouse, the EDC, the county, communities, business community and local media outlets.

Building re-use and site development: develop/update building inventory and identify incentives/rules to encourage re-use, develop a plan for two-to-three industrial sites and determine what is needed for development readiness, including budget. Those involved in the work would include Woodhouse, EDC, county, Kerr-Tar Regional Council of Governments and Warren County Public Facilities Company (for opportunity zones).

Workforce development: connect economic development vision with community college curriculum and support/enhance programs that train students to enter the local workforce and engage the business community. Working on the strategy would be Woodhouse, the EDC, county human resources, the school system, community college, Warren County Cooperative Extension, the COG’s NC Works program, retirees serving as mentors, and the Golden Journeys Program for those ages 35-75.

Naegelen told the EDC that he would make revisions suggested by the EDC board and public before providing Woodhouse with a final draft to present to the board.