In 1969, Floyd B. McKissick and his company, McKissick Enterprises, founded Soul City near Manson with the help of T.T. Clayton and others, many of whom moved to Warren County with the goal of making the city a reality.
More than 50 years later, a partnership with Jim Johnson and Jeanne Milliken Bonds of UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School has allowed Warren County to submit a federal grant proposal for $499,000 over the course of two years to market Soul City as an innovation hub, potentially bringing new life to the original project.
Bonds discussed the grant proposal during the Warren County Board of Commissioners’ Sept. 14 meeting.
Soul City was part of President Richard Nixon’s New Town concept of new, separate communities different from existing cities believed to be too dense and unappealing.
A 1969 article in The Warren Record noted that the city, to be built on a 1,810-acre farm site, was being planned in an effort to end the mass migration of unskilled poor people to the slums of larger cities.
The community planning departments as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of North Carolina, along with the business schools at Harvard and Columbia universities joined several companies in offering planning and technological assistance.
Soul City was to attract commercial and industrial development. In 1969, it was reported that four major industries expressed interest in the planned community, including one expected to bring 1,000 jobs.
Bonds, who joined last week’s meeting via Zoom, told commissioners that the project received a $14 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1972. Soul City’s population was projected to be 18,000 by 1989 and 44,000 by 2004 with 24,000 jobs in place.
Soul City progressed into the early 1970s, but, as Bonds said, funding eventually ceased.
“Through a series of acts, activity ceased in Soul City,” she noted.
While the city did not develop as originally envisioned, its development is credited with bringing about the Kerr Lake Regional Water System, which remains in use today and is said to be the largest regional system of its kind in North Carolina.
Bonds told commissioners that she and Johnson prepared a U.S. Economic Development Administration Economic Adjustment Assistance grant proposal aligned with the Kerr-Tar Regional Council of Governments Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy goals. The proposal is designed to address economic challenges made worse by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Bonds said that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act provides EAA grant opportunities that do not require matching county funds, while regular EAA grants require a 20 percent county match.
She noted that a number of factors put Warren County in a good position to receive grant funding: leveraging the 1972 HUD grant, regional water system, transportation access to Soul City, agricultural assets, Soul City’s proximity to the Research Triangle area, and partnerships with universities. In addition, the county still faces the problem of out-migration, with people moving elsewhere to seek employment and housing, and a number of factors which make it an economically distressed community.
However, Bonds said that the fact that Warren County is identified as an Opportunity Zone, defined as an economically distressed community where new investments, under certain conditions, may be eligible for preferential tax treatment, may make Soul City attractive to businesses.
She noted that plans to market Soul City would involve businesses, elected officials, nonprofits and community residents working together, much like the original planning for the city.
In addition to the federal grant opportunity, state, local, philanthropic and private sources of funding would be sought to move the project forward.
Bonds said that the county should learn whether it received the federal grant sometime in November, with funding to begin in January if approved.
Tare “T” Davis, chairman of the Warren County Board of Commissioners, expressed optimism and excitement about Soul City’s future.
“We are standing on the shoulders of Eva Clayton, T.T. Clayton, Mr. McKissick (and others responsible for the original plans). I believe this will happen.” he said.
Bonds noted that development models similar to the plans for Soul City are becoming more commonplace now.
“Mr. McKissick was so ahead of his time,” she noted.