Suzanne Julian is a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in Public Administration. She is currently working with the STEP leadership team in Pamlico County as part of the Carolina Economic Revitalization Corps program.
Picture this: It’s early summer and you decide to take a long weekend at the coast. You start off with a day on the beach (or out on the golf course) in Emerald Isle or Atlantic Beach. You’ve always heard the Croatan National Forest is beautiful, so you go for a long bike ride through the forest and up towards Cherry Point. You end up in Oriental, where you go out for a day of sailing, or maybe go for an eco-tour of the coastline. You finish up with some exploration of a couple of the area’s small towns, then head back home, relaxed and happy. Maybe you even move eastern North Carolina up a couple of notches on your mental “Places I Might Want to Retire” list!
Please excuse my imaginings, but that’s a scenario a lot of the communities in coastal North Carolina would love to see happen. And, slowly but surely, it seems that forces are aligning to help make the outdoorsy vacation a central part of what the area has to offer. Thanks to a North Carolina Department of Transportation grant, the Eastern Carolina Council (ECC) is moving ahead with the Croatan Regional Bike Plan (CRBP). The plan’s goal is to create a continuous bike path that runs through the Croatan National Forest and connects to local bike paths and facilities in Carteret, Craven, Jones, Onslow and Pamlico Counties. The CRBP network will include different types of paths, from multi-use trails to dedicated bike paths to simply widened shoulders in some places to make the road more bike-accessible.
ECC and the Department of Transportation have been planning the project since the summer, and began inviting local jurisdictions into the planning process in November. So far, Pamlico County and Onslow County have sent in letters of support for the project, as have some area municipalities, including Havelock and Cape Carteret. The ECC will work with regional stakeholders to plan the CRBP, including the Down East Rural Planning Organization, the National Forest Service, the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, the Jacksonville Urban Metropolitan Planning Organization, NC Department of Transportation, and local governments. Creating a bike path is a long process—that planning phase is scheduled to last another 12 to 14 months, followed by a four to six month adoption period. The weekend bicycling getaway I described may not be a reality for another couple of years. But it’s coming!
The Department of Transportation has one successful initiative like this one under its belt already. The Centralina Council of Governments recently completed the Lake Norman Regional Bike Plan, an effort that was also the result of years of planning. The Centralina COG contracted with the Department of Transportation in early 2009 to complete the plan, and the Department of Transportation approved the final plan in the summer of 2010. The Lake Norman Regional Bike Plan process was intended both to directly benefit the communities around Lake Norman, and to serve as a model for future regional bike plans throughout the state, and so far, it seems to be doing just that.
In Pamlico County, economic development planners are excited about the CRBP. The bike trails will create useful infrastructure in the county, and will help connect Pamlico (both literally and figuratively) to its neighbors—all at no cost to the county itself. The bike plan also has the potential to be an important element of Pamlico County’s burgeoning eco-tourism efforts. Tourism, including eco-tourism, has been an important part of the county’s economic development strategy from the beginning. This plan will help the county draw more bikers, hikers, and lovers of the outdoors to the area.
It’s easy to understand why the economic developers in Pamlico County are so excited about eco-tourism. It’s an appealing strategy in a lot of ways: it helps preserve the open space and natural beauty that drew many residents to the community in the first place. It helps strengthen the county’s connection to its traditional, environmentally-based industries of farming, fishing, and forestry. And it provides a way to find sustainability and economic growth within the county’s specific assets and characteristics. We know that a copycat, paint-by-numbers approach to economic development doesn’t work: just because a particular set of strategies were successful for the town down the road doesn’t mean they will be successful for your community. The key to economic development is matching the community’s strategy to its specific strengths and challenges. In Pamlico County, that means using the environment to create value for the community.
It’s also nice when a community’s various economic development strategies fit together well, and in Pamlico County, eco-tourism (broadly defined) complements many of the area’s other strategies: Working with farmers to preserve working lands and open space, check. Developing a central community meeting-place that will include a farmers’ market, check. Developing marine trades as one of the area’s core business clusters, check. Promoting a tourism strategy that emphasizes both the county’s history and its natural beauty, check. And supporting regional efforts to create an inter-jurisdictional bike path? Well….check!
If you’re interested in learning more about the Croatan Regional Bike Plan, contact Alex Rickard of the Eastern Carolina Council at 638-3185 extension 3021.