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.
When the population of North Carolina’s Eastern Region increases by 15% over the next 15 months, it’s going be make a big impact on the region. That’s the premise behind the Military Growth Task Force (MGTF), a regional planning entity convened by NC’s Eastern Region to help predict and plan for the anticipated major growth in eastern North Carolina. Seven counties are members of the MGTF: Carteret, Craven, Duplin, Jones, Onslow, Pamlico, and Pender. These seven counties are the ones that will be most highly impacted by the coming rapid expansion of military personnel at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point and New River Air Station. Nearly 13,000 military personnel (both active duty and associated civilian staff) will be arriving in the area by the end of 2011; this growth is in addition to nearly 12,000 active-duty Marines, Sailors, and civilian staff who are already here. Between the influx of military personnel and non-military population growth, planners project that the region will see somewhere between 65,000 and 80,000 new residents over the next year and a half.
That kind of growth will make a big impact, not just in individual towns and counties, but regionally as well. The MGTF’s charge was to research the probable consequences of this rapid growth on the region, and to help develop regional responses. The MGTF identified several major issues that will be affected by the growth, particularly water quality, sustainable land use, quality of life, and scarcity of physicians. Their comprehensive reports on the effects of growth on these (and other) issues in each of the seven member counties are available on their website for anyone interested.
The STEP committee in Pamlico County has been working with the MGTF to find ways that this growth can create economic opportunities for the county. One particularly relevant area for Pamlico County is “sustainable land use.” The county and the military have some overlapping interests surrounding sustainable land use and preserving working lands in the area. Pamlico County is an agricultural place. Its character, its history, and much of its economic activity come from farming, fishing, and forestry. There is a lot of interest in the county in maintaining the agricultural, rural character of the county, but that can only happen if the people of Pamlico can find new ways to keep these industries viable, both economically and environmentally. Farmers in Pamlico County are looking for new markets. Economic planners are looking for new confluences between tourism and the environment. And everyone is looking for a way to grow economically without losing the natural beauty and rural character that make this place home.
The military, on the other hand, has its own interest in preserving working lands and an agricultural environment in eastern North Carolina. For one, the military’s training programs demand open spaces, low light pollution, and low population densities. Secondly, the military is looking for local providers of fuel and food. The military’s mandate to increase its use of alternative fuel (look for more about this in a later blog post!) is driving campaigns locally to increase North Carolina’s capacity to produce biofuel—right now, only 2 million gallons of the 11 million gallons of biofuel that the military in eastern NC is using each year come from within the state. There is strong interest and support within the military to increase that number, and biofuels could be big business for places like Pamlico County. The military is also interested in shifting to a more local base of food producers and food-distribution centers, creating another potential large and stable market that could benefit agricultural areas like Pamlico County.
None of this is going to happen overnight. Building biofuels plants is a big undertaking, both technologically and financially, and shifting to new industries takes time, buy-in, education, and resources. But several factors seem to be coalescing around agriculture and preserving working lands in Pamlico County; it’s promising, at the very least. Sometimes the confluence of interests, abilities, and opportunity lines up just right, and new connections emerge that are good for everyone. I’ll register a good old fashioned dose of cautious optimism that we just might be seeing that kind of fortunate turn of events right now in eastern North Carolina.