By Todd Cohen
STAR, N.C. — Aiming to spur sustainable enterprise in the seven-county region of the southern watershed of the Yadkin-Pee Dee River Basin, an effort it says could cost $100 million, an advocacy group aims initially to raise $6 million to $7 million to fund initiatives to show how the region can grow.
With 500,000 residents, the seven counties are part of an urban crescent along I-95 with just over 4 million people that is expected to grow by 2 million by 2025, and another 2 million by 2050, says Bill Medlin, executive director of the Yadkin-Pee Dee Lakes Project in the Montgomery County town of Star.
“That urban corridor can be a potential source of benefit to us, or absolutely prevent us from accomplishing our mission,” he says. “It’s a razor-thin edge.”
With a mission of preserving the seven counties’ natural and cultural resources, and using them to redevelop the economy on a sustainable basis, he says, the nonprofit aims to raise awareness about the region’s problems and potential.
Just over one in three Richmond County residents and nearly one in four Montgomery County residents are poor, for example, with annual income below the federal poverty line of $19,350 for a family of four.
The region has lost 18,000 jobs in the last five years, and Star, with only 800 residents, has lost 1,400 jobs in three years, including commuters from western Moore and southern Randolph counties.
Yet studies in 1999 and 2000 that surveyed households from Charlotte to Raleigh found that developing activities in sync with peoples’ interest in recreation could generate 33,000 jobs paying more than state median income for the region by 2025, and more than $3 billion a year in economic impact.
Formed in 1994 to help people understand the role that sustainable development could play, the nonprofit now wants to help spur recovery from the economic slump and loss of manufacturing jobs.
After raising just over $1.2 million in a capital campaign in 2001 and 2002, offsetting its loss of state and county funding, and increasing its annual budget to $500,000 from $225,000, the nonprofit aims to kick-start new education and development initiatives.
Its new Central Park Institute offers an eight-month program to help public officials, business executives and civic leaders better understand the economic potential of tourism that aims to promote and preserve the region’s culture and heritage.
“Cultural tourists spend more money, stay longer and tend to come back more frequently,” Medlin says.
The nonprofit also wants to revitalize up to 30 small towns by engaging entire communities in developing and carrying out their own strategic plans.
In Star, a team of seven experts met for three days in March with 350 citizens and community leaders who now have invested more than 5,000 hours cleaning up Memorial Park and Main Street.
As part of an effort to take on larger projects to develop “North Carolina Central Park,” its name for the region, the nonprofit also is developing an incubator known as STARworks in a donated 180,000-square-foot former textile mill in Star that could house 50 to 70 small businesses and artists who would relocate to the 30 small towns after three to five years.
The nonprofit also wants to boost birdwatching and cycling, the region’s fastest-growing passive and active outdoor activities, respectively, and develop a “Uwharrie Chatauqua” modeled on one in Western New York that attracts 150,000 visitors in nine weeks each summer for programs in education, art, recreation, and religion or spirituality.
The nonprofit is looking at lakeside communities in Stanly and Davidson counties for the Chatauqua.
While the nonprofit is gearing up for a capital campaign that could total $6 million to $7 million, Medlin says, developing its entire vision could cost $100 million and require cultivating donors throughout the urban crescent.
That will take branding and raising awareness about Central Park, he says, including developing nine scenic byways with a $100,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation and seeking $750,000 from state lawmakers this session.