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GROWING TO THE NORTH: Cape Fear Economic Development Council discusses the future of the Highway 421 corridor

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Whenever I head toward the Piedmont region of our state to visit family and friends, I take a different route than I have in the past. Partly it is because my truck is now older than I am (but has fewer miles than I do), and partly because I can no longer stand the monotony of I-40, despite its 70 mph speed limit and temptations of Barstow. Instead of following College Road to its northern extreme, I choose instead to cross the river, turn right, and chug along at 55 through the winding back roads of the old way: Highway 421, which will get travelers to the capital just the same, but without all the traffic and with the benefit of interesting scenery.


TO DEVELOP OR NOT? Cape Fear Economic Development Council met to discuss developing the 421 corridor.

Photo by John Wolfe

Beyond the Pender County line is where it really gets good; there, it’s a varied rural patchwork of farmer’s fields, little towns and low-lying swamps, full of cypress and tea-brown water. Just north of Wilmington, it’s nothing special to see, unless one likes junkyards, metal recyclers, old coal-fired power plants, and landfills (the exception, of course, is the Eagle Island Produce and Seafood market, which by itself is worth crossing the bridge for). But this corridor on the way out of town, perched in the crook of the convening branches of the Northeast and Northwest Cape Fear Rivers, is now an area of interest for future development.

Last Thursday night, the Cape Fear Economic Development Council met for an open discussion of what the future of the corridor might look like. The CFEDC is a nonprofit organization and describes itself as seeking to “ensure job growth through sustainable economic development.” The 421 corridor, said board member Clark Henry in his presentation, is “poised for growth.” Strategically located at the meeting of New Hanover and Pender counties, he said, the corridor has easy access to roads, the river, and railways. CFPUA has recently run new water and sewer lines out to the corridor, and with roughly 1,000 acres of land available, there is certainly space to grow.

Among the thirty or so attendees of the meeting, there was certainly a thirst to develop. County Commissioner Rob Zapple described the corridor excitedly as “a blank canvas,” and ex-city councilwoman Laura Padgett revealed a desire for a potential rail realignment, which would connect the corridor directly to the port by crossing the river in two places (one by the 74 bridge near Point Peter, and another just below the CF Memorial Bridge). It would cut out the Triangle route, which currently exists, and costs more for shipping than the hundred before it, due to reduced speed of travel across roads. Padgett cited the example of the Acme Smoked Fish company, which opened their largest cold smoked salmon facility in the corridor in 2015. Padgett said it takes them over four hours by rail to get their products to the port (a more direct route by truck is out due to sheer volume of product). A rail realignment, Padgett said, would represent a “significant opportunity for NC agricultural products” (even though Acme imports its fish from Chile and the company itself is based in New York).

The assembled group then broke itself into two smaller groups for an open discussion. The notes taken will eventually be drafted by CFEDC into a position paper, which it hopes will serve as a guide to frame future dialogue about development along the corridor. The organization hopes its paper will be guided by locals, with research, engagement and input from a diverse group.

Anyone who couldn’t attend the last meeting will find another one coming in June. The date and time are to be determined, and will be posted on their website: Citizens can also submit comments via email (link on aforementioned website).

Discussion was lively and varied, with topics ranging from the desire to attract companies, which generated jobs (not warehouses, for instance, which take up a lot of space but don’t hire many employees), to the idea of designating the corridor as a district, which would use exclusively renewable energy through something called “CPACE,” or Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy.

Gary Shipman commented, instead of hunting for big game companies and corporations, perhaps we should focus on “squirrels and rabbits”—i.e. companies which might not employ as many people but, together, will add up to something big. Another comment was we shouldn’t let companies dictate to the community, even though we might want to attract new business, they should be neighbors, not gods. Examples of potential industries suggested by the group were wind turbine manufacturers, breweries and start-ups, as well as indoor farms and aquaculture entrepreneurs.

On the group’s mind as well were the potential wetland impacts. “We want to keep all of our natural resources, not just some of them,” was one comment.

The banks of the Cape Fear River, on which the corridor sits—and over which the new proposed railway would cross—have a high conservation value and are considered by the county as a “significant natural heritage area.” So, besides their obvious natural beauty and the fact we drink from it, the river and its banks have special biodiversity significance, rare species, exemplary natural communities, and important animal assemblages.

“If we’re a progressive city, we need to be selective,” Harper Peterson added. “The recruitment process is paramount.”

With the effects of fluorochemical pollution still raw and tender in our minds, we as a community need to fully consider what might happen before we invite more industry to our riverbanks.

The meeting (which, granted, was of the Economic Development Council) sought to answer the question, “How do we develop this area?” But one question not heard—which some poor devil’s advocate has to ask: Why should we develop the area? Wilmington, as it stands today, is fairly small as cities go, and many people find it desirable to live here for such a reason. According to the county, our corner of the state is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. The city of Wilmington, in the 2010 census, marked 106,476 citizens; by 2040, the high end of projected population for the city is 167,904. And New Hanover County itself, while having 202,667 people in 2010, expects up to 337,054 in 2040.

By now I’ve probably worn out the old Edward Abbey quote about growth for the sake of growth being the ideology of the cancer cell. But somebody ought to at least mention it, as uncomfortable and unpopular of an opinion it might be. Cactus Ed might have looked at Raleigh’s explosive growth over the past decade, seen right through the bullshit booster-ism, which still plagues the South, and pointed to what all the growth has brought with it: overcrowded schools, roads, parks and housing, increased crime, and pollution—all the problems which come inherent with life in the big city.

But Ed is dead, which leaves merely me to muse: Is it really possible to fit 61,000 more people on this finite little peninsula and not negatively impact the health of the surrounding waters and environment—the very things which cause our current high quality of life? By continuing to expand unchecked, will we smother our natural surroundings under our ever-multiplying footprints?

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