A place apart

Left behind, North Carolina's northeast corner gets a lift from an economic driver across the state line.
By Edward Martin

clientuploads/Archive_Images/2013/07/northeast-corner.jpgThe flat country road disappears into the night. Even in daylight, it’s hard to tell distance in the coastal plain, leveled by eons of rising and receding water until sky and horizon appear seamless. Vivian Chamblee’s round face and horn-rimmed glasses reflect the dashboard glow as she stares into the dark. Debris litters the pavement. Are those flickers of red and blue in the distance? A lump grows in her throat.

She’s as much Bertie County as if she took root when born here 67 years ago, a sharecropper’s daughter reared in a four-room house without electricity. She drove a mule and squashed thumb-sized hornworms that ate her daddy’s tobacco crops. “I got married and left home when I was 16. My first public job was housecleaning. I didn’t know how to clean a bathroom because I’d never had one.” She earned a high-school equivalency, went to night school for a nursing-assistant’s certificate and eventually became a dental assistant. In 1986, she and her husband built a frame rest home on the outskirts of Colerain, a town of about 200 just west of the Chowan River. It was smart business. Bertie and surrounding counties have some of the most elderly populations in the state. In 1990, they added a second one next door, for a total of 11 residents. Her husband died in 1993. Even after she remarried, Moore’s Family Care Home was her nest egg.

The writhing, sickish-green cloud sprang up about sundown on an April Saturday. Tearing across Snakebite Township, nothing stood between it and her rest home but farm fields and the feeble steeples of a few country churches. By the time word reached her in Ahoskie, 15 miles up the road on the Hertford County line, night was falling. When she arrives, the front-step railing still stands, illuminated by red and blue lights flashing on ambulances and sheriff’s cars. Beyond lie ruins. Broken, twisted bathroom pipes entangle an old man’s body. A dead woman’s leg protrudes from under a fallen wall. An ambulance whisks away another person, who will die the next day. That night, though, will live on. “It’ll never leave my head,” Chamblee says.

Hard times and bad luck are no strangers here. In a year’s span, northeastern North Carolina suffered three federally declared disasters: the tornadoes in 2011 that killed 24, including three people at Chamblee’s rest home, and flooding from Tropical Storm Nicole and Hurricane Irene. Between the floods, drought stunted crops. Nature shapes life here. So does location. North Carolina’s Northeast, as the region is marketed by economic developers, is officially 16 counties tucked into that corner of the state, between the ocean and Virginia state line. Currituck, the farthest away, is 190 miles from Raleigh, but miles don’t measure how remote the region is from the state’s urban centers. “People pretty much forget about us up here,” Charlie Knauss says. He’s a plant manager in Elizabeth City. With fewer than 19,000 people, it’s the region’s biggest town.

This is a place apart from the rest of the state. Clustered mostly along Albemarle Sound and its tributaries, it’s more akin to tidewater Virginia, whence its early settlers came and with which it still has strong commercial and cultural ties. With broad rivers and bays, expanses of field and forest so flat they’re hypnotic and dark, verdant blackwater swamps, the region is rich in natural beauty. It’s also a land of contrasts. In Hertford, the county just north of Bertie, a steel mill of Rust Belt proportions looms out of nowhere. This is the Cofield plant of Charlotte-based Nucor Corp., the nation’s largest steel producer, where 450 employees earn up to $90,000 a year. On Dare County’s Outer Banks — a 45-minute drive from Tyrrell County, where one family in three lives in poverty — Shore Realty Inc. in Nags Head maintains a list of more than 30 houses priced over $1.5 million. As rich outsiders bid up shrinking stocks of Atlantic seashore, inland counties such as Hertford, Halifax, Martin, Bertie and Washington are shrinking in a different way.

High unemployment is common, at times reaching 15-20%. Between 2010 and 2012, Bertie County’s population dropped 3%, from 21,293 to 20,653, as the old died off and the young moved away. It is 62% black, compared with 22% statewide. In Tyrrell, only 7% of those over 25 have bachelor’s degrees, this in a state where that rate exceeds 50% in some urban counties. In the Northeast, Democrats still reign in a state Republicans now rule. The region has only 386,000 residents, fewer than live in Raleigh but spread over an area the size of Massachusetts.

“Our region is rural and poor,” says Vann Rogerson, who grew up on a farm in the Martin County crossroads of Beargrass. He’s CEO of North Carolina’s Northeast Commission, the region’s public-private economic-development partnership. “When they have the whole world to look at, we have to create reasons for companies to come here.” It’s not an easy task. Formed in 1994 as part of the N.C. Department of Commerce’s effort to decentralize industrial recruitment, the Northeast Commission is a favorite whipping boy of politicians who say the approach has failed. Not only is Commerce moving in a different direction under Republican Gov. Pat McCrory (cover story, June), but there’s a bill in the legislature to strip the regional partnerships’ state funding.

Here, the past presses against an uncertain future. Consider Edenton, the 300-year-old town where the Northeast Commission is based. The oldest house still standing dates to 1719. Confederate cannon made from melted church bells point toward its bay; nearby are bigger guns, mounted here in 1778 during the Revolution. With barely 5,000 residents, it calls itself “the South’s prettiest small town,” and once it was typical of those that thrived on trade along the rivers and sounds. “When we were a water-based economy, that kept us in the game,” says Kitty Hawk insurance broker Paul Tine, a Democrat elected to the N.C. House last fall largely on an economic-development platform. “Now it takes a different kind of infrastructure. It’s a diverse, beautiful and resource-rich area, but it’s definitely challenged now. We’ve got some of the poorest counties in the state — in the nation.”

Eleven of the 16 counties are classified Tier 1 — the neediest, eligible for the state’s highest financial incentives for attracting industry. That’s not always enough. “You can go into a county like Gates, and county commissioners and managers tell you: ‘The No. 1 thing I want this year is a grocery store,’” Rogerson says. “If you can only buy brown lettuce in a community, you can only recruit so good of a company there.”

“It’s more a matter of urban versus rural rather than politics,” Tine says. Sid Eley, executive director of the Perquimans County Chamber of Commerce, agrees. “In Raleigh, they’re talking about upping the tolls on ferries. In these parts, those are our roads. When you use them every day to get back and forth to work, it takes a big chunk out of your salary to have to pay tolls. People in Raleigh and Charlotte don’t care, don’t understand.” Which is why many people here say hope lies not to the west but north.

Each weekday, a ritual that is a reminder of the region’s early history flashes on television screens across the Northeast. The first white settlers came in the mid-1600s from tidewater Virginia, following rivers that ran north to south and the roads that would later skirt them. Now, news anchors on Norfolk stations WTKR and WAVY chatter about traffic backing up as commuters come from and return to Hampton Roads’ bedroom communities in North Carolina. “You’ve got about 16,000 workers from our region that go up there every day to work because they can’t find any down here,” Rogerson says.

On a drizzly Monday morning in Windsor, a nurse at Vidant Bertie Hospital — with just six beds, it’s the smallest in the state — chats about spending much of her weekend in Virginia Beach and Norfolk. “Everybody east of the Chowan River does. We’ve got more in common.” Virginia sees opportunities here. Currituck and Gates counties are part of the Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News metropolitan statistical area, but Virginia marketers embrace the entire region as “the sixth city of Hampton Roads.” The Virginian-Pilot covers it, concentrating on 11 counties closest to Norfolk, courting the Northeast’s advertisers and its $270 million annual retail purchasing power. Greenville-based Vidant Health was recently locked in a bidding battle for Albemarle Hospital in Elizabeth City — with 182 beds, the region’s largest — which it leases from Pasquotank County. One of its competitors: Norfolk-based Sentara Healthcare, aggressively seeking Tar Heel turf. Much of the region gets electric service from Richmond-based Dominion Resources Inc.

The massive Hampton Roads harbor is home of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet and some of the world’s best deep-water ports, including the nation’s largest private terminal. With bursts of enthusiasm that would make N.C. State Ports Authority officials squirm, Rogerson touts its proximity to the Northeast’s uncrowded industrial sites, less than an hour away, for logistics businesses. The Port of Virginia, with terminals in Norfolk, Portsmouth and Newport News, is a boon to the region’s agricultural and forestry industry, both raw products such as peanuts and sweet potatoes and value-added ones. Bethesda, Md.-based Enviva Pellets LLC recently opened its second wood-pellet mill near Garysburg in Northampton County. It and the first, near Ahoskie, will provide about 130 jobs and produce 750,000 tons a year, most of it shipped to European power plants through the Port of Chesapeake, outside Norfolk.

Now, Rogerson says, a new generation of cargo carriers will make Hampton Roads even more vital to the region. The harbor can handle giant ships that Wilmington’s and Morehead City’s shallower ports cannot. He would like to see the Northeast involved in a new regional ports authority that ignores the state line. But that’s not likely, considering its lack of political clout. As Eley notes: “They have more elected people just in the cities of Raleigh and Charlotte than we have in all 16 counties up here.” But Rogerson is unapologetic about seeking opportunities in a state that many consider North Carolina’s most formidable competitor. “That’s what I’m paid for,” he says, “to try to develop this region.”

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Relics of the past, they welcome visitors at the front gate: an aging helicopter, a propeller-driven seaplane and a small patrol boat, all painted white with bold orange diagonal stripes. The U.S. Coast Guard’s Elizabeth City station is a lifesaver, with about 1,300 military members and civilians, almost evenly divided, pumping some $300 million into the regional economy each year. This is one of the Northeast’s ubiquitous reminders of the military stronghold of Norfolk and its spillover defense and aerospace industries.

On a Perquimans County road, late on a spring afternoon, a deputy sheriff approaches. His hand is on his pistol. “Get out of the car,” he orders. Warily, he backs away a few steps, whispering into a radio clipped to his shoulder. Within minutes, two white, unmarked SUVs arrive, and four armed men dressed in black get out and circle. “Who are you?” one demands. “A magazine reporter? Let me see the camera.” A photo of a chain-link fence, topped by barbed wire, catches his eye. “Delete that, and that ... ” He overlooks another photo, though, of a modest red-and-white sign that says, “Harvey Point Defense Testing Activity.” A week later in Washington, U.S. Defense Department spokesman Mark Wright is apologetic. How many people work there? What is its impact on the local economy? “Sorry,” he says. “I can’t tell you anything about that particular facility.” What do they do there? “I’m really sorry, but I can’t confirm that that facility exists.”

The CIA is recession-proof, an economic driver that’s safe as long as the world is dangerous. Two miles beyond the gate at the end of Harvey Point Road, Navy SEAL Team 6 rehearsed in a full-size mockup of Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the mission in which he was killed in 2011. In their small brick and frame houses along Halsey Bay, residents don’t discuss secrets, even those as obvious as the concussion of a powerful explosion that thumps the ground while Harvey Point’s security team grills a potential intruder. In addition to CIA agents, 15,000 or more foreign operatives have passed through here since the early 1960s. “They took some of us out there years ago,” says a local official, who doesn’t want to be named. “They were blowing up cars, trucks and stuff and training how to protect diplomats. They were recreating explosions, like the Olympic explosion in Atlanta. They were real nice people.”

Less than 50 miles north, similar explosions rattle car windows. Straddling the Camden-Currituck county line, this is the 7,000-acre compound of Academi LLC, better known by one of its previous names: Blackwater USA. The 65,000-square-foot building that once was its headquarters is the biggest in either county. The company’s private-security contractors, as well as military and law-enforcement personnel from around the world, come here to hone their skills. In a recent 10-year period, executives say, more than 50,000 of them trained in Moyock.

For these types of endeavors, the region’s remoteness is an asset, and not just for spooks and mercenaries practicing away from prying eyes. On the outskirts of Elizabeth City, Charlie Knauss and Stephen Chalker pull on paper booties before entering a huge clean room inside a blimp hangar the Navy built during World War II. It’s 1,000 feet long, 300 feet wide and nearly 200 feet to the ceiling, the doors 500-ton, 150-foot-tall clamshells on rails. Here Columbia, Md.-based TCom LP builds unmanned, unarmed aerostats that can stay aloft at 20,000 feet for 30 days, carrying cameras, radar or other gear. “Airplanes and drones are limited to a few hours,” says Knauss, the site manager. Cables cored with optical fiber tether aerostats to huge drums that Chalker, the safety and training coordinator, jokingly calls fishing reels. Customers include the U.S. government, which uses aerostats for border and battlefield surveillance and ship- and land-based drug interdiction, dozens of foreign governments and even European TV broadcasters, who equip them with cameras for events such as Formula One races.

Walking through the hangar, Knauss and Chalker count 17 Dacron-clad aerostats under construction or, still bearing desert dust, back from Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries for maintenance and repair, occasionally showing bullet and rocket holes. About 240 employees, many of them former military personnel, are based here. Outside in a command module similar to a small house trailer stuffed with instruments and diesel engines, Chalker watches over the shoulder of a technician who is testing a newly finished aerostat. Nearby, another gently rocks in the morning breeze at the end of its tether. Brilliant white, at 242 feet it’s 25% longer than a Goodyear blimp. Who’s the customer? “Let’s just say it’s going overseas,” Knauss replies, laughing. Cameras are not permitted here. “They’ve got all sorts of stuff on it. We don’t even know what half of it is.”

North of Engelhard, a remote fishing village where trawlers line a tiny harbor off Pamlico Sound, is Hyde County’s airport with its single, seldom-used runway. Its isolation, with unrestricted airspace away from commercial corridors, is a plus as N.C. State University, College of the Albemarle, Elizabeth City State University, the Northeast Commission and several state agencies lay plans for a research and testing center for unmanned aircraft systems. Mistakenly referred to as drones by the public, they’re destined for peaceful uses, such as in agriculture and wildlife management. “The last 10 years, this has been a $6 billion industry mostly targeted at the military,” says Kyle Snyder, the project’s director. “Most market analysts now say it’ll double in the next 10 years, with commercial and civilian applications.”

Will the plan succeed? Other well-intended economic-development schemes have run up against the region’s hard luck. On a recent morning in Garysburg, an electronic gate swings open, leading to one of the latest attempts to jump-start the region’s economy. The 620-acre, $21 million North Carolina Center for Automotive Research is one of the world’s most technologically advanced test tracks, but it has been plagued by poor timing and, its supporters say, spotty state support. The compound’s lobby is quiet as a funeral parlor as Sam True, the nonprofit’s superintendent and only staff member, outlines efforts to attract users. Designed for automakers and racing teams seeking a secret test site, it’s used mainly on weekends by car and motorcycle clubs, most from southeast Virginia. NCCAR opened in 2010, with automakers mired in a recession-driven slump. “We just never got much of the domestic industry,” True says. Now proponents are touting the center’s data-monitoring capability as an attraction for Mountain View, Calif.-based Google Inc. and others companies that are developing self-driving automobiles.

To cultivate these kinds of industries, the region needs a better-educated workforce. In Merry Hill in central Bertie County, Avoca Inc. employs more than 110 people extracting ingredients from purple-blossomed clary sage grown by contract farmers. It’s one of the world’s largest suppliers to the fragrance and nutritional industries. “One of our big challenges is to have individuals come in here and immediately make a contribution,” says Michael Hayes, the chief financial officer. “The work ethic is excellent. But we’d like to have a workforce that’s better trained.”

David Peale, a Beaufort County native with a doctorate in crop science and the company’s president, has spearheaded creation of a science, technology, engineering and mathematics high school in Plymouth for 450 students from five surrounding counties. They can earn two years of college credit. Currituck County recently opened its $40 million Maple Commerce Park, adjacent to its regional airport and College of the Albemarle’s new Regional Aviation and Technical Training Center, where aircraft-repair and -maintenance technicians will be schooled. At Elizabeth City State, students bound for careers in air-traffic control, avionics and aviation management can earn the state’s first four-year degrees in aviation.

Some goals are likely to remain beyond reach: a long-sought, $600 million bridge from the mainland across Currituck Sound to enhance Outer Banks tourism; an interstate linking Hampton Roads and Raleigh; the bistate ports authority. All require support from state officials. And all would benefit a region where, less than a decade ago, several of its counties courted what would have been the nation’s largest landfill, desperate for the $1 million a year in fees the garbage dump would generate. It was blocked, officially because of its proximity to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Some say a different factor was involved — pride.

That can be seen in Vivian Chamblee. After the tornado, she decided she was too old to start over, so she retired on Social Security. Looking back on her life, even though she spent her early years cleaning other peoples’ dirty houses and sweating in tobacco fields, she says there were some things she wouldn’t do. “Never did,” she confides, “have to pick no cotton.”