When the Whigs defeated the Tories in August 1781 in Elizabethtown, that Bladen County town had been incorporated and building a solid business community for eight years.
The battleground runs from the town’s main street to the Cape Fear River, where the 237th anniversary of the Battle of Elizabethtown was recently celebrated at the newly refurbished Tory Hole Park. An adjoining Riverwalk leading to the Cape Fear has just been completed, said Elizabethtown Mayor Shirley Campbell.
“We’ve just taken possession of our locks and dam. That’s an exciting project,” she said.
The mayor has made it a priority to highlight Elizabethtown’s ties to area rivers, according to Town Manager Eddie Madden. Work has begun on a 24-acre riverfront park that is expected to be completed in early 2019, he said.
Taking advantage of its natural resources such as Tory Hole Park is a hallmark of the town’s economic development philosophy.
The area benefits from 35 named rivers, swamps, creeks and branches as well as 10 named lakes. The oldest known bald cypress trees in the world – at 1,700+ years – are located on the Black River within Bladen County.
“We’ve done considerable work in beautifying our parks and recreation areas, all to try to recruit business, industry and families to our community,” Madden said.
It has been awarded three separate Parks and Recreation Trust Fund grants to enhance or develop new parks.
Thousands of people have discovered the town in the past four years since partnering with Cape Fear Southern Off-Road Biking Association to build a bike park. The 7-mile trail brings people from North Carolina and other states almost every weekend.
“This past March, the Interscholastic Biking Association, which is middle and high school, had their annual championship here,” Madden said. “About 1,200 people were here for that event.”
A new business, Cape Fear Winery, has made a splash as a wedding venue as well as an educational experience for children who enjoy its menagerie of animals.
Because the town itself is very small, Madden said, considerable construction has occurred within its extraterritorial jurisdiction. Young families are moving to the area, and Madden gives credit to the vibrant downtown.
“We believe in making our community appealing to all ages,” said Ashley Dowless, president of the Elizabethtown-White Lake Chamber of Commerce’s board. “From an economic development perspective, we have a grand opening or a ribbon cutting almost weekly. Our chamber doesn’t just focus on Elizabethtown or White Lake; we focus on all the surrounding communities.”
It assists in county-wide efforts such as Beast of Bladenboro festival, White Lake Water Festival and Cycle NC. The county’s only chamber organization has about 125 members, she said.
Elizabethtown’s business community, much of which is concentrated in a compact downtown, is thriving, officials said. Downtown has a 97 percent occupancy rate with little turnover, Madden said.
Within the 1 mile by one-half mile area are large old homes (most now serving as law and insurance offices) protected by an historic preservation overlay.
Many of the businesses have operated successfully for decades, a few in buildings with restored century-old facades.
Melvin’s Hamburgers and Leinwand’s clothing have both celebrated 80 years in business. Other upscale clothing stores for ladies and children draw customers from outside the region.
“We have a great business community for a small town, and I feel that’s the reason for a lot of our success. We’re proud. We have a vital downtown,” Campbell said.
That downtown includes revitalization funded in great part by grants Madden has sought.
“We’re getting ready to start a project in the old Chevrolet place that will be a rescue and fire department for our town, and we’re getting $2.5 million from Golden Leaf Foundation,” Campbell said.
“I think in my 10 years here, we’ve received more than $20 million in grants,” Madden added.
Bladen County has made an investment in Elizabethtown’s downtown, purchasing the former post office for use as a business incubator.
“So far, we understand they have reservations on most of the office space,” Madden said.
The town has received $100,000 from NC Rural Center to make small business loans up to $25,000 to entrepreneurs for startups and expansions.
“We’ve issued several of those already,” Madden said.
What Elizabethtown officials have been seeing and will continue to see, they say, is incremental growth.
“Not anything explosive like the urban areas but good positive growth taking place,” Madden said. “During the recession, we didn’t feel the effect like others. We hadn’t had rapid growth, so we were able to weather the storm and have done well through it.”