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Economic Development
Sep 24, 2014

Our Region Is Like A Puzzle

Sponsored Content provided by Al Sharp - Project Director, FOCUS

Our region is like a puzzle. We need to connect many different pieces to ultimately realize the bigger, better picture for the future.

Have you ever tried to put together a 1,000-piece big box puzzle? If you have the box lid, you can see what the picture should look like. But when you pour the contents out on the table, it is baffling. There’s no picture in sight. Now add one more challenge, lose the box lid. In fact, the whole process appears rather daunting at first, but you dig in and try to figure it out. There are two approaches. Build the edges and then fill in the center OR work with small recognizable parts to connect to the whole. It takes time to put a puzzle like this together, but eventually you find the image emerges. Once completed, everyone gets the picture.

The future of our region is a lot like a puzzle. First, we need to see the bigger picture – the national economy, demographic changes, state politics, et cetera, and imagine how we will fit in. Then, we need to make choices – making decisions, community-by-community and organization-by-organization – until the complete vision emerges.

We are all familiar with a local project that epitomizes this very basic notion of a “planning puzzle.” The Wilmington Riverwalk started as a vision – a downtown area extending toward the two primary bridges where people could walk about, exercise, reflect and enjoy our beautiful waterfront. That familiar vision came to life in pieces. First, a segment was added between Nun Street and the Hilton Wilmington Riverside. Local people and visitors began to utilize the river walk. It helped Water Street businesses thrive. Another section was added between the Hilton and the Convention Center, continuing to drive activity and vibrancy. Now, the river walk is being extended to the Isabella Holmes Bridge. Piece by piece, the vision came to life. It demonstrates that having a broader vision doesn’t necessarily require an “all or nothing” approach, but it does require commitment. Recognizing the success of Wilmington Riverwalk, Belville is also adding a river walk along the Brunswick River. That would be exciting – a huge regional asset. When done, it would just be a water taxi ride to link the past and future and then on to the beach.

At FOCUS, we’ve been actively working with several smaller pieces of the bigger regional picture. As models of the larger regional endeavor, these four catalyst projects will help to define our future and lay the groundwork for more connected pieces in the regional framework. Where the transformative self-starters that I feature in my last article initiated town projects, these “FOCUS catalyst projects” are intended to jump-start existing programs and further foster public participation.

FOCUS is assisting planners and their local governments by bringing additional resources to the next steps. The four projects were chosen from a much broader regional list because each project was ready to move forward. Each project is at a different stage of development and, with support from the stakeholders, the public and FOCUS, each can be a model for effective planning – points in the big picture.

The following four catalyst projects are examples of critical pieces in solving our regional growth puzzle. The questions are:

  1. How can new communities be created that will express the emerging values of citizen expectations and still support the sizeable population growth that this region will experience?

    - Pender County explores public/private partnership and considers how to create a new complete community in the busy coastal corridor.
  2. How do you rekindle community planning after a lapse of a decade and major changes in the area?

    - Castle Hayne considers ways to re-ignite and manage its coming growth while retaining the positive rural values in rapidly growing New Hanover County.
  3. How does a city promote neighborhood development that serves both the residents and property owners and also encourages larger municipal development issues?

    - Wilmington’s South Fifth Avenue strives to link the historic district with Greenfield Lake by revitalizing the urban scenic byway and actively supporting Southside redevelopment.
  4. How can a town plan and promote an existing highway-commercial cluster into a vibrant gateway to the region’s second-largest municipality?

    - Leland explores how to use innovative planning and zoning to reinvest in the traditional heart of town as rapid development continues along the highway.
Each project is a picture and helps complete the big picture puzzle.

Al Sharp is Project Director for FOCUS, a community-based planning consortium. FOCUS empowers local planning groups, businesses, and civic organizations through data gathering and public input, helping them to zero in on new opportunities to thoughtfully grow their own communities and our region. To learn more about FOCUS, sign up to receive our newsletter at

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