Arwyn Smith’s personal connection to Burgaw began as a kid growing up and playing in the small town.
“A lot of the buildings and a lot of the different streets are familiar to me,” Smith said. “I definitely feel like there are strong ties because it’s part of my history and my family. I grew up playing around the town. So it’s a personal tie.”
Smith, who has been serving as director of the Burgaw Area Chamber of Commerce for two years, has deep family connections to the town. Her grandfather Charles Harrell once served as the town mayor and fire chief and also ran Harrell’s Department Store and Harrell’s Funeral Home.
The department store, founded 117 years ago by Chauncey Harrell, was named then C. Harrell and Sons and sold items such as clothing and footwear. The store, at 107 S. Wright St., remained family-owned until it closed in 2020 due to changing retail trends and largely because of the effects of the pandemic, according to Vernon Harrell.
The changing business landscape brought on by the pandemic was something Smith had to navigate as a chamber director.
Smith’s role at the chamber started a few months before the peak of the pandemic in 2020, which prompted her to not only learn a new role but soon after, learn to adapt.
“I consider myself a ‘jack of all trades.’ Since I started working at a pet store at 14, I have held all sorts of jobs from waiting tables to retail to teaching. Even as a teacher I had to have a second job in order to pay the bills,” Smith said. “I was actually approached [for the director role] by the previous director [Emily Baker], and she said ‘I’ve heard your name being floated around town. And people have told me you’d be a good match for this.’”
Coming into her position, Smith’s first goal was to learn the different roles the member-based nonprofit had, from its mission to help the Burgaw-area business community prosper, to its services including hosting community events such as the Burgaw Christmas Parade, resources and marketing for businesses, networking events, business expos and more.
“My first year I just felt was like [a] learning experience. I only got about six months of learning experience and before COVID hit, and then that just threw everything off track,” Smith said.
With events canceled – a large component of the chamber’s duties – Smith shifted tracks and began providing business resources to owners.
“I saw businesses struggling, and what they mainly needed was money,” she said. “So during COVID, a large part of what I did was putting out information about how you can get Paycheck Protection Program loans and trying to help people with those.”
The chamber also does advertising for its members. If a business has a sale or event, the chamber blasts out promotions on social media, she said.
Now that pandemic restrictions have been loosened and vaccinations are underway, Smith is looking forward to getting events rolling again.
“I think we’re getting back on track,” she said. “It’s never going to be the way it was. Life is not going to be the way it was, but I think the more people that become vaccinated the more we are able to get back to normal and businesses are opening.”
Among the chamber events that are starting back up include the annual Shrimparoo, an event at the Burgaw Train Depot in August; the Business Expo in October providing networking and resources to the business community; and the restart of the Women’s Connect group, a joint event with The Laurels of Pender bringing a luncheon to connect women in business.
In addition to bringing back traditional events, Smith is working on new events including the possibility of adding a 5K run to the Burgaw Christmas Parade and Third Thursdays, an outdoor event with live music, vendors and arts and crafts on the third Thursday of every month.
“We’re going to close down part of Wright Street, and we’re going to have arts and crafts and homemade goods on the street and have the businesses open. It’s kind of like a small, mini street fair,” she said.
One missing event many may have noticed for this year is the annual N.C. Blueberry Festival, which brings an estimated 30,000 people to the town and celebrates the importance of the blueberry crop for the community. For the second year in a row, the event was canceled due to the pandemic.
While the chamber is not involved in the planning of the Blueberry Festival – and having to field calls from people less than happy about this year’s festival cancelation – Smith said the chamber advised vendors to promote the crop by having blueberry-flavored and -themed items.
“It brings in tens of thousands of people, and a lot of the businesses rely on that to make their June month look fantastic,” Smith said. “We got together with tourism and parks and recreation, and we tried to still make a Blueberry Week. We tried to encourage our businesses to hold blueberry items in their shops and to keep that blueberry theme going … so that for next year people don’t forget that we are the Blueberry Festival.”
And while some businesses and events in Burgaw struggled during the pandemic, there has been news of new businesses coming to the region.
This includes Burgaw Brewing opening at 103 S. Wright St. later this year; Retro Meadery aiming to bring a meadery and taproom in downtown Burgaw through a crowdfunding campaign; and Fat Daddy’s Pizza, which opened in January 2020.
“My goals now are not just to make it the way it was, but to improve on the way it was and to do additions,” Smith said. “I just want people to know that we’re still here. We’re trying to do what we can for the businesses.”
Region in Focus: Pender County