While many new activities like food truck days and live music events have come out of the Explore Elkin initiative, one key item that has sprung from the initiative’s series of community forums held in spring of 2017 is an economic development strategic plan for the town. A final draft of the plan was presented to the Elkin Board of Commissioners recently during its annual retreat.
Crystal Morphis, with Creative Economic Development Consulting located in downtown Elkin, donated half of the cost of completing the strategic plan with the town, the Yadkin Valley Chamber of Commerce and Explore Elkin splitting the other half of the cost.
The mission statement of the plan reads, “The Town of Elkin will make strategic public investments that will be leveraged by our partners to attract more people and business to our community.”
Morphis emphasized that potential businesses and residents “want to see you are taking care of your own public.”
With a steering committee for the plan, a number of elements went into developing the plan, such as a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, interviews of people including surveys and community focus group participants, background studies, economic data, planning workshop with the steering committee and a product inventory.
Morphis overviewed the results of the SWOT highlighting a number of strengths, such as trails and parks, schools and the airport, health care, Elkin’s location, tourism, wineries and breweries and many more; weaknesses, such as closed minded, public transportation, workforce availability, housing, limited spaces to build, aging water system, retention of young people; opportunities, including building clean-up and revitalization, shell building, Reeves Theater, CC Camp corridor/gateway, businesses open past 5 p.m., merge Elkin and Jonesville, recruit entrepreneurs, and more; and threats, including flood, domino effect of building deterioration, prime property used for less than prime opportunities, shifting demographics.
“Several of these are probably not news to you,” Morphis told the commissioners. “They are things you’ve talked about as town leaders.”
The plan also provides a close look at Elkin’s population, which has changed little since 2010, and isn’t expected to change much by 2021. She said that is discouraging when “North Carolina is one of the fastest growing populations in the country.”
“It is one of the hottest states for in migration. People are moving here at a phenomenally high rate, to the urban centers. These are young and educated folks,” Morphis said.
But she said Elkin’s growth is flat, and people “drive the consumer economy. Retails want a thriving population growth. It is a threat for schools, funding for schools here, because growth is down. Many things follow population growth.”
In a breakdown of age groups in Elkin, Surry County and the state, Morphis explained the median age in 2017 for the town was 45.5 years old, while the county’s was 43 and the state’s was 38.6. The largest age group in population for Elkin in 2017 was ages 45 to 64, with 25 to 44 and 65 to 74 coming in slightly behind the first age group.
While the available housing units have remained flat, meaning very little growing in available places to live and little construction to support population growth, Morphis did note that data shows the houses in town are much more expensive than those just outside of town. In 2016, the median home value in town was $160,906, while in the 28621 zip code it was $114,601 and throughout all of Surry County, it was $118,690.
“People want ready to move into houses,” she said, echoing community members’ desires for “affordable, market rate housing.”
In the world of employment, data showed that “a few top sectors of employment are not your top paying industries,” Morphis said. The graph showed that top employment areas are in trade, transportation and utilities, paying an average weekly wage of $609; manufacturing, paying $740; education and health services, $624; leisure and hospitality, $259; construction, $1,165; and professional and business services, $769.
“You want to make sure you are recruiting and developing companies that pay higher wages,” she said.
Also, she said while many people see large manufacturing getting press and publicity, the town shouldn’t overlook the impact of downtown. Morphis said Elkin’s downtown contributes to 565 direct jobs at 105 businesses, and provides $85,944 in annual tax revenue and $15.6 million in assessed value. “Downtown has a total annual economic impact of $55.2 million,” she said.
The results of several of the survey questions that were asked were shared, with Morphis noting that personal connections to the area were one of the greatest influences on people’s decisions to move to the area, whether that be family living here, employment, visits to the area for vacationing, or other reasons.
In the survey, 67 percent of those living outside the 28621 zip code said they would consider moving to Elkin, Morphis reported.
There have been other strategic plans in the past, with some of the goals of those being met including recruit a bike shop, camping beside Elkin Creek, wayfinding/signage, tourism website, redevelopment of the Reeves Theater, history trail along Yadkin River, downtown wifi and increased tourism advertising. Other goals that are in process or not yet completed include recruit young professionals, code enforcement, Gwyn Museum, bike and pedestrian plan, gateways, better bandwidth and cell coverage, connection to viticulture industry, restaurant recruitment, youth volunteerism, leadership development among others.
The new strategic plan, which will be the town’s “overall strategy for economic growth, investment and sustainability, focuses on three areas — investments in infrastructure, such as a master plan that provides plans for gateways into town, a riverwalk, transportation and other needs; attracting people, such as housing, amenities, events, beautification, marketing; and attracting businesses, with things like redeveloped spaces, incubator, entrepreneur network.
Specific tasks are assigned to four partners in the strategic plan, those being the town, the Yadkin Valley Chamber of Commerce, Explore Elkin and the Surry County Economic Development Partnership.
The first task for the town involves the development of a community-wide master plan, which would address items like the gateways, a possible riverwalk area, landscaping, and other items which could be funded through a bond referendum. Other tasks for town staff are recruiting restaurants and retail shops, redeveloping the former YMCA building, developing market-rate housing, a retail incubator, alternative transportation and implementing effective code enforcement.
Responsibilities of Explore Elkin include organizing and sponsoring events, development a multi-day music festival, developing a riverwalk area along the Yadkin River, developing a boutique hotel, developing and marketing sample visitor/travel itineraries and developing the Explore Elkin membership.
For the chamber of commerce, tasks focus on marketing and promoting the area, continuation of festivals, fully realizing the potential of the new heritage center, developing networking opportunities for entrepreneurs and young professionals and with the town’s Tourism Development Authority, sponsoring a convention and visitors bureau.
The goals for the EDP will be facilitating a small business incubator, a large industrial and commercial space and a speculative industrial building.
Morphis said collaboration is key to seeing this all come to fruition. “I’ve noticed as somewhat of an outsider, no one knows what each other is working on,” she said. “There is not a high level of efficient working relationships.”
She suggested the collaborative group, which would meet quite often early on and then periodically once communication is improving, include such groups as the town, Explore Elkin, the chamber, the EDP, business representation, citizen representation, Foothills Arts Council, Elkin Valley Trails Association, Surry Community College Small Business Center, Elkin City Schools and Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital.
“Two hundred people in the community said this is what they want you to work on,” Morphis said of the specific tasks to be handled by the four partners in the strategic plan.
She said for the town, the first step would be to hire a master plan consultant to help layout what the town wants and has a specific plan ready before a bond referendum could be introduced to the voters.
The master plan will provide “a road map and a direction that will outlive all our service,” Morphis said. “I’ve got some cities that have been working on their master plan for years and chipping away at it a little at a time.”
“If we want change, if we want to become something different, we have to have vision and leadership,” said Commissioner Jeff Eidson, chair of Explore Elkin. “We have a lot of momentum. We’re talking about bringing partners and economic development to the table.”
“The key for the town is, what are those key public investments that will leverage private investment,” said Morphis. “We cannot afford for the Reeves Theater to fail; we cannot afford for The Liberty to fail. What can we do as a town or community to ensure more private investment will follow?”
She said, in response to a question from Town Manager John Holcomb, a master plan development would cost at least $100,000. She encouraged the town to look for partners who would be willing to provide part of the funding for the plan development.
The board members were asked to get any feedback on the plan to Morphis by March 9, so the plan can be finalized and ready to present at the annual public gathering of Explore Elkin at The Liberty on March 29.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.