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WDDC director endorses council idea

By Jefferson Weaver, The News Reporter

Gene Merritt said Friday that the city council’s idea of adding economic development to the Whiteville Downtown Development Commission’s job description is a good idea.

“We have to find ways to think outside the box,” the director of the WDDC said. “We can’t break the city down into sections and areas. Everybody has to work together in the modern economy.”

At its strategic planning meeting last week, the Whiteville city council named as one its priorities the possible merger of the WDDC and Vineland Station, adding economic development for the entire city to the post.

Vineland Station, which is owned by the city, and R.J. Corman Railroad, is popular for meetings, weddings, and gatherings, but Merritt said that with consistent marketing, it could be even more successful.

“Right now it’s close, but it’s not meeting its full potential,” he said. “I would love to see a sign out front pointing folks to Vineland, the WDDC and the city’s economic development office.”

Merritt, who has been credited as one of the major forces in revitalizing downtown Wilmington, has been the executive director of WDDC for three years. He moved into the post after the death of his friend, longtime WDDC director Tom Stanley.

Merritt said that if the city creates the new department, he wouldn’t be the one for the job.

“We need someone with a younger person’s energy and perspective,” he said. “I still have my business in Wilmington. Putting all this together would mean the city would need someone who is on fire for Whiteville’s future.”

The wave of the future is small business, Merritt said, and Whiteville could become a small business hub with the right combination of incentives and marketing.

“Look, the city is convenient to everything,” he said. “We have first class medical care. We aren’t that far from the beaches or other destinations. The very things that make it attractive for a retirement community are the same things that benefit a small business. We have good schools, and a lower cost of living. It’s a nice city, a safe city, with a lot to offer.”

The era of the “smokestack industries” is largely over, Merritt said.

“That isn’t to say nobody should welcome a 500-job industry,” he said. “But the reality is you’re much more likely to attract 10 or 15 50-job industries and businesses these days. I think we need to keep working on attracting those big employers, but let’s be practical. The businesses that are thriving these days are the smaller firms, the tech and service related businesses. Those are the employers that can go anywhere – why not make them want to come to Whiteville?”

The changing face of retail also has to be addressed and encouraged, Merritt said.

“Look at Furniture Depot,” he said. “They just expanded to meet a consumer need. That’s a traditional downtown retailer of the kind we love to see open and expand. Whiteville is a great place for a business to get its start, or to expand with an eye on the future – not just downtown, but the entire city. The business owners need to understand that when they are looking for a new home. They need to know about what Whiteville has to offer, and an economic development office for the city could do just that.”

As the middle class has continued to shrink and the slowly-recovering economy, Merritt said innovation and forward-thinking are needed. A robust economic development office promoting the entire city, while still serving the needs of downtown businesses, could fill that role.

“This city has assets that it can use to grow,” he said. “We have to get away from some of the old business models and look to the future. It won’t happen overnight, but I can see a busy downtown in a thriving city – the city just has to be able to attract the right businesses to make that happen.”

Stuart Rogers