Golf and other outdoor pursuits have proven to be pandemic-proof, so to speak. Moore County’s tourism and hospitality industry has made a strong comeback since mid-2020.
With an eye on keeping that economic momentum going, municipal leaders in the southern end of the county are looking at potential infrastructure projects that may qualify for American Rescue Plan programs overseen by the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA).
Lindsay Whitson, community and economic development program manager with Triangle J Council of Government, gave an updated presentation on EDA funding criteria on Tuesday to the TriCities Work Group. This is an informal discussion and planning group that brings together town leaders and senior staff from Aberdeen, Pinehurst and Southern Pines on a bimonthly basis.
“Moore County might have a good case for a tourism-related grant,” Whitson said, noting the EDA unveiled six new grant programs earlier this summer to distribute approximately $3 billion in American Rescue Plan dollars. One of these programs is geared specifically to support the recovery and economic resilience of communities that rely on travel, tourism and outdoor recreation.
Regional projects will be viewed more competitively in the grant process, Whitson explained. The EDA will also be looking for “geographic diversity” with funding distributed to different areas and smaller- to mid-size communities, not just large urban centers.
Pre-pandemic, visitors to Moore County spent about a half-billion dollars locally in 2019. Taking a wide-angle view, tourism means more jobs and potentially more investments in infrastructure while, at the same time, lowering the local tax impact on residents.
Expanding the area’s greenway system to connect Aberdeen, Pinehurst and Southern Pines is one potential project that seems to be gaining traction.
“When you are thinking about parks and tourism dollars, what you are talking about exactly comes to mind,” said Triangle J Executive Director Lee Worsley. “A three-community joint work around greenway and trails.”
He recommended an evaluation might be a good next step to determine how such an expanded network could draw more visitors to the area. There was also discussion that greenways contribute to economic development by providing a safe alternate mode of transportation, particularly when paths connect commercial districts to lower income areas.
Pinehurst Village Councilman Kevin Drum noted that all three municipalities have tourism interests in common. He said it makes sense to “complete the circle” by developing a greenway alongside Midland Road to connect Pinehurst to Southern Pines. In addition, he proposed a “rails with trails” concept in coordination with Aberdeen, Carolina Western Railway along N.C. 5 to connect Pinehurst and Aberdeen.
A corridor study of Midland Road, coordinated by the N.C. Department of Transportation, outlines a number of conceptual improvements, including development of a multi-use path from Airport Road to east of U.S. 1.
“This is a walkway that no one has wanted to fund because it is complex, and it crosses (municipal and county) borders. I think this is the perfect opportunity to get this accomplished,” Drum said. “And the need is already addressed in the study.”
One challenge to progress is there is no clear owner of the existing right-of-way, Drum said, noting the Midland Road is believed to be the oldest in the state. “The right-of-way is there, it’s always been there for this purpose...We’d need help from someone like (Triangle J) to pull something like this off. But I feel like it clicks all the boxes on regionalism.”
Whitson said if DOT owns the right-of-way, it would be the agency to submit an application for EDA funding to develop the greenway.
Aberdeen Town Manager Paul Sabiston said developing more opportunities for outdoor activities — even if geared more toward the local population versus attracting tourists — may still “check a lot of boxes” for COVID-related recovery efforts.
“It may or may not create a bunch of new jobs. But we could always make the argument that, with better parks, you will get more people,” he said.
Natalie Hawkins, executive director of Partners in Progress, said a greenway system that would connect the three downtown areas would be considered desirable from an economic development standpoint. She also said companies looking to relocate or establish a new site typically consider the overall general health of the potential workforce in a community. In addition, they look at whether public transportation or alternate transportation options are available.
“Those are two angles for a workforce connection that you might want to highlight in an application,” Hawkins said.
Triangle J Executive Director Lee Worsley agreed. “The EDA will want to see some sort of workforce outcomes...and also wants to see regional collaborative efforts.”
There was also discussion that tying an expanded greenway system with Pinecrest High School could be advantageous.
“It is important to keep in the term “multi-modal path” to ensure that when we are thinking about greenways, it is based on bicycle and pedestrian traffic,” said Southern Pines Town Manager Reagan Parsons. “If there was an argument for economic development to connect Morganton Road to (Highway) 15-501 that happened to go by Pinecrest, so be it.”
Pinehurst Village Councilwoman Judy Davis added that a new greenway on N.C. 5 could connect Aberdeen Elementary to both Pinehurst and Aberdeen.
In a related discussion, Moore County’s three largest municipalities have also been working with Triangle J to compile an inventory of recreation facilities and offerings on the southern end of the county. The idea is to see where there might be gaps they could collaborate on in the future.
Pinehurst Village Manager Jeff Sanborn said a skatepark was a popular suggestion from a survey recently conducted as part of planning efforts for West Pinehurst Community Park.
“The feedback we got back was strong, but it didn’t seem to all be coming from Pinehurst,” Sanborn said. “There may be this or other opportunities to partner on things like this.”
Parsons agreed, noting Southern Pines officials have heard similar requests. In addition, Southern Pines has hired a consultant to provide pre-development services on a town-owned tract along Morganton Road. As part of those efforts, there has been strong interest from YMCA of the Sandhills to construct a new facility. A financial feasibility study is now underway.
“We joke from time to time what this would look like if we were one city of 50,000 instead of three communities,” said Parsons. “Recreation facilities are one of those things where you can take a 30,000-foot view, instead of individually, to see if there are things we can work on together.”