A state commerce official and the board of aldermen discussed ways to stimulate tourism and financial growth in Old Fort during last week’s regularly scheduled meeting.

Wesley Barker of the NC Department of Commerce, Northwest Region, addressed the board with findings from the one-day workshop, performed on April 8 at the Old Fort depot.

“Basically, for any small town interested in forwarding their economic development or creating a strategic plan down the road, this is kind of the first step that they take for this,” said Barker. “It’s a jumpstart for the community’s efforts to build its assets.”

The assessment, by the NC Main Street & Rural Planning (MS&RP) Center, within the Rural Economic Development Division of the NC Department of Commerce, served as an evaluation of Old Fort’s economic opportunities by using various group exercises and brainstorming to identify its assets and determine its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT). A local work group, comprised of town citizens, business and commercial property owners, and representatives of local cultural, government, economic development, tourism, education and religious institutions and organizations, worked through the assessment process.

According to the report, the SWOT analysis identified the following multiple times by the Local Work Group, with some items identified in more than one category:

- Strengths: Natural resources and beauty; access to nearby trails, water sources, hiking; Old Fort’s proximity to I-40, US 70, Morganton and Asheville; available commercial real estate; cheaper cost of living

- Weaknesses: Limited sufficient internet access; overpriced commercial property; low town tax rates; limited parking

- Opportunities: Tourism/marketing; satellite county offices; alcohol sales; affordable housing; economic vision/plan; façade program

- Threats: Perception of Old Fort/placing labels; higher taxation; alcohol sales; manufacturing closures

In a 2017 Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) Retail MarketPlace Profile report provided in the assessment, retail “industry groups” such as motor vehicle and parts dealers, electronics and appliance stores, non-store retailers, (e.g. selling of goods outside the confines of a retail facility) and general department merchandise stores (including shoes, sporting goods, jewelry) were shown to have had sales leakage (the demand for goods and services is greater than supply) with opportunities to increase supply to meet demand. Conversely, industry groups such as furniture and home furnishing stores, building materials and supply stores, clothing and used merchandise stores and gas station were said to have had a surplus in sales, indicating that customers were being drawn from outside the market area.

Recommended actions to help stimulate growth or mitigate weaknesses and threats included:

- Collaborating with the Old Fort Community Forum to develop a five-year economic development vision and strategic plan.

- Working with MS&RP Center staff (Glen Locascio) or another group to develop an Old Fort Outdoor Recreation map for locals and visitors to orient themselves with, link to, and maximize use of existing and future outdoor recreation assets.

- Holding regular (monthly, quarterly, etc.) meetings between Town of Old Fort officials, Old Fort Forum members, business owners, the Chamber of Commerce, the Tourism Development Authority (TDA), etc., to share information, concerns, activity updates, etc.

- Keeping updated information on the town’s website (www.townofoldfort.org)

- Developing a communication plan for the Town of Old Fort to further enhance and guide communication efforts between the town, citizens, business owners, event committees, and other organizations to share information and updates.

- Working with the Isothermal Planning and Development Commission to review current town ordinances for consistency with state statutes, relevancy, administration issues, etc.

- Researching potential funding opportunities that are available/could be offered to residential and commercial property and building owners for maintenance and improvements.

- Enhancing efforts to market and promote Old Fort for businesses and industry. Likewise, coordinating with the Chamber of Commerce, TDA, McDowell Economic Development Association (MEDA), McDowell County, the Old Fort Community Forum and others, as needed, to determine how these efforts will be put into place or strengthened.

- Enhancing efforts to market and promote Old Fort’s tourism by focusing on outdoor recreation opportunities such as trails and water sources, natural beauty and history in marketing efforts.

- Evaluating the town budget with an eye to potential future needs (capital improvements, additional staff, funds to implement new economic development initiatives or projects)

In other business:

• Under old business, Mayor Rick Hensley called this year’s Summer Carnival a “huge success”, with a large turnout during the five-day event. Alderman Andrew Carlton added that B&K Carnival also considered it a success with potential to grow, and that he would like to put together a carnival committee earlier in the year in order to promote talent shows, contests and grow more sponsors for the next time around.

• Hensley addressed a previously discussed issue on the new Old Fort Elementary School’s water line. Namely, the mayor stressed that the school did have active water for its fire suppression system, which had been resolved through construction changes. Hensley also claimed that a July 12 article on a McDowell Board of Education meeting, which he claimed indicated that the town had delayed construction on the school due to the water line was “fake news.”.

• Prior to adjourning, the board entered a closed session to discuss economic development. Upon returning to open session, it was disclosed that the water clarifier from the town’s wastewater treatment plant would be repaired through the water fund, and that an upgrade on plumbing on Holly Ridge Drive would also come from the water fund.

• On Saturday, Sept. 14 at 6 p.m. at the Old Fort depot, the town will hold an alderman debate for election candidates. According to Hensley, a list of questions will be provided 48 hours in advance in order for candidates to prepare their answers.

The next Old Fort Board of Alderman meeting is scheduled for Sept. 9 at 5:30 p.m. at Town Hall.

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