Having a vision and a passion for your community to succeed was a recurring theme at Thursday’s Old Fort Community Forum meeting. More than 80 people gathered in the cafeteria at Old Fort Elementary School where a panel discussion was held with McDowell County leaders.

The forum is part of the Community Engagement Project (CEP), a joint initiative with McDowell Technical Community College and the McDowell County Health Coalition, with generous support from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. CEP Consultant Mary Snow, Project Coordinator Ginger Webb and members of the planning team facilitate the meeting. Agenda items and actions are discussed, voted on and acted upon by the attending public.

At last month’s meeting a majority of attendees voted to focus on leadership development and engagement as the top priority. The objectives for Thursday’s meeting were to develop a vision for a strong, local economy; discuss barriers and opportunities to grow the local economy and learn how to partner with others in the community.

In an effort to meet those objectives, Thursday’s Old Fort Community Forum featured a panel discussion with Steve Bush of the McDowell County Chamber of Commerce, Freddie Killough of the Marion Business Association, Kim Effler of the Old Fort Chamber of Commerce and Chuck Abernathy of the McDowell Economic Development Association (MEDA). They answered questions concerning how to grow a local economy, lessons from their experiences, what vision they see for Old Fort and how formal leaders and the community can work together.

“Partners are critical in creating a local economy,” said Killough. “I had to stay positive so others could stay positive. I had to be careful to keep my attitude focused on the vision and keep it positive.”

Effler was named as the executive director of the Old Fort Chamber of Commerce on Monday. She said she is committed to working with local businesses in Old Fort.

“Strong local economies consist of strong, local business owners,” Effler said. “I believe recognizing small business owners is fundamental for a local community. The difference begins with us on an individual level. It feels good to put great minds together to make a difference. I believe growth potential in Old Fort is creating an environment that invites in diverse, small businesses. Old Fort has to determine what we have to offer small businesses. We are blessed with natural resources.”

Abernathy, who is also McDowell County’s former manager, had one simple message: Act.

“Don’t do something careless,” he said, “but do something.”

1,700 people work in the manufacturing sector of Old Fort, according to reports, which is more than double the size of Marion’s industrial workforce.

Bush said having a vision and commitment to your community is crucial to supporting a local economy,

“1,700 people work in Old Fort daily,” he said. “Capture that audience, commit to them and there is your base. Committing is the biggest lesson I have learned. Dig in, roll up your sleeves, put your differences aside, work together as a team and don’t worry about who gets the credit. The fact that it got done is what matters to us.”

Abernathy said he has spoken about branding Old Fort the “mountain biking capital of North Carolina.”

“I have heard from some that you are not ready for that. But what bothers me, is that you are ready for it. The outdoor business is just screaming to come here,” he said.

Old Fort’s Mayor Pro Tem Andrew Carlton holds a seat on the MEDA board. Another way to see communities grow, Abernathy said, is through policies on annexation, infrastructure and collaboration. Questions were then posed from the audience that focused on Marion’s downtown development, site visits to towns similar to Old Fort, how MEDA and the Chamber have worked with the Town of Old Fort and how to promote the town’s assets.

“Today’s economy is experience driven,” said Killough. “There are 6,000 people in the 28762 zip code and they want good experiences.”

The planning team for the Old Fort Community Forum is Kirstie Conner, Lisa Ellis, Jeff Plemmons, Kim Effler, Heather Yzquierdo, Kim Chambers, Lavita Logan, Beth Silver, Kelsey Kingsley, Jon Kingsley, Robert Forbes, Pat Piercy, Ashley Carmack and Ginny Rhodes.

The next Old Fort Community Forum meeting is set for Thursday, Aug. 16 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. in the cafeteria of Old Fort Elementary School, located at 128 S. Mauney St. Dinner and childcare is provided. For more information, visit Old Fort Community Forum on Facebook or email oldfortcommunityforum@gmail.com.

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