North Carolina’s Best Kept Secret
English explorers began settling what is now Beaufort County, North Carolina in the 1690s, making their homes alongside the Tuscarora Nation. The swashbuckling coastal community of Bath – home to the infamous pirate Blackbeard – was incorporated there in 1705, making it the oldest town in the state.
Crisscrossed with waterways and teaming with game, these early settlements thrived and expanded, largely because wide, brackish rivers simplified transportation through a vast and unknown wilderness. “The river was why the county was settled in the first place,” says Economic Development Director Martyn B. Johnson. “Back in the 1700s, it was the highway.”
Today cars, trucks and buses barrel down Highway 264 and Highway 17 to transport people and goods through Beaufort County, but its 88,000 acres of water are still the star attraction. The scenic Pamlico River cuts through the center of the county while the Pungo River flows along the county’s eastern boundary line, before both rivers empty into the Pamlico Sound, the largest protected inland body of water on the East Coast.
With more miles of waterfront than any other county in North Carolina, Beaufort County serves up a range of water activities, from sailing and fishing to kayaking and windsurfing. Once home to endless forests of towering oak and pine, the county still boasts huge swaths of undeveloped land, making it a mecca for hunters and nature lovers as well as boaters.
But, this estuarial destination is not a typical beachfront tourist trap. Located on the far side of the sound from the Outer Banks’ popular beaches, Beaufort County is a rugged and authentic North Carolina experience. With a population of just 50,000 people spread across 828 square miles, much of the community is pleasingly rural, giving visitors the chance to truly get away from it all and soak up the tranquility of silent forests and placid, empty waters. Beaufort County also boasts quaint, waterfront villages such as Bath and Belhaven, dotted with boutiques, restaurants serving local seafood and lovely historic buildings – including the red clapboard house that Blackbeard once called home.
Beaufort County’s waterways and relaxed, rural living attract new residents as well as tourists. Many professionals choose to buy riverfront property in Beaufort County and commute to work in neighboring Pitt County, where the city of Greenville and East Carolina University are located. An increasing number of retirees have also begun settling in Beaufort County in neighborhoods such as Cypress Landing in Chocowinity to enjoy the laidback, waterfront lifestyle. “The river is a big asset,” Mr. Johnson says. “It does set us apart from many inland counties that don’t have that kind of quality of life.”
With plenty of undeveloped rural countryside as well as walkable, more densely populated towns, Beaufort County provides a variety of housing and lifestyle options for newcomers. “It is very easy to set up whatever type of lifestyle you want,” Mr. Johnson points out. “I live in an apartment in downtown Washington above one of the retail facilities. There is also a suburban lifestyle here, or you can get a few acres of land and have that type of lifestyle.” The cost of living is low, winters are mild, and the school system is “equal with the state average.” In addition to the full service hospital in Washington with an active medical staff of over 50 physicians, a major healthcare center is located just over the Pitt county line. Beaufort County Community College provides two-year college degrees and workforce training. East Carolina University, with over 26,000 students, is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to award bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees is located in the Greenville-Washington Combined Staistical Area.
Unlike many rural communities, Beaufort County has managed to retain its manufacturing; local factories still provide 18 percent of local jobs. Flanders Corporation has been based in Beaufort County since 1965 and the filtration-producing company is one of the community’s largest employers with 448 employees. Flanders was the base from which a flourishing filtration cluster evolved with over 1,400 people employed in the cluster. Potash Corporation in Aurora is one of the world’s largest phosphate mining operations and converts some of the phosphate to fertilizer on site. Hackney Industries located in Washington produces a variety of aluminum truck bodies, from fire to beverage trucks. Baja Powerboats manufactures world-famous powerboats, while other items produced in Beaufort County include pitot tube covers, diesel fuel filters, dishwasher displays, plastic medical devices, retail display cases, and valves for power plants.
Beaufort County has a strong agricultural sector in addition to manufacturing. The county is the top producer in the state of forest products, second in corn and the third largest producer in the state for soybeans. The community also produces 60 percent of all certified seed in North Carolina and is the state’s top producer of farm-raised fish. Uniquely Pantego is home to the small Dutch enclave of Eastern North Carolina known as Terra Ceia. Here the descendants of the original Dutch settlers continue to grow bulbs and flowers for catalog and retail sales. In total, Beaufort County’s farming operations generate over $100 million a year in income.
Beaufort County is eager to build on it current industries. With such a strong manufacturing base and plenty of available land, advanced manufacturing would be an ideal fit. The area would also be perfect for value added agriculture operations. “We’d like to do some more processing of the products that are grown here,” Mr. Johnson explains. Beaufort County Economic Development is currently in the process of developing a strategic plan “to help understand what we have, what people want, and how we wish to move forward. [We are] trying to identify leads that fit within the county’s opportunities… We are trying to paint a picture of what Beaufort County is and how it can be developed based on the opportunities out there.” Mr. Johnson predicts that the incoming businesses most likely to succeed in Beaufort County will be small to medium sized companies, “somewhat entrepreneurial in nature, that are looking to establish themselves in a community and grow.”
Beaufort County already has the workforce needed to operate new manufacturing and food processing facilities. “We have a history in agricultural and manufacturing production which gives us a very good workforce, a very hands-on workforce. People are very [experienced in] operating machinery, repairing machinery; they have very good skills in that regard.” The local population also has a reputation for having a strong work ethic. “There does seem to be an independent, entrepreneurial spirit about people,” Mr. Johnson observes. While the county has its fair share of retail chain establishments, the local entrepreneurial spirit has led to a large number of family-owned, mom and pop restaurants and shops, adding character to the community and bolstering the economy.
Beaufort County Economic Development is ready to help any incoming business that wants to take advantage of the area’s ready workforce and business friendly environment. “[We] act as a liaison when a company locates in the county,” Mr. Johnson says. The team will work to secure grants and other incentives for new or expanding businesses and set them up with the local community college for workforce training. Beaufort County Economic Development even has space in the back of its building where businesses can conveniently receive special training assistance – free of charge. “Currently we have about five training courses going on ranging from forklift driving to welding to hydraulics to computer classes.” Available office space can also be used as a temporary headquarters for a business that is constructing a new facility in one of the two community-owned industrial parks or waiting for a move to be completed. In addition to this assistance Beaufort County Economic Development will work with Federal, State, Regional, County, City and private organizations to create financial packages to reduce start-up costs for companies locating their projects in Beaufort County.
Beaufort County Economic Development is actively marketing the County on multiple levels, working with SelectUSA on the federal level; the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina at the state level; NC East Alliance at the regional level, Pitt County at the metropolitan level, and a wide variety of organizations at the local level, from Chambers of Commerce and tourism bureaus to the community college. “There are a lot of players that we are interacting with to put forward the Beaufort County story,” shares Mr. Johnson. “The big thing that we are trying to do is place Beaufort County on the map.”
With a wealth of water recreation, a rich history, a warm climate, and a robust manufacturing and agricultural sector, Beaufort County is unlikely to stay a secret much longer.