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Speaking of the Economy
Speaking of the Economy
May 25, 2022

Continuing the Conversation: Regional Collaboration Across County Lines

Audiences: Community Advocates, Community Investors, General Public

Kelly Bowers, economic development director for Hertford County, N.C., discusses the challenges and opportunities facing her community. She highlights the importance of collaboration across state lines and the need for infrastructure such as broadband and affordable housing to support growth.


headshot of Kelly Bowers
Kelly Bowers


Tim Sablik: Hello, and welcome to Speaking of the Economy. I'm your host, Tim Sablik. Today, I'm joined by Kelly Bowers, who is the economic development director for Hertford County, North Carolina. Kelly, thanks for being here, and welcome to the show.

Kelly Bowers: Thank you for having me. Good morning.

Sablik: Good morning.

Our bank leaders regularly meet with business and community leaders across the region through our Community Conversations program. Kelly has graciously agreed to join us to continue that conversation on the show today.

To start with Kelly, I was hoping you could share a bit about your background and how you got involved in economic development in Hertford County.

Bowers: Sure, I own my own business in Virginia. It is still in operation and it is a revitalization business for buildings and residential properties. It was a passion. I became widowed at an early age and took a hobby and made a career out of it. Now, we do a lot more construction and my family runs the business. So I had a vision of developing a town or a county and I had discussions with Hertford County and here I am.

Sablik: Great. Rural economics has become a major focus for our Research Department at our Bank. Hertford County is in an interesting position, situated about an hour away from the Hampton Roads metro area in Virginia. I'm curious to hear from you what sort of challenges and opportunities that presents.

Bowers: Yes, it does offer many opportunities. We are 37 minutes to Suffolk, Virginia, which is one of the fastest growing cities in Virginia. We're about 57 minutes from the airport.

When the pandemic happened in 2020, Hertford County offered a rural solution to many urban areas. I think that people realized that they didn't have to live in urban areas to participate in the workforce and residential living and that quality of life became extremely important. So, one of the things that Hertford County benefits from is the fact that we're easy to commute to and we're easy to commute from. We found that people want a little bit different lifestyle. They want to be outside more. They want one acre or more. They want community gardens.

Now our residential communities with developers are starting to happen. We have about six active developers currently, even with construction costs being the way they are, they're currently here. And they're also looking to bring us more services. This is exciting because of where we're located. Industries look at Hertford County as an opportunity because we have a three-hour radius anywhere from Washington, D.C. to Raleigh, so that makes our proximity a great location because we basically border Virginia.

The two states together offer a great combination. We're not in competition because we don't want to be a Suffolk, Virginia, and we don't want to be a Chesapeake or Norfolk. We want to have that rural atmosphere. We just want more services that we can offer our people and develop our workforce and have our own little niche here. We are a manufacturing county. We offer steel manufacturing, aluminum, wood pellets. So that we have a niche in. … because of our infrastructure — our rail and our trucking — and because we can monopolize Virginia and North Carolina, it puts us in a great location.

Sablik: Right. You mentioned not wanting to be in competition with these other communities. So how important is collaboration with your counterparts in Suffolk and other places in Virginia?

Bowers: It's extremely important to collaborate. Currently, right now we are working with many of the same individuals that develop Suffolk as well as their city council members and ex-city council members and we're all collaborating on how we can benefit each other.

One of the main things that we look at in collaboration as infrastructure — roadways. We need to improve roadways between the Virginia-North Carolina corridor. North Carolina has been looking at that through Route 87 that eventually they want to merge to 64 through Route 17. We're also looking at other avenues that we can make it easier for not only truck drivers [but] for medical, for the military, because it's a constant flow of traffic between Virginia and North Carolina. That is something that definitely has to be done by both states and both cities.

Sablik: Hm hmm. In addition to physical infrastructure, one of the things that I know our Bank research team has been looking into with rural communities has to do with access to broadband. That's been kind of a longstanding infrastructure issue facing rural places. What does broadband connectivity look like in Hertford and what are sort of the main barriers to expanding it?

Bowers: Yes, broadband is extremely important and has definitely been an issue for many years.

Back in the early 2000s, we were promised to get this broadband package that was going to change the world. All the rural areas got very excited. And then it didn't happen. What the companies were finding was it was easier to opt out of the grant opportunities than it was to actually give us the product.

Sablik: Hm hmm.

Bowers: Now we are back into a phase of, I'm sure everyone has heard, the huge broadband fiber package. Hertford County has taken an initiative on this. We're working with Roanoke Connect and we are actually putting our own dollars into this project to get 100 percent coverage in our county. Roanoke Connect is working with about five to seven counties in the northeastern region to give broadband services and we're talking 100 percent. They have a very ambitious goal of 2025. To achieve this, and based on some of the grant criteria, they have to achieve a certain portion.

I think what people need to understand in rural communities, especially our political representatives, is that they set these criterias. But the timeframes are a lot harder in rural areas. We have supply chain issues. You have to get the workforce where some of the workforce you're having to bring in from other areas. So I think that's a lofty goal. I do think that will work toward getting that 100 percent. I just think that the criteria set by someone sitting in an office or the political representatives maybe doesn't necessarily coincide with what happens in rural America.

Sablik: Right. You mentioned there's some disappointment from the hopes in the early 2000s of some of these initiatives. Do you see anything that looks different say with the recently passed federal infrastructure package? You mentioned some of that has to do with broadband connectivity. Does it look more promising or are there important barriers there as well?

Bowers: I think it's more promising because I think rural America has stepped up to be more involved. I think that it is more promising [because] I think that we have some more accountability in this package than maybe we didn't have in the past such as, for example, the county does not pitch in their dollars until it's completed. They don't get to acquire our money until we know what's going to happen and that is actually there. There are some incentives and some different ways that the packages are developed. I think it will happen this time. I just think the timeframe is going to be the issue.

As you know, workforce is a huge topic all across the country. Even though we are being very proactive about our workforce and our workforce development, I feel that a two- to three-year goal is a little ambitious.

Sablik: Right. And as you said, you're trying to capitalize on this movement of people moving from cities to rural areas. They're for teleworking or hybrid working and they're hoping to have access to these services.

Along those same lines, we recently did an episode on the show about housing in rural places. And I know that's something that you're very involved in. I was curious if we could talk about that and what housing looks like in Hertford County.

Bowers: When I first started with Hertford County, which was a little over a year ago, housing was nonexistent. We did not have anything being built. We were lacking in housing. Our workforce couldn't live here.

Now we have about six developers. We have housing going up all throughout the county. Our county consists of five towns, so we are very widespread with a lot of land mass. And they're being built up all throughout the county. We're looking at downtown revitalization to offer assistance and upstairs residential living spaces. So many towns have revitalized their downtowns and we're doing the same, but we're also offering those choices of living arrangements.

Our houses are not staying on the market. Anything that is worth having is being sold within 24 to 48 hours. So we are definitely in housing needs.

And I will say this – our industries and our other businesses have really come to the plate to incentivize people living in the county, living and working here and taking advantage of some of our rural markets. We're able to offer people one acre or more [and] that community garden. I think that that kind of changed the way people saw rural areas. So, yes, once we can offer more of the infrastructure, I feel like this will even blossom Hertford County, in the in the residential market.

Sablik: Hm hmm. So you are already seeing some of these, I guess they are called Zoomers or Zoom transplants, the hybrid workers moving to these places?

Bowers: Yes, yes, we are.

Sablik: Maybe you can talk a bit about some of those success stories that you've seen. Where are areas that you are already seeing success in terms of building economic growth in the county?

Bowers: The major success with Hertford County right now, I think, is communication and collaboration. What we're doing with all of our towns is that we're collaborating together to make Hertford County successful. We have brought developers, politicians, engineers, many individuals here to Hertford County because until you walk it and you live it and you breathe it, you don't know what Hertford County is. That is what I think is extremely important in bringing people here to make it a success. One thing leads to another, and that's kind of how it developed. The more you talk about your county, the more you market it and the more you make plans for it, the more the people will come.

Right now we do have a hotel project that is underway and in the works. We have industries looking here because of our proximity to cover both North Carolina, Virginia and even the Eastern Seaboard. We have our river and our rail, which is extremely important to industries. But we're also adding a recreational and a tourism touch so that people can have a quality of life, use the Chowan River – which is very prominent here — and make this their home.

Sablik: Hm hmm. It sounds like from that description that the county didn't necessarily start out with a big comprehensive plan. There was some planning but also some flexibility. Is that kind of a lesson that you take away from this or that you would recommend to other communities that are trying to do a similar thing?

Bowers: Oh, most definitely — plans, plans and plans. I think I've mentioned earlier about how you have to compete for everything when you're in a rural community. This goes for grants, this goes for any type of funding. If you don't have planning, you don't make "the points."

Everything is on a point system. Whether it's a road, whether it's grant money, everything is designed on a point system. We're not looking to compete with Raleigh or Richmond, but you still have to provide enough points to achieve your goals. That does make it more challenging for rural areas because they don't have the revenues coming in to do the extravagant plans.

But planning is very important. So if there's anything that I can say to another rural community is your plans have to start first. You have to get people in your community to see the same vision that you're doing and to think out of the box. You have to constantly think out of the box.

Sablik: Yeah, I imagine that's even more the case in these recent years with all the changes that have been going on.

Bowers: That's right.

Sablik: Any other lessons or advice that you would personally give to someone in an economic developer in your position in another town, in addition to having those plans and collaboration?

Bowers: I want to touch on workforce for just a second because it's very important. Not everyone has a community college or college. We are blessed with both. But you have to make sure that you have some type of collaboration for your workforce development. You need to create it within your own community, number one.

We pull from about 44 miles for shopping, for workforce, for any of our amenities. But it is very important to create your workforce. You need to be thinking about that and how you want to create it. We're fortunate that we have Roanoke-Chowan Community College that has taken a lead of becoming basically a workforce development center. They are educating through manufacturing, nurses, lineman for putting cable down.

Any type of business, you have to have your workforce. So, I would suggest that if you don't have a community college or college, find out what your resources are in your area because that is extremely important.

Sablik: Right. That gets back to that long-term perspective about not just relying on workers coming in from outside but also having an environment that can train and prepare workers from within the community to take those jobs.

Bowers: That is correct.

Sablik: Alright. Well, Kelly, thanks very much for being here with me to talk through these exciting things that are happening in Hertford County. I definitely wish you all the success with those endeavors.

Bowers: Thank you so much for having me.

Sablik: Thanks, everybody, for listening. If you're curious about learning more about our Community Conversations, you can head over to our website at