By Allen Turner
The Whiteville Downtown Development Commission (WDDC) voted Wednesday to accept the recommendation of its soon-to-be-departing executive director to merge with the City of Whiteville and, although the city government has not yet taken formal action, approval of the idea by the city is expected.
In his April 9 letter of resignation, which will be effective June 30, Executive Director E.W. “Gene” Merritt Jr. proposed that operations of the WDDC, Vineland Station and the City of Whiteville be consolidated into a new unified effort led by someone in a new city position, a manager of community and economic development.
WDDC accepted Merritt’s resignation at the same Wednesday meeting in which they approved his recommendation that they merge with the city.
Merritt said in his letter of resignation that the response to the idea had been good and that city officials, including City Manager Darren Currie and his staff, favor the proposal. Both Currie and Mayor Terry Mann confirmed Sunday that the city’s response to the idea is positive.
The departing executive director of WDDC said that with creation of a new position with the city, “You will now have a full-time effort in place as opposed to the current part-time situation thereby creating an effort that should pay significant dividends in the future.”
Although no formal action has been taken by the city, Currie said that he plans to include the new position in the budget he is preparing for the fiscal year that begins July 1. A salary range for the new job title has not been discussed, but Mann said he expects that to be among topics talked about at a budget workshop before the next council meeting on April 24.
Currie said a formal vote on whether to create the new position probably will not be taken by council. Instead, approval will come when council decides whether to fund the position in the upcoming city budget.
Mann said Sunday that city officials have been in agreement in informal discussions that they hope to find someone who can focus not necessarily on large industries but, instead, concentrate on recruiting small businesses to Whiteville.
“Hopefully,” Mann said, “we can get somebody that has some real estate background, too, someone who maybe could work on brokering some deals for some of the empty buildings we have both downtown and in the shopping strips.”
The mayor said that, as he envisions the new position, the person appointed will be responsible, not only for economic development downtown and elsewhere in the city, but also for managing the operations of Vineland Station, in which the city holds a majority ownership share (Columbus County and R.J. Corman Railroad are the other owners).
Currie said that budget approval for the upcoming fiscal year usually happens around mid-June and that if, as expected, council includes the position as part of new budget, “We will begin to look for somebody at that point. We (he and other city staff) can fill in until we can secure somebody.”
The city manager added, “So far council has been supportive of the city getting more into economic development and I don’t foresee any issues. When we had a workshop not long ago, economic development for the city was identified as the number one priority. Given that, I feel like council will be pretty favorable.”
Merritt, a Wilmington businessman who has long been a friend and supporter of Whiteville, took over as executive director of WDDC in October 2015 after the death of his good friend, Tom Stanley, who had been a driving force in downtown promotion.
“I did not originally plan to stay for a long period of time,” Merritt wrote in his letter of resignation. “Due to expanded personal business commitments in Wilmington, I find it necessary to consolidate my efforts. I wish to be held responsible for the operations of WDDC until the end of this fiscal year,” a date that will permit a good transition if, as expected, the city takes over the operation on the next day, July 1.
He also said, “I really like the City of Whiteville and the fine people who live here and I have certainly enjoyed working here.”