Two Wilkes County commissioners said during their board’s meeting Tuesday night that they support doing a study to determine if Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro should consolidate.
Commissioner Gary Blevins said consolidation makes sense, but a study could determine if it should occur. “The boundary between the two towns should not exist. It’s holding Wilkes County back,” Blevins said.
Eddie Settle, chairman of the commissioners, said he was glad Blevins raised the issue and indicated his support of conducting a study on consolidation of the two towns. Settle said the University of North Carolina School of Government could do it.
Andrew Palmer, elected a North Wilkesboro commissioner in November, raised the issue in a guest column in the Jan. 17 issue of the Wilkes Journal-Patriot that advocated having a study done to identify pros and cons of consolidating Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro. Palmer also launched an online petition drive seeking this.
Settle also said a local developer told him last week that a study on consolidating the two towns or only combining their services is needed.
He said the developer stated that based on his experiences with companies that considered locating here, he believed it would help if they saw one town with about 8,000 residents instead of two both with considerably smaller populations.
Blevins brought up consolidation with Wilkes Economic Development President LeeAnn Nixon at the end of her report on EDC activities in the last half of 2019.
“I don’t want to put you on the spot, but I’m going to anyway, I think,” said Blevins, adding that Nixon could say yes or no or no opinion in response to what he was about to ask.
“There’s been a lot of talk in the paper lately about the towns… and the fact that there are two small towns that co-exist in the county,” he said.
Blevins then asked Nixon if she believed economic activity in the county would be stimulated “if the two towns were more closely connected as a single entity.”
Nixon responded, “I think collaboration is always good. I see that happening. She said it’s good that the Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro town managers and governing bodies are talking and trying to work together on a lot of issues.”
Apparently referring to consolidating the two towns, she said, “I’ll probably try to stay neutral and support the positions of local county and town officials on their finances, services and such matters.”
Visitors, whether representing businesses or not, aren’t concerned about town or county lines, added Nixon. She said having two adjoining towns may create confusion, “but I think most don’t care. If they come, they are going to explore everything.”
Nixon stated, “We are going to take care of what we are here to do, and that is focus on Wilkes County, yet we want to always work regionally with everyone around us because, again, we are going to accomplish more when we work together, right?”
Blevins thanked Nixon and drew chuckles when he quipped, “Well done; you should run for office.”
He then asked Settle if the EDC board supported doing a study, apparently referring to a study on pros and cons of consolidating Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro. Settle said he isn’t on the EDC board.
County Commissioner Keith Elmore, who represents county government on the EDC board, wasn’t at Tuesday’s meeting due to an illness. Commissioner Brian Minton also missed it due a death in his family.
Commissioner David Gambill was there, but didn’t comment on consolidation or doing a study.
Blevins said a study on municipal consolidation in New Jersey resulted in a report showing how it could be structured to occur over a period of time.
Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro “fighting back and forth” over the proposed raw water intake on W. Kerr Scott Reservoir was a primary reason that effort failed, he said. “We (county commissioners) couldn’t do anything about it. We just could not stop it.”
Blevins said he sees very little collaboration between the two towns, but it’s time for this. Although not identifying him by name, he referenced Larry Stone, retired president and COO of Lowe’s Companies Inc., saying “we need to move forward and do something about the situation we are in.”
Blevins said it’s not a silver bullet, but Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro “are going to have to step up and move forward as one entity or we’re never going to get out of the situation we’re in.” He noted that he served on the Wilkesboro town council and has close friends on the North Wilkesboro board.
Blevins said he talked to Palmer at the Lowe’s store in Wilkesboro the prior night and told him he may be getting a little ahead of himself since he only started as a commissioner in December. “But it needs to be said and something done,” especially after “the water intake debacle,” he added.
Settle said he met with Palmer twice and believes “he just wants to do what is right, not just for North Wilkesboro but for our county and the citizens. I agree that a study is not asking a lot.”
Blevins said two elected governing bodies is too many people with their own interests at heart to get a large project that is good for the entire community. “I would hope the EDC board would step up and at least look at it.”
Nixon said she’s not sure if looking into whether public services should be combined is consistent with the EDC’s mission statement of seeking job creation and increasing the tax base.
Blevins agreed with the idea of seeking private donations in response to those who have criticized spending taxpayer dollars on a study of consolidation.
Nixon said that if both towns helped fund the study, they would both be more likely to go along with results. “Maybe it’s something that the towns, the county and the EDC could all consider” funding, she said.
Blevins said, “We really need to shake things up…. Our population is not growing. We’ve lost industry. Lowe’s has decreased the number of employees they have in the county. Thank God for Samaritan’s Purse coming in and taking up some of the slack.”