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Helping a Coastal Town Circle Back to its Roots 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

Walt Eccard stood over the bank of the Shallotte River and swept his arm across the scene: low tide, an abandoned wooden dock, fiddler crabs working the mud around it, a panorama of coastal plants, a slit in the clouds glowing with sun. Beauty, no doubt. But Eccard, the mayor of Shallotte, saw more.

A new commercial district. A new downtown center. A riverwalk. Housing. A spot of local pride. A tourism draw.

By his vision and that of fellow Town of Shallotte leaders, that riverfront is the future: an alluring site to carefully develop for broad enjoyment.

Equally important, if not more: It’s also where the town began.

“Certainly it would be an attraction,” Eccard said on the quiet bank. “But one of the things that was important to families that have lived here for multiple generations, who trace their history here to the waterfront, whose great-great grandparents brought the logs for the first log cabin in the early- to mid-1800s up the Shallotte River and so on ... was to return to our heritage and to let people understand how this town grew.”

Eccard isn’t among the natives. But he’s got a lot in common with those who hold their origins close. Shallotte, a Brunswick County town of about 4,000 residents, has physically and generationally grown away from the riverside and is now, for many, at the point of circling back to its roots. And Eccard, who built his home there in 2005, draws a lot from his personal history when contemplating the duties of mayor.

“I come from a family that emphasized service,” Eccard said, his father a former school principal and elected town-government official in Connecticut. His younger brother spent his entire career in local government and too served in elected office, as a first selectman (a position equivalent to a strong mayor).

Eccard himself spent half of his career working for the federal government, notably at the U.S. Department of Treasury. Beginning in 1980, he worked in the general counsel’s office and became the assistant general counsel of banking and finance.

That’s where he captured a wealth of leadership lessons that he still applies to his mayoral style, and prior as a member of the Shallotte Board of Aldermen. One came during Robert Rubin’s time as treasury secretary, when Eccard’s office was introducing a new security called an inflation-index security, designed to increase in value if inflation went up. The fine details aren’t as important, but essentially Rubin introduced himself to Eccard and asked his opinion on the adequacy of Treasury’s approach on the security. Eccard’s answer to Rubin walked the line of following requirements and guidelines in the effort, which brought Rubin to shake his head and ask again, “Is this adequate?”

To Eccard, the takeaway was all about finding the right solution, instead of dryly running on textbook procedure.

“The focus is to do what is right, and not to be hamstrung by fear,” he said.

Quoting another senior Treasury official, Eccard said: “’Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.’ We can spend 10 years trying to do something perfect, or we can do something that’s really good now. And I’ve always been guided by that.”

That’s been crucial to the town’s riverfront plan.

The town, over a four-year period has purchased more than 20 acres of land there, following a vision plan adopted in 2008, without any final plans. “We’re still working on that – but we had an overall sense of direction, which was to develop the waterfront,” Eccard said. “And that helped make each expenditure easier to justify. We were fulfilling, going for, an overall plan. But we weren’t hamstrung by the fact that we didn’t have a perfect plan. We had a direction.... We weren’t governed by fear.... It was really an act of faith.”

Now, the town is at a milestone. It has selected a riverfront developer, whose plans Eccard and fellow officials will soon negotiate.

Now in his third year as mayor, Eccard says he’s thankful that he’s always had a “unified” town board to work with, without much controversy among members when it comes to advancing big projects.

Another example is Mulberry Park, a recently developed 10-acre space with playgrounds, a large amphitheater for live music, a green clearing for farmer’s markets and a vibrant community garden. Daily, the park welcomes crowds of families and kids, and concerts often draw hundreds.

“It makes you wonder what everyone did before,” Eccard joked.

The town has also stepped up efforts to recruit outside businesses by showing that Shallotte is not just a headcount of 4,000 customers or a pass-through from Wilmington to Myrtle Beach (as the town is roughly midway between).

“A once sleepy fishing village, Shallotte’s population increased by 166 percent from 2000 to 2010 alone, attributed to its proximity to coastal beaches and appeal as a retirement destination,” says a blogpost from the UNC School of Government’s Development Finance Initiative (DFI), which recently worked with the town to study its market potential and identity.

For one, DFI drew a 15-minute-drive exit perimeter around Wilmington. It did the same for North Myrtle Beach. And for Southport. “And our 15-minute-drive-time all around us didn’t intersect with any of those circles,” Eccard noted. “And it encompassed in excess of 50,000 people. And that’s helping us to attract businesses based on what we think is a fair view of our market – not counting the tremendous influx of people we get every summer at the beaches, which are within that drive period.”

Eccard attended two crowded ribbon-cuttings for new local businesses during a Southern City writer’s recent visit to town.

The proof was there to be photographed. The town’s vision-driven planning was growing business. No wonder the riverfront park plan had such buy-in.

But that writer had a question about Eccard’s own arrival to town, in 2005.

He had Connecticut connections and worked his entire career in Washington, D.C. Settling somewhere in the South post-retirement wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. But why Shallotte, in particular?

It was another story of running on faith instead of fear, of seizing the future in a slightly unconventional way.

Eccard wanted a spot on the coast and had narrowed the search down to southern Virginia and North Carolina. “We decided to take a trip,” he said. “We checked several places out and we got here and found a lot that we loved. We liked the town, we liked the size, the convenience of our location.

“(But) my wife says the reason that we really bought here is we looked at a (real estate) lot – it was on a Friday – and the next day there was a golf tournament. And this couple came through. A man and a woman ... and they hit the ball a ton. They each did. And I said, ‘Well, I want to be in the tournament tomorrow, and I want to be partnered with them.’ And they said, ‘Well, there’s one problem, Walt. You have to be a landowner.’ And I said, ‘OK, we’ll buy this lot – if I can play with them tomorrow.’

“And we did, and then I did,” Eccard said. “And we won the tournament.”