State of the Economy: Leaders work together to survive the pandemic

Coronavirus

Editor’s note: It’s been a year since the coronavirus pandemic changed things in Eastern North Carolina, around the United States and the world. 9OYS is devoting a series of stories, videos and podcasts where we get a perspective on those different parts of life in ENC and how things have changed.

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KINSTON, N.C. (WNCT) — COVID-19 has made an impact on the economy locally, in our state and nation along with the world.

It’s still reshaping the economy as businesses and government leaders work together to help shops, restaurants and industries to survive. Lenoir County, like many counties in Eastern North Carolina, has overcome a lot during the pandemic.

Part 1: The State of Farming: Beaufort County farmer shares his personal experience with COVID-19, navigating around pandemic

In fact, Lenoir County has overcome a lot in the past decade. On top of the pandemic, Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence devastated the areas. Just as restaurants and businesses finished preparing damage done by Florence, a new storm hit — the COVID pandemic.

So how are Lenoir and other counties in Eastern North Carolina riding out this new storm? Many say it’s too soon to tell.

“This is definitely worse than the floods, I can tell you that, you knew what was coming,” said Joseph Hargitt, owner of the popular King’s BBQ & Chicken in Kinston.

King’s is an institution in ENC. The nine-decade-old BBQ mecca has seen a lot.

“We closed and rebuilt twice after two different floods,Hargitt said.

However, no hurricane or natural disaster could prepare it for the storm of COVID.

“We literally almost closed the whole operation down,” Hargitt said. “I think about the third Wednesday in March.”

Hargitt said his business has suffered from the pandemic. A third of Hargitt’s workers have been laid off and sales are down almost 20%.

“Everyone was worried,” Hargitt said. “And a lot of people still are worried.”

Hargitt adapted, expanding the shipping business and added curbside service.

“We just worked hard, we came to work everyday,” Hargitt said. “We tried to stay positive, it was rough there for a while.”

Not too far away, members of the Lenoir County Commission felt like Hargitt, expecting the worse and hoping for the best.

“We were expecting our sales tax to be very low,” said Lenoir County Commission Chair Linda Rouse Sutton. “We were expecting the property tax collection to be very much behind.”

A different reality surfaced in the age of COVID-19. There were 10 new businesses that opened, unemployment numbers held steady, too.

“I’m not downplaying how serious it’s been, like it’s been a bed of roses because it hasn’t, but I’m just so happy that our folks have worked together,” Sutton said.

Just across the county line … a similar tale.

“We did suffer, but we fared better than the rest of the country, and we fared better than the rest of the state of North Carolina in terms of our recovery,” said Jeff Wood of the Craven County Economic Development Department

Wood believes Craven’s variety of businesses is a bonus.

“As one was hit for instance hospitality in a rough way, once our manufacturers were able to open back up they’ve actually thrived and increased their employment, so that diversity allowed us to balance out a little bit,” Wood said.

Wood also credits the lifeline Swiss Bear, Inc. offered, including a new loan program for downtown shops, a new version of Mumfest and letting people eat in the streets.

“I got in touch with city leadership and said ‘what do you think about on-street dining, because our restaurants were just suffering so much even more so than our regular businesses,” said Lynn Harakal, executive director of Swiss Bear.

It worked. An October survey showed most businesses’ sales were up 8-39%.

Things are starting to look better in Hargitt’s kingdom, too.

“I’ve noticed in the past three weeks, the business has been on an uptick,” Hargitt said.

This ruler of all things BBQ is grateful to still be serving customers.

“We’ve been blessed and we’ve gotten through it, I think (knock knock knock) we’re through it,” Hargitt said.

Lenoir and Craven County leaders say despite the challenges and uncertainty with COVID-19, they’re thankful for how their communities came together.

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