COLUMBUS' NEW WORLD: BUSINESSES IN A HARD-HIT INLAND COUNTY ARE SLOWLY SCRATCHING BACK FROM RUINOUS HURRICANES.

Author:Martin, Edward
 
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A year after Hurricane Florence wreaked $24 billion in damage across the state, hard-hit Columbus County is fighting its way back with a little help from jaguars, tigers, lions and leopards. They will inhabit the new Shizzy's Wildcat Rescue nonprofit in Fair Bluff, a $400,000 investment led by Shazir Haque that attracts tourists heading to the nearby beaches.

"We just love animals," says Haque, who lives in Greensboro. "When somebody does something foolish like purchasing a big cat for a pet, we want to create a home where they can go forever when they have to give them up."

Like adjacent southeastern North Carolina inland counties, Columbus is remaking itself after stormy weather compounded an already struggling economy. Shizzy's is taking shape at a flooded-out Ford dealership that deeded its 56 acres on the Lumber River to the 27-year-old entrepreneur. The project is a needed bright spot for a county where a fourth of the residents live in poverty.

In Whiteville, Columbus County Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Holcomb says many Lake Waccamaw residents are rebuilding, and business owners such as Todd and Lori Collins, who run Collier's Jewelers Inc., flooded by both hurricanes Florence and Matthew two years earlier, have bounced back a second time. "From downtown White ville's perspective, they're a ray of hope for us as an anchor store," Holcomb says.

After Florence, the chamber quickly raised $40,000 for a North Carolina Small Business Recovery Fund, aided by contributions from other N.C. chambers and groups. It then awarded $500 grants to business owners seeking to recover. "The reality is," Holcomb says, "a $500 grant isn't going to replace inventory or re-floor your store, but if nothing else, it'll show the community cares."

Unfortunately, the county took another blow when Cary-based Cornerstone Building Brands Inc. closed its vinyl-fencing plant in Fair Bluff in August. About 42 of the site's 58 former employees found other jobs within a month, Columbus County Economic Development Director Gary Lanier says. With a general uptick in business and the county's population down by about 2,500 since 2010, according to Census Bureau estimates, the unemployment rate is at 5.6%, compared with 13.6% five or six years ago.

"Some of the worst news that a town that's already on its knees can get is that one of your major employers is shutting down," he says. "But the positive note is the overall economy is pretty good, and a lot of...

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