Columbia - Homegrown Tools

Columbia, NC

Updated: 2022

The ecotourism strategy in Columbia is characterized by an innovative approach to governance and dogged protection of natural resources.

Median Household Income2020$17,024
Poverty Rate 202043.2%
Proximity to Urban Center 78 miles to Greenville, N.C.
Proximity to Interstate Highway 98 miles
Case Study Time Frame 1991-2007
Municipal Budget FY20181.3 million
Data Source: US Census, American Community Survey
View Complete Case StudyUpdated: Columbia, 2022

Columbia’s strategy is to attract investment into the community through ecotourism. Before ecotourism was popular, Columbia’s leaders and residents decided to embrace their natural assets—many of which are federally protected—to create new jobs. In 1993, former town manager J.D. Brickhouse convinced local officials in the surrounding counties to join together in a Partnership for the Sounds, a nonprofit organization designed to facilitate regional collaboration around ecotourism and to prevent the counties and municipalities from competing over limited grant funding. Through this innovative partnership, Columbia has received funding for and built a $15 million downtown boardwalk, a visitors center and a 4-H environmental education center, each of which draws tourism. Today, Columbia is a destination for travelers seeking a pristine getaway on North Carolina’s coast


What are the lessons learned from this story?


Economic development must be guided by a broadly held local vision. Columbia 2000 was a comprehensive planning process that relied on participation from the whole community. The result was a vision of what residents wanted to see their small town become. “Many economic development efforts fail because they do not come from local knowledge,” said Mikki Sager of the Conservation Fund. “A lot of small communities end up with what they have because someone from outside tells them what they need. No local buy-in, or success, is going to happen with that.”


Unique local assets can become economic drivers. Columbia’s leaders and residents recognized that their natural beauty was an asset that could drive an ecotourism strategy for economic development. Part of Columbia’s success with ecotourism comes from the clear local mandate that residents wanted to see their natural surroundings protected.


Local economic development can be strengthened by forming regional partnerships. Through meetings with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Columbia discovered that neighbors from Hyde and Beaufort counties were interested in pursuing similar ecotourism-related projects. Rather than see these counties as intra-regional competitors, Columbia sought regional collaboration. Small towns thus were able to pool resources and ideas. Moreover, ecotourism should – by nature – be a regional strategy because a collection of towns and counties has more to offer visitors than does a single municipality.


Innovative local governance can strengthen a community’s economic development efforts. Columbia’s ability to design an alternative arrangement for generating tax revenues on protected lands helped turn a potential obstacle to ecotourism into an example of innovative local governance.