ECU interns help small town increase its digital footprint

Twenty minutes north of Greenville sits the little town of Bethel. With fewer than 1,700 residents, you won’t find a sprawling shopping mall or a towering multiplex with the latest movie releases.

But what many visitors have found is a tight-knit community that’s ready to open its doors to eastern North Carolina and share its small town charm.

“The one thing I wish people knew about Bethel is that the people who work for the town truly want to see it grow and become a success,” said Carley Jo Younger, an East Carolina University senior majoring in university studies.

Younger didn’t know much about Bethel before she connected with ECU’s Division of Research, Economic Development and Engagement (REDE). Since last fall, she’s worked hand in hand with REDE, ECU’s Office of Community Engagement and the town to develop new marketing strategies and a website alongside fellow intern Daniel Meeks.

Their efforts have been part of the town’s short-term economic development strategy to increase regional awareness of Bethel, sharing its “old-time charm” and “family-friendly” amenities.

“For my senior practicum project, I was instructed to choose between a research paper, a project or an internship,” Younger said. “I wanted to complete an internship to have an opportunity to become more hands-on and build my networking connections.”

After finding an open marketing position through ECU’s career networking site, Handshake, Younger was introduced to Merrill Flood, the university’s director of local community affairs and millennial campus planning. Flood, a 1987 ECU graduate and former assistant city manager for Greenville, has more than 30 years of experience in city planning and development. He saw the opportunity to work with Bethel as part of ECU’s service mission and, with funding from the Greenville Area Economic Development Alliance, he was able to connect the town to ECU’s students.

“When I was first asked to work with community engagement, I started by reaching out to all of Pitt County’s communities, with a special emphasis on the smaller communities,” Flood said. “Bethel has many challenges, but its leaders have a desire to work toward changing its story. Making a connection with Bethel was an obvious choice.”

The town has faced plenty of obstacles to economic growth, from natural disasters like hurricanes Matthew and Florence to man-made hurdles like the Highway 11 bypass that’s led to less traffic through the town. Its Main Street sits mostly empty, with a hardware store, a senior center and a funeral home as its main tenants. More than 500 residents leave Bethel for work every day, spending their money in Greenville and the surrounding area.

Bethel, N.C., Town Hall

Nearly 97% of Bethel’s working residents leave the town for work. With ECU’s assistance, the town is updating its online presence to help attract more small businesses to the town.

But, leadership announced two new goals in 2019 as part of its economic development strategy to combat those obstacles: promote Bethel as a rural housing option and highlight Bethel’s family-friendly amenities.

That’s where Younger and Meeks came in. The pair was tasked with giving the town a public makeover through its external marketing materials, including its website and social media platforms.

“My favorite part of the project has been developing and creating marketing materials,” Younger said. “This was enjoyable for me because I was able to push my creativity and thinking to a higher standard. I had to think outside the box and create professionally attractive materials that would target not only future residents, but business owners too.”

Younger added that her knowledge of Bethel before the internship was limited.

“I didn’t even know where exactly Bethel was located,” she said. “When I visited the town for the first time, it reminded me a lot of my hometown of East Bend because of the slower-paced environment and small businesses. I didn’t know how I was going to be able to market this town effectively in a way that would target people that wanted to live there and start a business.”

However, Younger was able to break through those road blocks, developing a campaign that focused on Bethel’s neighborly feel.

“Small towns are usually a place where everyone knows everybody,” Younger said. “I wanted the town to take advantage of that to attract future homeowners and business entrepreneurs.

“I think living in a town where you can trust your neighbors and get involved with the community is a win-win situation for future residents. When it comes to attracting businesses to the town, it’s important for these companies and organizations to remember that small-town customers are going to be your most loyal customers. There are many opportunities that Bethel can offer its residents and future business owners.”

Bethel Town Manager Tom Asbell II said the work the interns have begun would allow the town to reach potential residents.

“We felt that with an increased digital presence, it will allow more individuals to explore our community,” Asbell said. “We hope this will bring positive results of having people coming to our community, resulting in possible growth.”

Asbell said he hopes Younger and Meeks have learned from the experience.

“The students are full of energy and innovative ideas,” he said. “It is exciting to share different professional experiences with them as they prepare to enter their new careers. We hope that this process provided a true prospective of small town issues and the hardships that must be addressed. It also shows the importance of the needs for rural areas that may not be recognized without working together.”

Younger, who’s preparing to graduate in May, said taking her skills outside the classroom and into a rural community has prepared her for life after ECU.

“I was able to learn things that I wouldn’t have been able to by sitting in a classroom,” she said. “Having the opportunity to work with one of North Carolina’s small towns and their government is something that not only benefited me professionally, but personally. This internship gave me the exposure to real-life issues and scenarios that I wouldn’t have been able to say I truly experienced without completing this project.”

Younger and Meeks are still refining their final projects before Bethel’s digital presence is launched publicly.

Interested with connecting to ECU’s community engagement programs? Learn more about the university’s RISE29 student internship program, its SECU Public Fellows Internship program, and its Engagement and Outreach Scholars Academy.