Martin County June 2023


County Seat

Median Income

Population Density Designation

Horses might not be the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Martin County, but an equine studies program has tourists and aspiring students alike chomping at the bit to visit this rural region in eastern North Carolina.

When the Extra Miles Tour rode into Williamston, NC, the first stop was Martin Community College, which houses a comprehensive Equine Training program. Coursework covers training, equine business and law, anatomy, reproduction, nutrition, showmanship, farm management and more. The program’s reputation has garnered the sort of recognition that attracts students from outside the state.

The Blue Cross NC team enjoyed seeing the college’s state-of-the-art facilities, including a massive show arena, stables, washroom, a tack room (complete with 40+ saddles for students to use) and pasture space to house around 40 horses. Naturally, the team paused to pet the foals and barn cats, Mocha and Latte.

Students enrolled in this program aren’t the only ones who benefit from these resources. The arena hosts North Carolina State University’s 4H and FFA (Future Farmers of America) riding competitions. The facilities also serve as spillover space for events held at the nearby Senator Bob Martin Agricultural Center. This massive complex hosts more than 50 events per year (one recent event attracted 32,000 visitors), which means that the campus, faculty, staff and students all support one of the key drivers of tourism in the area. In addition, the program lends out its herd to riding programs across the state during the summertime when courses aren’t in session, so the college is actually supporting agricultural tourism throughout North Carolina.

Conversation also touched on the health benefits of horseback riding. Program Director and international award-winning equestrian Tammie Thurston explained that guest instructors have come in to discuss therapeutic riding; expanding coursework in that area is under consideration.

A second signature program at the college is its Line Tech Pathway. The program’s success underscores its importance as a workforce pipeline for the region: Enrollment is at capacity, and every member of last year’s graduating class landed a high-paying job within two weeks of graduation. To raise awareness and bring more diversity into the program, the college has partnered with area schools so that high school students can study the fundamentals of electricity as pre-college coursework.

Our hosts at Martin Community College also touted the success of its Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) program. Program Director (and resident thespian!) Dr. Dean McCall highlighted two unique aspects. First, the faculty offer free “bonus” workshops to students after they graduate. He explained that there is a sizeable time window between graduation and the all-important licensure exam. Many students become overwhelmed with anxiety, and too often they don’t use that time to prepare. The post-graduation guided study sessions help minimize that anxiety and prime students for success. Second, Dr. McCall established a pro-bono clinic for the county’s high school athletes, faculty and staff. This collaborative arrangement gives the PTA students invaluable “real-life, hands-on” learning experience, and it also saves the community money (last year the treatment delivered was worth an estimated $20,000).

Over a catered community lunch, college faculty, health care workers and community representatives joined Blue Cross NC in a lively discussion. The hosts underscored the area’s unique assets, including the agricultural and environmental tourism around the Agricultural Center and the Roanoke River Trail drifting through town; an unusually strong community club culture (the Rotary Club is especially vibrant); and Williamston’s proud, collaborative spirit. Discussion also explored some of the significant challenges ahead, including quality housing for students and young health care professionals and downtown revitalization; much of the discussion focused on the need to attract younger workers, as well as tourists on their way to the Outer Banks.

Capturing the optimistic spirit that’s so central to the area’s resurgence, college President Wesley Beddard emphasized, “Challenges are opportunities if you look at them the right way.” He added later, “We like to say that Martin County is ‘on the way.’” Everyone at the lunch seemed to embrace the saying’s double meaning and all of the possibilities it implied. The county is indeed on many a travelers’ route to North Carolina’s more famous tourist area. But Martin County is also an area that’s on the move – where residents’ fierce commitment to community is helping Williamston reimagine itself, not simply as a pass-through town, but as a destination.

As if to prove President Beddard’s point, the Blue Cross NC team wrapped its visit in Martin County with a stop at Cakes by Becky. Cakes by Becky is one of many businesses in the region that’s benefitted from the support of East Carolina University’s RISE29 program. The Extra Miles Tour had been hearing plenty about the work of RISE29, both at a previous stop in Hyde County and earlier in the day during lunch at Martin Community College. RISE29 pairs student entrepreneurs with local businesses and organizations to provide economic development intelligence and other support to increase the likelihood of success.

The team’s visit with Becky was a delicious reminder of how the North Carolina Community College and University of North Carolina Systems are driving forces in the work to strengthen communities. Drawing valuable input from students and faculty, Cakes by Becky exemplified how strategic collaboration can help grow the local businesses that encourage folks to stick around and enjoy Williamston and other small North Carolina towns just a little bit longer.

ECU’s RISE29 empowers students to support existing businesses and create new microenterprises in eastern NC.

All other trade names are the property of their respective owners. U39702, 7/23