The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Tuesday, October 4, 1994               TAG: 9410040420
                                             LENGTH: Long  :  108 lines


Eastern North Carolina legislators and economic developers wasted no time spreading the word that they'd be delighted to provide a home for a theme park when the Walt Disney Co. said it was abandoning its plans for a center in northern Virginia.

Within minutes of the announcement, state Rep. Howard Hunter Jr., D-Northampton, had placed a telephone call to the state Department of Commerce. Within hours, staff members with the Greenville-based Eastern North Carolina Chamber of Commerce had obtained the telephone number for Disney Chairman Michael Eisner's private facsimile machine and had sent him information about the region.

Their goal: To let the people who own the world's most famous mouse know that there are places in the region that would welcome the $625-million, 3,000-acre theme park known as Disney's America.

``We are pursuing it aggressively,'' said Hunter in an interview Saturday during a gathering of eastern legislators in New Bern. ``I'll start camping out at the Department of Commerce every time I go to Raleigh.''

Late last Wednesday, Disney officials said determined opposition in Northern Virginia was the reason they were searching for a new site.

Disney had planned to open the park in 1998. In addition to the center, which would highlight American history, Disney had sought approval to build as many as 2,281 homes, 1,340 hotel rooms and 1.96 million square feet of retail and commercial space.

A Disney spokesmen said Monday that Virginia is still the first choice for the theme park, even though they have abandoned their plans to develop it near Haymarket.

``We are still committed to finding a site in Virginia,'' Claudia Peters said from Disney's Americaheadquarters in Gainesville, Va.

And Virginia developers from Hampton Roads to the Shenandoah Valley were scrambling last week to put together proposals to present to Disney.

Eastern North Carolina leaders agree that attracting Disney to the region is, at best, a long-shot, but is still worth going after.

``Bringing Disney to the area would put us 20 years ahead in terms of economic development,'' said Hunter.

On Monday Rocky Lane, executive director of the Halifax Development Commission, said that agency has renewed its efforts - begun last June when opposition to Disney intensified in Virginia - to lure Disney to the region.

``I feel like we are a perfect match,'' said Lane. ``We are indeed interested and we have redoubled our efforts.''

``I am convinced that Disney knows where Halifax County is,'' he said.

North Carolina economic development officials say the area around Roanoke Rapids in Halifax and Northampton counties would be at or near the top of their list of potential sites for the Disney theme park.

Among the ``most promising'' so far of several regional sites for Disney, is an expanse of land off Interstate 95 near the highway's last interchange in North Carolina - only a few miles south of the Virginia state line, according to Robert Hackney, chief executive officer of the Eastern Chamber of Commerce. The area lies about halfway between New York and Florida on the interstate, a major north-south thoroughfare.

It's only about an hour's drive south of Richmond and could attract many of the folks Disney hoped to reach in Haymarket. The region is also far enough north from Disney World in Orlando, Fla., that it would not detract from that resort, Hackney said.

And, like northern Virginia, the area is rich in Revolutionary and Civil War history, most notably, the Halifax Resolves.

Signed April 12, 1776, in Halifax - three months before the Declaration of Independence - the Halifax Resolves authorized North Carolina's delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence from Britain.

The date appears on the North Carolina flag.

Even some of the state's legislative leaders in western North Carolina agree that a site in Northampton or Halifax County would be a suitable home for Disney.

Rep. Marie Colton, D-Buncombe, who currently serves as speaker pro tempore in the state House, was among those who had objected to Disney's plans to build a theme park near Civil War battle sites in Manassas.

But, she said in a telephone interview from her Asheville home, a Halifax-Northampton site would be appropriate for the development and should not meet with the opposition faced by the Northern Virginia site.

``It certainly could be a boon for an area of the state that is certainly way behind the curve in terms of economic development,'' she said. ``I can't believe it would be an unwelcome development for North Carolina if it went to the right place and if it were handled sensitively.''

The Halifax and Northampton corridor along Interstate 95 is just one of about a half-dozen general locales in eastern North Carolina that business leaders are plugging for Disney.

``Our goal is to get it in eastern North Carolina,'' said Hackney.

Some property owners in Pasquotank, Carteret and Duplin counties are reportedly interested in developing packages to present to Walt Disney Co.

But area economic developers say much of eastern North Carolina lacks the transportation system and other amenities to be a serious contender for Disney - especially under the company's timetable.

``I wish they would contact us,'' said Randy Harrell, executive director of the Pasquotank County-Elizabeth City Industrial Development Commission. ``But we don't have the amenities in Pasquotank County to attract this kind of industry.''

State industry recruiters as well as private economists caution the state should not enter a bidding war with other states in the rush to attract Disney.

``Once states get into competition for an industry, a lot of those economic advantages associated with the industry are eroded in ways that may not be obvious,'' said Carson Bays, economics professor at East Carolina University in Greenville. ``I would play this one really carefully.''

Meanwhile, Lane said that, for now, his agency will wait for a response from Disney before taking additional action. by CNB