A Burgaw Heritage

Arwyn Smith seeks to invigorate small businesses in Burgaw

Arwyn Smith0003

ARWYN SMITH has Burgaw in her blood.

Smith, director of the Burgaw Area Chamber of Commerce, is the granddaughter of Charles Harrell, who served as mayor and fire chief of the town and also ran Harrell’s Department Store and Harrell’s Funeral Home. Her uncles now run both businesses.

“He WAS Burgaw,” Smith says of her grandfather. “He lived and breathed it, and was very proud of it. Harrell’s Department Store was founded by his grandfather, William Ross Harrell, 117 years ago.”

Smith was born in Wilmington, but when she was nine, her father’s job with Merck took the family to the Philadelphia area.

“From the second we moved, I wanted to come back,” Smith says. “UNCW was the only college I applied to. Luckily, I got in, and once I graduated I never left [the area].”

After majoring in elementary education with a minor in psychology, Smith got a job teaching third grade at Burgaw Elementary School. She and her husband moved to  – where else? – Burgaw.

She left teaching after a few years for a position with Verizon Wireless, which paid more, and then took a few years off when her children were young. Returning to teaching, Smith found it less to her liking, so last spring she started looking for alternatives.

Meanwhile, the Burgaw Area Chamber of Commerce was undergoing a leadership change. EMILY BAKER, the director, resigned to tend to family obligations. A search for her replacement was underway.

“I kept hearing from people, ‘You are the perfect person for this job,’” Smith says. “Emily came to me with the application.”

When she assumed her new duties in June 2019, Smith was pleased to see what a good fit she was for the position, even though it was all new to her.

“This job speaks to all the strengths that I have, personality-wise,” she explains. “Every aspect of the job seems to fit. I love organizing events, talking to people, and helping out, especially in a town my grandfather was so proud of. I think he would be proud of what I’m doing.”

One year in, Smith looks back on some highlights.

“The biggest obstacle for me was organizing the Christmas Parade; the prospect scared me to death because I had never organized a parade. Emily [Baker] helped me; everyone loves her so that was good – she set things up well. We made her the grand marshal.”

The resulting 45-minute parade drew big crowds and was a success, boosting Smith’s confidence and giving Burgaw a heightened sense of community.

Similarly successful, according to Smith, was the chamber’s dinner in February.

And then came the coronavirus.

“The pandemic hit and suddenly there was no commerce for the chamber of commerce,” she says. “I want to help people get back on their feet. Many of our businesses are owner-run; they don’t have massive numbers of employees.”

Smith surveyed the town’s business owners, asking what she could do to help. She gathered information about loans and other relief programs and posted it on social media for them. And she heard many tales of woe, although a few businesses were successful in getting Paycheck Protection Program loans.

“From what I understand, [the loan application process] was a nightmare,” she says.

Asked about what she wants to pursue in her second year at the chamber, she’s clear on her goals but understandably uncertain about the timeline.

“I don’t know what I’m going to be able to do, and when,” she says. “I would like to add more events to our schedule, but don’t know that it will happen this year. I would like to do more events at local businesses to bring more people to downtown Burgaw. I’d like them to come downtown for more than the Blueberry Festival (which was canceled this year because of COVID-19 concerns]. “There are actually plenty of things to do in Burgaw if you look, but we need a comprehensive marketing campaign.

“I’d like to see Burgaw business grow. There are a lot of empty stores downtown. Richard Johnson, a businessman from Wilmington, has been buying up space downtown. He took some of these derelict buildings and built them up so the town looks nicer. He has Fat Daddy’s Pizza opening soon in one of his buildings; there’s also supposed to be a brewery coming. People want to see downtown alive and thriving. He’s fulfilling part of that; now we just need more businesses to fill those buildings.”

Smith has surveyed local residents as to the types of businesses they would like to see. High on that list are a pet shop, a bicycle shop, and an arts and crafts store.

“People also say they want something for the kids to do,” she adds.

“A lot of [existing] businesses need to reopen,” Smith says. “The ones that are reopening are doing a great job of following the guidelines. Nobody knows what fall is going to bring. The Ghost Walk is up in the air. But we’re hoping to do our Annual Business Expo in October. That would be one of my first events after things return to normal.”

To view more of photographer Terah Wilson’s work, go to terahwilson.com.

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Categories: Women to Watch