We all have special places in our lives. Lake houses we returned to summer after summer. Mountaintops with views that take your breath away. For Dr. Emily Yeager, that place is the Pamlico River Basin. She spent her childhood swimming in the Tar River and playing along its shores, and she reconnected with it as a student at East Carolina University (ECU). Today, her love of this unique waterway and passion for sharing its beauty and wonder have inspired a project like no other.
A native of Epsom, N.C., Dr. Yeager has returned to Greenville after a stint in Georgia to serve as an assistant professor in the College of Health and Human Performance at ECU with an ambitious goal of bringing together the communities in this region in a way that connects people using both technology and nature.
“I just started visiting the towns and communities I loved as a kid,” she says. “And I noticed that each community along the Pamlico was revitalizing their waterfront properties and facilities. Downtowns and waterways were undergoing amazing economic development.”
But, while each community has the resources to draw in visitors on its own, Dr. Yeager saw the value of branding this entire region in a way that would create a strong network these towns could leverage to support their own individual goals and realize the vision they had for their communities.
In January 2021, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a study called the Blue Economy Strategic Plan, which laid out a map to advance the country’s blue economy, or how coastal economies can flourish when they balance conservation, water usage, and coastal activities. With this study in mind, Dr. Yeager has dubbed this Eastern Tar- Pamlico River Basin the Blue Corridor, and her goal is to map this region to showcase historical and ecological sites, promote education and conservation efforts, and drive local commerce in an integrated way – all while encouraging residents and visitors to participate in the creation of this evolving map.
“Asset mapping is an incredible tool,” explains Yeager. “As we think about unifying these three types of assets – socio-cultural, environmental, and hospitality – through one Corridor, this digital interactive map allows us to see what all of these assets are and how they are connected by this one waterway.” She goes on to say that this map creates a sense of place that both supports regional economic growth and empowers residents and visitors. Since the map will be accessible online, users will be encouraged to “drop a pin,” upload photos of their favorite kayaking spot, or recommend a great restaurant close to the bustling waterfront.
Eventually, this map will allow users to zoom in on specific sites, but also (and critically) see the entire region and how each community connects to others. For example, a visitor may want to explore an African American historical site and have their heart set on Freedom Hill in Princeville. But if they pull up the asset map, they’ll see that just 25 minutes away is the Claussen Bakery (home to some of the first civil rights strikes in 1967) as well as the birthplace of renowned blues musician Josh White and Bosco’s Baby’s, offering some of the best soul food in Greenville. A single stop can be transformed into a themed experience, that allows visitors a more colorful picture of the place their visiting, and residents the chance to showcase the home they love.
“We aren’t building this map alone,” adds Yeager, noting that bringing stakeholders into the effort early will harness the power of maps to tell stories that inspire.
According to Yeager, she has partnered with the NC Folk Life Institute because they are the curators of all socio-cultural heritage resources in the state. And, Sound Rivers – a conservation and ecotourism non-profit – that is a local guide to the waterways because they paddle the river every day and help inspire the project to explore opportunities for environmental education, interpretation, and literacy. Someday, Yeager hopes, with the input from these stakeholders and the enthusiasm of STEM educators across the state, this map will serve as the guide for “citizen scientists,” who can use it to study marine life, report littering in real-time, and teach students (young and old) about the treasures of the waterway.
The next step for this tool’s development is a survey to be delivered to about 8,000 residents who live near the river basin. Yeager and her team are hopeful that residents will see this as an opportunity to not just enhance their community’s economic development but also to shine a light on the places and experiences they are most proud of, most connected to. Data collection and analysis and stakeholder input will be reviewed over the next year and, with luck, the asset map will go live in Fall 2022. From there, the map will continue to evolve as more assets are added, more people visit, and more residents weigh-in.
“In this day and age where everyone is connected through digital devices,” Yeager concludes, “it’s very easy to lose your sense of place. We think people will be excited to reestablish a connection to their place – where they live or where they visit. People are starving for that, the connection to a larger landscape, the creation of a sense of place, and the empowerment of those who live there.”
It’s clear that Dr. Yeager’s passion for the Tar River and the Pamlico River Basin runs deep. Now, she’s hopeful that this project will serve as a template for other regions in North Carolina, as eager as she is to share what they love most using the magic of maps.
(Editor’s Note: The ArcGIS Story Map is constantly evolving and will be updated as new assets are added; to see how the ArcGIS Story Map works, including excellent photos and stories, please visit this website.)