Eulis A. Willis, Mayor of Navassa, Working for the People
Editor’s Note: this is part five of our six-series Focus on the Mayors of northern Brunswick County.
“Every morning I walk in my neighborhood,” says Eulis Willis, the 62-year-old mayor of Navassa. “It’s a good way for me to get my head together and organize my day. It helps my body and it does the town good because their mayor is visible and available to them. I think in some ways it builds a stronger sense of community here; I know it does for me.”
For Willis, now in his 11th year as mayor of this small North Brunswick town, a sense of community is important. It is why he joined the town council in 1978 and why he ran for mayor in 1999. It’s the reason he jumped at the chance to begin working with his four neighboring mayors to help strengthen North Brunswick County as a whole. For a year now, the mayors from Navassa, Sandy Creek, Northwest, Leland and Belville have come together to give advice, collaborate on projects and work to ensure a prosperous future for Brunswick County.
The cooperation between us mayors has been great so far,” Willis says. “Overall, I think we’ve had a positive impact on our communities. I believe we’ve made real progress in improving the quality of life in our towns and in the region.”
In a region where tourism and hospitality dominate the economy, Willis and his counterparts have paid specific attention to quality-of-life issues in their communities. From their efforts to secure a recycling program to their work with the Department of Transportation to ease traffic woes to their vision of the future of the county, they’ve shown a commitment to adding or expanding the infrastructure and amenities modern communities want — which is right in line with Willis’s way of thinking.
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘What makes us attractive to visitors? To prospective residents?To businesses? What is it that folks love about this place that keeps them here?’” he says.
The common denominators for visitors, residents and those looking to relocate here are the natural amenities. That is why Willis is working with Mayor Walter Futch of Leland and Mayor Jack Batson of Belville to develop a kayak paddle trail along the Brunswick River from Navassa to Belville.
The proposed trail would pass through all three towns and become a destination for paddlers. Along with improving the quality of life, the kayak trail would provide much-needed economic development opportunities in each community as outfitters, guides and kayak shops would need facilities to service the trail. Area restaurants would benefit from the trail, too, as hungry kayakers would need to eat after a day of paddling. All of this brings an economic boost and makes the area more desirable to live in, two factors Willis says are keys to a prosperous future for Navassa and North Brunswick County.
“To be prosperous in the future, Navassa and this whole end of Brunswick County will have to embrace some changes in our communities,” Willis says. “Not just little things like recycling or kayakers on the river, but bigger changes that could reshape whole communities. We have to prepare for when those changes come.”
One of the changes that North Brunswick communities will have to embrace is another bridge from New Hanover into Brunswick County. One of the potential bridges, the I-140 Bypass (the other is the hotly contested Skyway Bridge), would pass directly through Navassa. Willis’s fear is that the road would artificially inflate property values in the small town and out-tax some residents. But he believes the town can avoid such a fate with proper planning now.
“Our planning department is already looking to the future, seeing what steps we can take to alleviate some of these potential problems,” Willis says. “Luckily, Mayor Batson and Mayor Futch have a lot of experience with quick growth and I can draw on their experience and advice. That’s why I believe we can come out on the other side of a major change like this as a prosperous community.”
Willis’s optimism for the future of Navassa reflects the love he has for his town. As a native whose family goes back at least six generations, he knows the cultural heritage of the community — good and bad — and has ideas on how to improve things.
“The idea of Navassa as an older, poor, fixed-income community is a thing of the past,” Willis says. “As a town we’re growing younger, becoming more tech-savvy and watching an ambitious generation come up. We’ve got to put the negative things about our past to bed and move into our future.”
One way Willis sees for securing Navassa’s future is to look at the positive aspects of its past. A predominantly African-American community (the current population is a little more than 70 percent African-American) with a rich cultural history, Navassa has opportunities to expand cultural offerings and educate the public about its history and its people.
Every year on the weekend after July Fourth, Navassa hosts the Navassa Homecoming, a gathering of residents, former residents and those with ties to the community. Willis says that each Homecoming is better than the last, but he’d like to see it grow to include more residents and provide an educational opportunity about the town’s history.
Perhaps his loftiest goal is the establishment of a Gullah/Geechee and African-American Cultural History Center in Navassa, complete with important artifacts, re-created slave quarters, cultural arts demonstrations and a reference library for scholars. Since many of Navassa’s families can claim ties to the Gullah/Geechee people (former African-American slaves with roots in Western and Central Africa, noted for their distinctive Creole-like dialect), Willis says the town would be an ideal place for a cultural history center.
Navassa’s goals cannot be achieved… without help and support from within and outside the community. Willis is glad to have a passionate town council, a vocal public and the friendship and assistance of four area mayors.
At Navassa’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, Mayor Willis gave some remarks after the parade. Looking out from the podium, he saw Mayor Batson in the crowd.
“That did a lot for me,” Willis says. “We [mayors] make it a mission to attend and support one another’s events and I felt honored that Jack was in attendance at one of our most important celebrations.”
As Navassa and all of Brunswick County move into the future, the continued cooperation between the mayors will be critical to ensure long-term success.
“It looks like we’re on the right path,” Willis says. “I see good things for us down the road.”