Man with a Plan
In his role as Town Planner for the Town of Navassa, UNCW graduate Barnes Sutton has found his calling.
Sometimes the path we start on is entirely different from where we end up.
Navassa Town Planner Barnes Sutton chose marine biology as his major when he entered University of North Carolina Wilmington, but he quickly switched gears.
“After my first semester, I was kind of lost,” he says. “I realized marine biology was more than just working with the animals and swimming with the dolphins.”
Sutton sought assistance from his college counselor, who recommended he take a class in entrepreneurship. “She thought I was a good fit for the business school,” he says. He followed her advice and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concentration in economics, another bachelor’s degree in political science with a concentration in public policy and a master’s degree in public administration.
With his MPA in hand, Sutton took a job in Pender County as a permit technician. He moved up to current planner, one of five full-time planners in Pender County, with responsibilities for commercial and special-use permits. In 2017 he accepted the position of town planner for Navassa and believes he found his calling.
Navassa, a town of about 1,900 primarily Black residents, is one of the fastest-growing small towns in North Carolina. Its population grew almost 56 percent from 2010 to 2019.
Sutton attributes its growth in population and industry to several factors. Navassa has acres of land for potential development, and it already has infrastructure in place. Its location near the Cape Fear River and I-140 provides access to not only Wilmington International Airport, but also a multitude of entertainment venues, medical facilities and educational institutions in both Wilmington and Myrtle Beach.
“Navassa can be a beacon for environmental protection, cultural promotion and economic sustainability,” he says. “My main goal is to push every one of those doors open and to see what’s there.”
Kevin Lackey, business development manager at Brunswick Business and Industry Development in Leland, says he knows Sutton from UNCW and often contacts him about companies interested in locating in Brunswick County.
“Barnes is the point man for Navassa,” he says. “He’s genuine in what he does. That’s number one. He gives it his all. He’s very sharp, and he’s not afraid to ask for help or guidance.”
Lackey directed the call from Pacon Manufacturing to Sutton when the company inquired about locating a plant in Navassa. “We supported what they were trying to do and what their business is about,” Sutton says. “We said we would work with them.”
The New Jersey company opened in April 2020 and created 40 jobs. It is still in the process of refitting a former fertilizer company and former boat factory to its specifications and will eventually employ about 300 people. This will bring more than $37 million in economic development to Brunswick County. Pacon makes wipes, towels, pads and liquids for medical, industrial and consumer use.
Sutton goes in many directions as town planner. He issues permits, oversees programming and municipal events at the parks and handles code enforcement, utilities and many other aspects of the town.
He says everyone works together in Navassa: “If something has to be done, we all pitch in and get it done.”
Mayor Eulis Willis answers with three words when asked what impressed him about Sutton and what convinced him Sutton belongs in Navassa. “Young, gifted, Black,” he says.
Surprisingly, Sutton is only 27 years old. Standing at 6 feet-two inches, he has an engaging smile and friendly manner. He was born at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, to Donald and Edie Sutton, both Army recruits. “This is the longest I’ve lived anywhere,” he says of Wilmington, where he moved in 2011.
He inherited his name from his grandfather, Edgar Barnes Smith, while his older brother, who recently retired from the Army after six years including time in Kuwait, is named Donald. Sutton says he considered the Army while interviewing for jobs in local government, but being accepted in the MBA program eliminated that choice.
“I was having zero success in getting even an interview,” he says. “I would have liked the Army because of the lifestyle I grew up in. Both my brother and I were conditioned to the military life. I probably would have acclimated to it, but I’m happy with the way it turned out.”
Besides Missouri, the family lived in Germany, Texas and finally in Fayetteville. When his father retired in 2007, the family moved to La Grange, North Carolina, where his father’s family lived. His parents bought a restaurant they named Sutton’s Grill and Restaurant and kept it until 2014.
“My only hobby is cooking,” Sutton says. “I like to experiment and mess around with she-crab soup and other soups.”
Sutton also enjoys basketball, having played on the team at North Lenore High School in La Grange. At the UNCW recreation center he played intramural basketball and football and refereed games and taught refereeing. His interest extends to humanitarian efforts as well. He is on the board of directors for Habitat for Humanity in Supply. “Habitat always gives,” he says. “I’ve always tried to emulate that.”
Sutton co-parents his son Camden, 3, with the boy’s mother, and he and his girlfriend, Olivia West, value the time they spend with the toddler.
Sutton wants to stay in local government at least until he reaches the goals he has set to bring more services he thinks Navassa needs and wants. Then he wants to move into a management position where he can create a team and a network to accomplish more in Navassa.
“Local government is where I find the most enjoyment,” he says. “I think Navassa has a lot going for it, and I think there are going to be a lot of good things to come in the near future, and I’m excited that people are watching.”
Visit The Town of Navassa’s website: http://townofnavassa.org/