By Ivey Schofield
A historic building that once housed a segregated school on the southeastern end of Bladen County has served over the years as a site for family reunions and other celebrations, a food bank and a shelter during severe storms.
But floodwaters have ravaged the building in the unincorporated community of Kelly, where the White Oak Dike failed during Hurricane Florence in 2018 and the Cape Fear River inundated homes.
William and Charles Corbett, who are brothers, now want to revitalize the building, which houses the Lower Bladen County Citizens Group but has sat vacant for years due to the hurricanes and coronavirus pandemic. They are asking county commissioners for almost $134,000 to help with the project.
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Ultimately, the Corbetts hope the nonprofit can soon offer programs for career development, youth mentorship, senior-friendly exercise and food assistance for families in need in Kelly, home to about 380 residents.
“It means so much to our community,” William Corbett told the Border Belt Independent. “Please help us.”
Bladen County has allocated money from its $6.3 million share of the American Rescue Plan Act to pay for broadband expansion and to help community groups like Habitat for Humanity, Bladen We Care, Bladen’s Bloomin’ and Bladen Youth Focus.
But the county likely doesn’t have enough funding left for the Lower Bladen County Citizens Group, said County Commissioner Charles Peterson. Most of the county commissioners, who each had $50,000 in ARPA funding to put toward small projects in their districts, spent all of the available money.
That doesn’t sit well with some Kelly residents, who say local leaders have neglected their community. Hurricanes, including Matthew in 2016, have forced out more than half of Kelly’s residents. Those who remain struggle with poverty, with an average per-capita income of $12,773 per year.
“Because we’re so far down on the end, we’re not recognized as much as I think we should be recognized, even though we pay taxes,” William Corbett said. “We don’t have the funds to really operate like we’d like to.”
The White Oak Dike, originally built in 1911 by the military, had been compromised for years, according to inspection reports by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Issues such as man-made breaches, overgrown trees and erosion had gone unaddressed, according to the Corps, which estimates repairs will cost $30 million.
More than 60 people were rescued from Kelly during Hurricane Florence. When the waters finally receded, residents pleaded with county leaders to do something about the 14-mile dike.
In 2019, the Kelly Water Dike and Drainage District spent $35,000 on repairs, and county commissioners earmarked $35,000 for more repairs. In addition, the General Assembly allocated $300,000 for an engineer and design study, which began in May 2020.
Peterson said he has been coordinating with the U.S. military, which he hopes will use the dike for training exercises.
“Nothing’s guaranteed,” he said, “but we hope it is.”
Ophelia Munn-Goins, who represents the district that includes Kelly on the Bladen County Board of Commissioners, made a motion last May to appropriate $200,000 in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act for dike repairs, according to board meeting minutes. She then rescinded the motion.
Instead, Munn-Goins proposed spending $190,000 to help renovate a gymnasium in East Arcadia, a town next to Kelly with 375 residents. The county had already allocated $130,000 for revitalization efforts in the town.
Overall, East Arcadia has received $320,000 from the county’s funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal spending plan put in place during the coronavirus pandemic. Kelly has received none.
Munn-Goins did not respond to several requests for an interview.
Charles Russ, who owns the Kelly General Store about a mile away from the Lower Bladen County Community Citizens Group building and serves on the White Oak Dike committee, said he wants to prioritize preventing future floods from wreaking havoc.
“If (the water) raises 25 inches, we’re in trouble,” Russ said. “There’s just nowhere for the water to go.”
Charles Corbett said he and his brother have done what they can to help Kelly, despite struggling themselves. William Corbett had to evacuate his flooded home for almost a year after Hurricane Florence.
“We just look at the things in the community that we can do,” Charles Corbett said. “It’s about keeping (the nonprofit) going and giving back to some that don’t have anything.”
Now, the Corbett brothers want to expand services provided by the Lower Bladen County Citizens Group, including cultural events, a summer meal program, arts and crafts, a playground and a walking trail.
“When you have a smaller community, you have to do everything you can to pull them back together,” Charles Corbett said.
Russ said new community programs, specifically for older residents, would benefit Kelly.
“People are dying out, but a lot of old people are still here,” he said. “Anything to help the seniors would be great.”
But first the Corbett brothers need to fix the building. They say it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace the rotted paneling, damp insulation and flooded floors to make the building safe enough to inhabit.
In their application to the county, they asked for $9,000 for repairs, with the remaining money set for programming.
Charles Corbett said the money would at least be a start.
“(The $9,000) is not going to go very far,” he said,” but you can use it to keep a building going and keep a community going.”
At the county’s request, they are providing more details about the project.
“If we don’t get anything, it’s like shooting for the moon,” Charles Corbett said. “If you land in the stars, at least you tried.”