Bladen County town hopes to revitalize a Black neighborhood with new community center

By Ivey Schofield

Elizabethtown’s modern and vibrant downtown is the product of millions of dollars of public and private investment. Trees line Broad Street, surrounded by brick sidewalks and inviting storefronts. 

But a few miles down the road in the New Town neighborhood, where many of Elizabethtown’s Black residents live, dilapidated and abandoned buildings are the norm. 

Black residents, who make up 40% of the population in this Bladen County town of 3,500 people, say they feel hurt and forgotten. 

“We have done improvement throughout the town, but nothing has been done for the development of that New Town section,” said Rufus Lloyd, mayor pro-tem. 

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On Monday, the Elizabethtown Town Council voted to accept $2.5 million in state funding that will be used to build  a community center off of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in the New Town neighborhood. The goal is to create spaces to play, meet, learn and cook.

Lloyd, who has served on the Elizabethtown Town Council since 1991, ran for re-election last year on his commitment to improving the New Town area. He has been fighting for equality for decades and was one of the first Black teachers in the 1960s to help integrate the county school system.

“We’re in the midst of doing some things I would like to see done,” Lloyd told the Bladen Journal in October 2021.

Minnie Price, who grew up in New Town and now serves as director of the Bladen County Youth Focus Project, remembers when the neighborhood was thriving. There were grocery stores, movie theaters, snack shops, dry cleaners and funeral homes, she said.

“I know it’s not going to go back to the way it was,” Price said. “I know times have changed, but it’s important to have some businesses out there for the African American community to say there’s something being done and they don’t feel left out.”

Elizabethtown has been working to revitalize its town center since it joined the North Carolina Main Street Program in 2015. It added a skate park, got rid of overgrowth, developed a downtown brand, incorporated art landscaping and incentivized local businesses. 

Elizabethtown has seen millions of dollars in public and private investments in recent years to revitalize its downtown.
Photo by Ivey Schofield

Mayor Sylvia Campbell said the town has made concerted efforts to invest in the New Town area, tearing down some dilapidated structures, buying abandoned properties and pursuing grants to rebuild. 

Funding has hindered redevelopment efforts, Campbell said. 

The town, with an average per capita income of about $19,300, has struggled to generate enough revenue to cover its expenses, which total $7 million this year.

“In small towns, we don’t have that type of money,” she said. “We had to wait.”

Two years ago, Elizabethtown received a $950,000 Community Development Block Grant from the N.C. Department of Commerce to replace sidewalks, add lighting and rebuild three homes in the New Town area. Last month, the town got nearly $2.6 million through the grant program. 

With the state money and local taxpayers’ funds, the New Town area is poised for a redo. 

“Life as you knew it there has sort of died,” Campbell said. “We need to go in there and revitalize it and give those folks something they can do in that area.”

The Elizabethtown Town Council on Monday accepted a $2.5 million grant to build a community center on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

The community center, which will be an 11,000-square-foot building at Martin Luther King Park, will feature a  playground, indoor event space, multipurpose playing surface, locker rooms, office space, a kitchen and a place to display memorabilia explaining the area’s history. 

In partnership with Bladen County Schools and Bladen Community College, the center will also provide services such as tutoring, adult high school classes, small business development and technology help. 

“It’s centered around trying to help the youth in the area,” Rusty Worley, the town planning and zoning director, said. “We have a place for them to go after school where they can get help and use it for a sports function.”

Price said she was excited about the project. 

“I know it’s going to be good for the community,” she said. “People are going to feel much better about what’s going on in the New Town area because before they were really disappointed.”

In the next month, Worley said, the town council will appoint a committee  that will oversee the design process and ultimately run the center.

Worley said he expects demolition of the current Martin Luther King Park to begin in February 2023 and hopes construction will be complete at the beginning of 2024.

Campbell said she was optimistic about New Town’s future with a state-of-the-art community center.

“It’s going to be really a good shot in the arm for this community,” she said.

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Dilapidated and abandoned buildings line New Town, a Black neighborhood in Elizabethtown. Now the town plans to build a community center.
Photo by Ivey Schofield