By Ivey Schofield
Chadbourn Mayor Phillip Britt has been keeping a secret: The small Columbus County town, he says, is on the cusp of a downtown resurgence.
The town council has bought five dilapidated buildings in hopes of tearing them down to make way for new retail and office space or a park, according to Britt.
“We don’t have one vision,” he said. “We’ve got several.”
Chadbourn has spent $37,000 of a $60,000 allocation from Columbus County for the project, and it also received a $10,000 Southeastern Economic Development Grant, said Patricia Garrell, the town’s interim town manager, finance officer and clerk.
This week, the town applied for a $65,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create a downtown master plan. Such a plan is key to securing future grants to build wider sidewalks, new parking lots, a green space and apartments.
Town officials say they hope to entice drivers of the 27,000 vehicles that traverse N.C. 410, which is Brown Street in Chadbourn, each day. During the summer, it’s a popular route for beachgoers.
“We’re sitting on a goldmine here,” Garrell said.
But in Chadbourn, where Black residents make up about 63% of the population of 1,600, some say they’re just now learning about the project and its use of taxpayer dollars – further inflaming the distrust that often divides the community.
“I think Chadbourn is a great place to live, and I think Chadbourn is a great place to raise a family,” said Myles Cartrette, a pastor at R3 Ministries, a nonprofit that supports ministers who struggle with addiction and infidelity. “But we have horrible leadership.”
In 2021, a grand jury indicted former Chadbourn Police Chief William Anthony Spivey on dozens of charges, including drug trafficking, after investigators said he stole drugs, guns and money from the department’s evidence locker.
Spivey was arrested in February 2022 after police say he tried to fake his own death. Following a days-long search, authorities found him at his aunt’s home in Horry County, South Carolina.
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Britt told WECT in August that some people complained when the council voted to spend more than $85,000 for two years for 16 license plate reader cameras. The cameras, often used by law enforcement agencies in an effort to better control crime, came after three people were killed at a party in Chadbourn in July 2021.
Town officials have been working beyond the scenes for years to begin a downtown revitalization process, Britt said. But they kept their efforts quiet.
The town council, Britt said, didn’t want to make promises it couldn’t keep.
“It’s been a tough road. We’ve wanted to say something so many times,” he said. “But we haven’t been able to tell because we didn’t know for sure what we were going to be able to do.”
Jerome Chestnut, who grew up in Chadbourn and once served as town manager, said he hopes a revitalized downtown district will uplift the town.
“Our relationships with others have been divided on political and personal lines,” he said. “That’s something we have to change, and I want to be a part of the solution.”
Chestnut, who now lives in Pender County and serves as the town manager of Fairmont in Robeson County, is the adviser of the Downtown Chadbourn Revitalization Group. The nonprofit was established in 2019 to work with the town government.
That year, Chadbourn was one of 24 communities selected by the N.C. Department of Commerce to join Downtown Strong, a program that helps with downtown economic development strategies.
The Downtown Chadbourn Revitalization Group became like a chamber of commerce, hosting ribbon-cutting ceremonies and promoting local businesses, Chestnut said. The group got $1,300 from the town to place planters along Brown Street.
The coronavirus pandemic slowed the group’s process, but the town continued to see new businesses. Along with R3 Ministries, a recording studio, event center and barber shop opened downtown.
Last year, about 8,000 people attended the Strawberry Festival, the town’s biggest annual event.
“We have a lot of community in our town,” said Thelma Wurm, the group’s treasurer, “and I think we’ve made a lot of progress.”
Chestnut said he hopes the 33 members of the nonprofit can contribute their time and skills to support the town council’s efforts. There is particularly a need for help with writing grant applications and building an independent funding source within the town’s $3.3 million annual budget.
In 2021, Chadbourn received a $750,000 Community Development Block Grant to repair five dilapidated homes and a $750,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to clean ditches for stormwater runoff.
It also received a $2 million state grant for a $14 million water and sewer project, in which the town plans to replace all of its lines that are 100 years old.
But applying for grants and allocating the money for projects is a slow process, Garrell said, especially as the town continues to deal with turnover among its staff and council.
Chadbourn has had six police chiefs and town managers in as many years. Garrell is serving as interim town manager for the fifth time.
Last fall, council member Donald Ray Bass, who was white, died. The council opted to appoint Antonio Ashley, who is Black, over Cartrette, who is white.
The council currently has four Black members and two white members, including Britt and his wife.
Erasing a divide
Britt, who has served as mayor for seven years and is up for re-election this year, said the council is committed to providing equal opportunity for all Chadbourn residents.
On the southern end of the railroad tracks that cut through Brown Street, some Black residents say their neighborhood hasn’t gotten the same financial support as the northern side of the tracks, home to more white residents.
Britt called it a “misconception.” The town’s ideas for the downtown master plan, he said, go beyond the railroad divide to Institute Street.
The Downtown Revitalization Group is committed to erasing that divide as well, said Wurm, who is Black.
“This type of thinking will hold us back,” she said. “We’re going to be working with people on that side to let them know we’re one town.”
That’s why the nonprofit is considering changing its name to We Are Chadbourn.
“We know (downtown revitalization) will help everyone in town and everyone coming into town,” Wurm said. “We’re going to continue on pursuing this goal for Chadbourn as long as God gives us our health.”
Chadbourn expects to hear from the USDA in April about funding for the master plan. In the meantime, Britt said he’s dedicated to using local tax money to bring downtown back to life.
“It’s actually going to happen,” he said.