By Ivey Schofield
Keith Gordon was a toddler when he started spending a week most summers at White Lake, where he swam, water skied, tubed, watched the sunset and hung out with his grandparents.
Now 46, Gordon makes the two-hour drive from his home in Franklin County to White Lake every chance he gets – including during the off-season.
“You don’t have to twist my arm,” Gordon said. “I’ll go down there to buy a pack of gum.”
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White Lake is home to only 850 residents, but the Bladen County town draws more than 200,000 tourists between May and August each year. Many are drawn to the white-sand beaches and crystal-clear water, along with amusement parks and water sports.
But White Lake, encouraged by out-of-towners buying vacation homes and clamoring for coveted spots at campgrounds, is setting its sights on becoming more than a summertime adventure.
Jake Womble, the fourth-generation owner of Goldston’s Beach, which features a motel, pier, bar, arcade and restaurants, said his business was built on tourism.
“Now,” he said, “we are a resort area that is becoming more year-round.”
Some business owners like Womble who used to be open only during the summer months say they are trying to extend into the “shoulder season” of fall and spring.
Bladen County is already one of the fastest-growing counties in North Carolina for tourism. The industry brought $57 million to the county in 2021, said Terri Dennison, executive director of the Elizabethtown-White Lake Chamber of Commerce.
In March, Fodor’s Travel ranked White Lake among the top 15 lake beaches in the United States. The website said the town is “moving toward becoming a year-round spot to relax, with an increasing number of places to spend the night and extend the vacation.”
Local businesses partner with the town to host events throughout the colder months. Goldston’s Beach hosts Saturday with Santa during Christmas, a New Year’s Eve dinner and live concerts throughout the year. It also puts on a miniature golf tournament in April and a triathlon in early May.
“It helps promote the growth of our local businesses,” said Patricia Martin, general manager of the Sandy Ridge Campground and RV Resort. “Otherwise you would have a dead town for a little while.”
More than 200 people are on a waiting list to secure one of the 200 long-term sites available at Sandy Ridge, Martin said.
Camp Clearwater, which has 1,000 sites for campers and mobile homes, is often full too, said owner Hope Campbell. Each site can accommodate three people, which means her business could serve the entire population of nearby Elizabethtown at once.
“Having that amount of people come to our community to shop, go to the grocery store, buy flip-flops and dresses in downtown Elizabethtown – it’s a big deal,” Campbell said.
Campbell, who is on the tourism committee at the chamber of commerce, said she gives her customers maps of local businesses to help bolster Bladen County’s economy.
“We’re not competing against each other here for business,” Campbell said. “We look at it as our area is competing against other areas.”
Womble, who said he put binders with information about local attractions in each hotel room this year, said inflation and high gas prices might convince some vacationers to stay at White Lake instead of driving to the ocean.
“We’re an alternative,” he said. “We’re cheaper.”
The town kicked off its summer season over the weekend with the annual White Lake Water Festival, which included a golf tournament, a parade and live music.
White Lake Town Manager Sean Martin said the town is looking forward to what the summer may bring – and future shoulder seasons.
“We’re working on things every day, trying to make the community a better place to visit and live,” he said.
Gordon said he and his wife hope to one day own a vacation home in White Lake.
“Every time I go,” he said, “I’m looking at Realtor signs.”