By Sarah Nagem
The story of the Carolina Civic Center in downtown Lumberton has had several chapters over the past century, from silent film house to vacant building to born-again theater space.
Its latest chapter will begin next spring with the construction of a planned $3 million annex that can host business conferences, weddings, dinner theater and more. The project is at the forefront of the city’s efforts to revitalize its downtown district in Robeson County.
“Every time somebody goes to the civic center that’s not from Lumberton and they’ve never seen it, they’re like, ‘We had no idea that Lumberton had anything like this,’” said Sarah Beth Ward, downtown development coordinator for the city.
The Carolina Civic Center, which opened in 1928 and is on the National Register of Historic Places, draws between 12,000 and 13,000 visitors a year to concerts, theatrical productions and other events, said Executive Director Richard Sceiford. He hopes to triple that number in the next few years.
“That’s a big deal for downtown Lumberton,” he said. “We’re a destination.”
Ward and Sceiford said they hope investors and property owners will take note and help breathe new life into historic downtown Lumberton, which spans several city blocks. With promises of property tax breaks, the goal is to attract retail stores, coffee shops and restaurants.
Ward said downtown has two big assets: its proximity to Interstate 95 and the Lumber River.
Fast-food restaurants and gas stations along I-95 are already popular pit stops for travelers on I-95, a major East Coast thoroughfare that runs from the Canadian border to Miami. Downtown Lumberton is only about a mile off the highway.
The Lumber River, designated by Congress as one of five “wild and scenic” rivers in North Carolina, meanders along the west side of downtown and presents opportunities for recreation in a more urban setting. Ward envisions kayakers and canoers paddling south from the James L. Stephens Memorial Park to downtown, where they could get ice cream or drink a beer.
“We’re sitting on a gold mine,” said Ward, who leads the Main Street program for Lumberton, home to about 19,000 people in Robeson County. As part of the statewide Main Street program, the city gets support from the N.C. Department of Commerce.
But like many towns across North Carolina hoping to capitalize on renewed interest in downtown living and shopping, Lumberton faces challenges. Many businesses left downtown decades ago for Biggs Park Mall, about a mile away. Many buildings are now in disrepair, and about 40% of downtown spaces are vacant, Ward said.
A few new businesses have opened downtown recently, according to Ward, including the popular bakery Sugar Savage, which sells custom cakes and other treats.
Owner Ernest B. Strickland has appeared on three nationally televised baking competitions on Food Network, including the “Holiday Gingerbread Show.”
Strickland, 27 and a native of Robeson County, said his father used to take him and his sister to a bakery in downtown Lumberton when they were kids. It was important to him to open his own business in the area.
“It means the world,” he said. “Downtown is changing for the better. … Being a part of that is a humbling experience.”
Artwork and a “pocket park” are among the changes.
The city paid a local artist to paint one mural, and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke created a public art class to paint another, Ward said.
A third mural, which says “Lumberton,” appears at the site of a building that burned years ago. Ward said the owner donated the property to the city.
That mural, along with a small “pocket park” set to open in December with a tent, concrete and grass, will be next to the civic center annex on North Chestnut Street.
With the civic center as a cultural hub, Ward said the city wants to focus on art downtown. The Lumbee Native American tribe, which has its headquarters in Robeson County, takes great pride in its artisans and craftsmen.
“We have so much culture and diversity,” Ward said. “We want to be all inclusive in downtown Lumberton.”
Sceiford said inclusivity has been key to the Carolina Civic Center’s recent success in Robeson County, where more than 40% of residents are Native American, 29% are white and 24% are Black.
Some Black and Native American residents have been hesitant to attend events at the theater because the wounds of segregation are still raw, Sceiford said. For decades, they were forced to sit in the balcony.
“It was a challenge anyway,” Sceiford said of his work since 2006 to reinvigorate the civic center’s theater programming. “But it was tough when two-thirds of your community wouldn’t attend because of the way they were treated.”
Sceiford said he began encouraging girls who compete in the Lumbee tribe’s pageants to join the theater. “They have no fear,” he said. “And they started joining the casts.”
So did Black residents, according to Sceiford, including for the popular production of “A Robeson County Christmas Show.” On a recent afternoon, Sceiford said the theater’s staff was slammed with phone calls from people hoping to get tickets for the 11th annual show, which runs from Dec. 8 to Dec. 17.
“Suddenly, we were able to re-engage them through this show,” he said. “And everything changed.”
Lumberton leaders hope the entire downtown district can make a similar comeback.
The Carolina Civic Center closed in 1975 as businesses fled downtown. When plans emerged to tear down the building and replace it with a parking lot, local residents rallied to save it. The venue reopened in 1985.
As part of renovations in 2008, workers repaired the climate-control system, refurbished dressing rooms and office spaces and restored the historic organ that has been there for decades. The 9,000-square-foot annex will take up to two years to build, Sceiford said.
Now, revitalizing other areas of downtown will take money – public and private.
The annex is funded in part by a $900,000 Rural Transformation Grant from the N.C. Department of Commerce and $500,00 from the Lumberton Tourism Development Authority. The state legislature allocated $150,000 for the project.
A new nonprofit, Friends of Downtown Lumberton, will work to raise funds for more downtown efforts. Ward said the group is trying to recruit volunteers.
Five years from now, Ward envisions a very different downtown Lumberton.
“I see a social district, art everywhere, people walking the streets,” she said. “And that true downtown vibe.”
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