By Ivey Schofield
In 2016, Chuck Heustess saw Hurricane Matthew rage through downtown Bladenboro, washing away much of the town’s economy. Two years later, after some businesses had returned, he witnessed it again with Hurricane Florence.
That’s when Heustess, the economic development director for Bladen County, got to work on a new vision for downtown Bladenboro: one with elevated buildings run by a public-private partnership. Earlier this month, his vision broke ground with construction on a new town square that will house two large buildings with space for eight businesses.
“We all really feel like this will just bring a lot of activity down to the downtown area,” Heustess said.
Across North Carolina, small towns like Bladenboro are investing in their downtown districts, hoping to jumpstart their local economies in the wake of floods and population losses.
But they face hurdles that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, including financial limitations and construction delays, making it harder to turn big dreams into realities.
Home to about 2,000 residents, Bladenboro has actually grown in the last decade. At the southwestern end of Bladen County, it features the intersection of N.C. 211 and N.C. 242 – thoroughfares that lead to Fayetteville and Wilmington. Businesses, including a hardware store, a church with a gym, a pizza restaurant and a batting cage, try to serve locals and passersby.
“Downtowns are the heart and soul of a community – offering the community’s most unique assets and historic architecture that create a sense of place for the community’s residents and visitors,” said Liz Parham, director of the Main Street and Rural Planning Center at the N.C. Department of Commerce.
In 1980, North Carolina established a Main Street program to help communities with developing economic strategies to increase jobs, businesses and investments. This multi-pronged framework shows towns an evidence-based way to identify, assess and prioritize problems and opportunities related to economic vitality.
Since then, Parham says, downtown revitalization efforts in the state have grown, leading to more than $4 billion in private and public investments.
In the Border Belt region of Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties, five downtowns have at one time been designated Main Street Communities – Chadbourn, Elizabethtown, Laurinburg, Lumberton and Whiteville.
This year, the state said Laurinburg, a town of about 15,000 residents in Scotland County, had one of the “best public-private partnerships in downtown revitalization.”
Some towns without the state’s Main Street designation have also taken steps to invest in their downtown districts.
In 2016, Pembroke in Robeson County allocated about $1 million to implement its master downtown revitalization plan. As part of the plan, the new A.S. Thomas Center opened as a mixed-use building with shops on the ground floor and apartments above.
In Bladen County last year, Bladenboro used a total of $1.8 million in grant funding and tax dollars for the new town square.
This year, Fair Bluff in Columbus County received a $1.2 million match from the state legislature for a $4.8 million federal grant, totaling $6 million to create an “uptown.”
‘There’s still hope’
Like Bladenboro, Fair Bluff was also devastated by hurricanes Matthew and Florence. Now, instead of seeing historic storefronts, passersby notice dilapidated and abandoned buildings.
Town Manager Al Leonard said the funds from the state and the federal government will change that.
The town plans to use the money to buy the property, demolish the buildings and build a new business district with eight storefronts. It hopes to once again be an attractive stop for travelers heading to the beach.
“There’s going to be a wow factor there,” Leonard said. “That will send a signal that Fair Bluff is doing something, that there’s still hope here.”
For years, Fair Bluff has been working on the “uptown” project, lobbying state legislators for funding and property owners for selling their land at 40% of its value. Now that the funding is on hand, the town can move forward with an anticipated deadline of next year.
But Fair Bluff has another long-term revitalization project in mind: turning its routinely flooded downtown into a greenspace.
Last year, after several attempts, the town received $500,000 from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund to convert 40 flood-damaged business spaces into a 22-acre park. It is now also applying for grants to demolish the buildings and, upon receiving more funds, will apply to PARTF again to fund the greenspace construction.
“You’ve got to line the dominos up. But when one domino doesn’t fall, everything stops,” Leonard said. “It’s a slow, cumbersome process.”
Funding sources limit many small towns’ dreams of revitalization.
Also in Columbus County, Whiteville has made efforts to convert the southern end of its downtown into greenspace, purchasing 131 properties and demolishing 68 structures near Soules Swamp.
Last year, Whiteville applied for a $5.4 million grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For the second time, it did not get the grant, Planning Director Robert Lewis told the Border Belt Independent in July.
Fair Bluff has one-twelfth the operating budget of Whiteville, making it even harder for the town with a population of 585 to match multi-million-dollar grants for larger projects like its uptown and downtown greenspace.
“We don’t have any money of our own,” Leonard said. “Fair Bluff’s money will only go as far as someone else’s money will take us, and Fair Bluff will be out there with a tin cup begging like the best of them.”
Also with a smaller operating budget, Bladenboro sought out private and public entities for funding: the county, the town and the local industrial development organization called Bladen’s Bloomin’.
Despite securing this funding by April 2021, the town square project has stalled for more than a year. Heustess blames supply-chain issues caused by the pandemic, exponentially higher costs and inaccurate property records.
“It’s just crazy all the challenges we’ve faced,” he said.
But Bladenboro has persevered, and several locals are ready to move to the new town square. There are plans for a restaurant, bakery, barber shop, beauty shop and health care facility.
Now that construction has started, Heustess said he hopes the town square will be complete in a year – but he’s not making any promises.
“We’re pushing it as hard as we can to try to get it finished, but the idea of getting it on time isn’t even a goal anymore,” he said.
Follow Ivey Schofield on Twitter: @SchofieldIvey