By Ivey Schofield
After watching her after-school program drown in two hurricanes, Carol Williams wasn’t ready to give up. Thanks to the work of hundreds of volunteers, she reopened her doors in September – the first business in years to come back to Fair Bluff.
“We were blessed,” Williams said, “and it was very well received.”
The Columbus County town of Fair Bluff, nestled along the Lumber River, has lost 25% of its population in the last decade, mostly due to repeated flooding. More than six years after Hurricane Matthew and four years after Hurricane Florence, many structures remain damp and uninhabitable.
But that’s starting to change, one business at a time.
In 2021, Fair Bluff received $500,000 from the N.C Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. Then the town got a $1.2 million match last year from the state legislature for a $4.8 million federal grant.
The town plans to use the money to buy and demolish 40 downtown buildings and turn the 22-acre plot into a park. It will also create a new “uptown” business district on higher ground.
Three businesses have already said they will open in the district, which is expected to be complete in November with eight storefronts, said Al Leonard, part-time town manager.
Want to keep up with all the news from the Border Belt Independent? Sign up here for our weekly newsletter.
Leonard said Fair Bluff has also applied for grants to convert an old school house into a $7 million apartment complex for senior residents and to build a $3.5 million space for prospective companies that would bring jobs. The town, home to about 700 residents, hopes to market itself in five years as a riverfront community close to the beach.
“But Fair Bluff’s recovery will go only as far as somebody’s money,” Leonard said. “If the spigot cuts off tomorrow, then the recovery will stop tomorrow.”
‘From nothing to something’
When Building Bridges After School, located two blocks from downtown, was forced to close, some people lost hope of bringing Fair Bluff back to life.
But Williams had refused to abandon the dilapidated building, which the Fair Bluff Progressive Women’s Organization, of which she is a member, bought in 1980 and opened as an after-school program in 2005.
“We just wanted to do something to help Fair Bluff,” said Williams, a retired teacher who worked at the old Fair Bluff Elementary School that closed in 2009.
In 2020, four years after Building Bridges closed, Williams and Darlene “Pokey” Bullock, also a member of the Progressive Women’s Organization, started working with Wallyce Todd, director of nonprofit Community CPR, a disaster relief organization that helps coordinate resources for residents.
“Pokey said, ‘We’ve got to have something for the children,’” Todd said, “and we agree.”
Todd helped coordinate the arrival of almost 400 volunteers from different ministries across the state who donated their time and money to fix up the building.
One room, which was added to accommodate high school students, has a hole in the roof. Williams said she needs to cover it with a tarp before the next big rain.
“It might not look like that much to some people, but we think it looks pretty good,” Williams said.
Currently, three to four students attend the after-school program, which has two teachers. Before the hurricanes, the program had as many as 50 participants and four teachers.
Williams said she hopes more parents will sign their children up for the program, which offers support in reading, math, science, computer skills and behavioral issues for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Many children, Williams said, need extra help due to the coronavirus pandemic, when students, especially those in high-poverty areas, lost on average half a school year of learning in math and a quarter of a school year in reading.
“We know there are more needs here,” she said, “but we have to have the parents backing us.”
The Building Bridges After School program program is free, Williams said. The Fair Bluff Progressive Women’s Club often donates to the program, and parents provide snacks.
The teacher salaries are covered by a Juvenile Crime Prevention Council grant from the Columbus County DREAM Center, a Whiteville-based organization that aims to empower children and their families, particularly those of color, through enrichment programs.
The DREAM Center had financially supported Building Bridges After School before the floods and was glad to be able to do so once again, Director Amber Bellamy said.
“It’s important to let those children know that there’s somebody there for them in their community,” she said. “You don’t want to leave Fair Bluff out.”
Williams said she takes the children in the program downtown to teach them about the importance of their resilient community.
“We’re going from nothing to something,” she said, “and we’re excited about what kind of new town we will have.”
Leonard said the town owes its progress to the residents who have continued to believe in Fair Bluff.
“They voted with their feet,” he said, “and their feet stayed in Fair Bluff.”