Is recreation the key to growth in southeastern North Carolina?

By Ivey Schofield

Children gathered around a butterfly garden, trying to determine if bees had their “pollen pants” on.  

The lesson, part of the summer enrichment program for young kids in Columbus County, taught the importance of pollination. It also represented a renewed focus on recreation in Columbus County and across southeastern North Carolina.

Counties in North Carolina’s Border Belt, where the population has shrunk dramatically over the past decade, are looking to recreational opportunities in hopes of luring tourists who will spend money at local restaurants and shops – and maybe even decide to move there. They also want to convince current residents to stay. 

There are plenty of opportunities for recreation in Columbus County, which is “rich in wetlands and natural resources,” said Brian Starkey, director of parks and recreation at WithersRavenel, a civil engineering firm based in Raleigh.  

Last year, Columbus County hired WithersRavenel to create a master plan for recreation, the first in the county’s history.

Starkey calculated travel time between parks, researched available parkland to purchase and asked the public for input. He sought to answer one question: What does the county need for the next decade?

“We are stewards of the natural world,” Starkey said. “There has to be a balance between human occupation and preserving natural resources.”

Counties with such master plans can apply for outside funding to help implement ideas. But some counties in the region don’t have up-to-date plans. 

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Robeson County has one that’s decades-old and is currently working with WithersRavenel for a new plan. Scotland County is in the fourth year of its five-year plan. Bladen County has a broader strategic plan that includes recreation

In Columbus County, parks and recreation director Julie Strickland has been dedicated for decades to providing local kids with recreational opportunities, including the new summer program. Now she has the support of the county administration to make major improvements such as bike trails and therapeutic fitness courts. 

Enticing visitors

Most residents leave Columbus County for recreation, according to a survey completed in February. They travel an hour to Fayetteville, Myrtle Beach or Wilmington, where the options are plentiful. 

Those residents also take their money with them. They pay for hotel rooms,  eat meals at restaurants, shop at retail stores and fill up their cars with gas. 

“There is definitely an economic force behind parks and recreation in general,” Starkey said.

He said parks and recreation departments in the region are “not flush” with cash, which makes it harder to complete required upgrades to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, install safety features like street lighting and conduct general maintenance. 

Bladen County has just three full-time employees in its parks and recreation department – the most it’s ever had, according to Director Grant Pait. 

While the county doesn’t have the manpower to implement indoor programs, it does have natural lakes and several walking trails. 

Dave Connelly of Durham used to spend one weekend a month in Bladen County at White Lake, kayaking, boating and biking with his family. His in-laws had given him and his wife a trailer there to enjoy the area. 

“If it hadn’t been for my in-laws buying the trailer, I don’t know if we would have really thought of that as a regular visit,” he said. 

But it became a regular visit for a while. Connelly liked exploring the railroad remnants near Elizabethtown. His wife liked shopping in town. 

Now retired and an avid biker, Connelly said he wishes Bladen County would connect the Browns Creek Bike Trail with major trail systems like the East Coast Greenway and the Mountains to Sea Trail. Local residents would have access to more healthy opportunities, and distance hikers could contribute to the local economy. 

Dave Connelly of Durham used to spend time in Bladen County, biking and kayaking at White Lake with his son and nephew. Contributed photo by Bradley Alexander

Columbus County is also trying to bring in tourism through biking. 

In October, the annual Mountains to Coast Ride will pedal its way through Whiteville, bringing hundreds of bike riders to Columbus County. The event will boost the local economy and potentially entice the riders to visit again or stay for good, Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Holcomb told The News Reporter in February

Listening to locals

North Carolina’s Border Belt region has seen a substantial change in its population. Columbus County is home to fewer than 51,000 residents, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. That’s a 13% drop from 2010.  

But some people are hopeful the area will regain its population and then some.

“There’s going to be a growth spurt here. We’ve got to be able to be ready to accommodate that,” Strickland said last month during a meeting about possibly establishing a local YMCA chapter in Columbus County.

The first fitness court in North Carolina is just outside of Whiteville in Columbus County.
Photo by Ivey Schofield

It’s also important to keep existing residents happy. 

“In Columbus (County), which is rich in wetlands and natural resources, we heard from the community, ‘We want an opportunity to get connected to nature. We need more trails,’” Starkey said. 

The county currently provides 3 acres of park land per 1,000 residents, according to the recreational master plan. It needs almost 5 more acres per 1,000 residents to meet national guidelines. 

Like Columbus, Robeson County is also geographically large, which makes it difficult to provide all children with equal opportunities for recreation. Most families are 5 to 10 miles away from a park – or 30 miles from the main parks and recreation office. 

Related: Free and cheap stuff to do this summer in North Carolina’s Border Belt

“We’re trying to expand and get with today’s thing, but we’re so spread out and rural,” said Ricky McKinnon, assistant director of the Robeson County Parks and Recreation Department. 

McKinnon’s main focus is providing low-cost fun for children. The department asks for a $10 registration fee.

In southeastern North Carolina, about two in every five children live in poverty, according to County Health Rankings

McKinnon said low-cost entertainment is especially important as sports travel teams become more popular. 

“You’ve got a lot of parents who can’t afford that. They just let them play rec ball,” he said. “It’s a semi-babysitter, but it’s recreation.”

To bring in more cash flow to its parks and recreation department, Bladen County is looking at hosting travel ball tournaments, Pait said. The county has upgraded some of its facilities in preparation for the fall season. 

Scotland County has also been improving its facilities one park at a time in accordance with its five-year plan. It has $40,000 per year to spend on community centers, playgrounds, walking paths and benches, according to the Laurinburg Exchange

For bigger projects, however, counties need outside funding. A master plan makes it easier to win federal and state grants.

“If you walked into a bank and wanted to start a business, the first thing they would say is, ‘Show us your business plan,’” Starkey said. “It’s no different with recreation.” 

With a master plan in hand, Starkey can help the county find and apply for funding. Starkey also encourages counties to partner with local community colleges and YMCA chapters. There is no YMCA in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties, but there is talk about a chapter forming in Columbus. 

Columbus County Parks and Recreation Director Julie Strickland helps kids take a closer look at a pollinator
at a local butterfly garden.
Photo by Ivey Schofield

Chris English, president of Southeastern Community College, has been vocal about using the school’s unused land for an athletic complex that could have an indoor pool, basketball court, weight room and more. 

Strickland said she hopes her offices can be housed there. She currently works out of a trailer. 

An athletic complex could require a bond referendum in which Columbus County voters would decide whether the county should fund the project. It could require a tax increase, which has never been popular in Columbus County. 

Some government officials, however, say a large recreation center could be worth the investment.

Columbus County Manager Eddie Madden said he had personal experience with the benefits of local partners working together to improve recreation. As a county commissioner in Western North Carolina, he supported funding a recreation center. After the facility was built, he said, families utilized the space and even moved nearby. 

“It was the one project that caused that community to progress and grow,” Madden said during the YMCA meeting last month. 

Until then, Columbus County’s recreation department will try to offer more enrichment clinics, like the pollinator class this week. 

Follow Ivey Schofield on Twitter: @SchofieldIvey