Downtown Whiteville cleanup strikes up community pride

Downtown Whiteville got a little bit cleaner Saturday morning when volunteers from multiple civic and fitness organizations came together to roll up their sleeves and get a little dirty in the process of making the streets, curbs, storefronts and flowerbeds shine a little brighter before the busy fall season activities and events.

Todd Burney trims tall weeds and grass in front of the Columbus County Arts Council Saturday morning.

Todd Burney trims tall weeds and grass in front of the Columbus County Arts Council Saturday morning.

Sean Martin, economic development planner for the City of Whiteville, said the downtown cleanup event was a tremendous opportunity for people to come together as a community and build pride in trying to revitalize downtown. “We’ve got so many groups represented out here. We’ve got F3, FiA, Optimist Club, Juniorettes, Carolyn T. High Garden Club — I’m sure I’m leaving some out, but we’ve got such a good turnout.” We want to kick off the season — really the downtown season — and show how proud we are of this community. Anything we can do that’s impacting our sidewalks, the curbs, the streets — anything we can get our hands on to make it a little better, we’ve certainly done it today.

Jordan Carter clips shoots off a tree. Volunteers spent the morning sprucing up downtown Whiteville’s appearance.

Jordan Carter clips shoots off a tree. Volunteers spent the morning sprucing up downtown Whiteville’s appearance.

Martin explained that the cleanup event was all possible with the help of the City’s Public Works department with using the street sweeper, cleaning up the roads and picking up the trash bags that were left on the curb. He said it really takes a community effort to pull off something like this.

Joan McPherson, director of member relations with the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, said the downtown cleanup was a huge success. She explained that people demonstrated their pride for Whiteville, and that it was one of many steps in continuing improvement. “We were so excited to see all the participants,” McPherson said. “The cleanup was a result of much collaboration between all involved.” McPherson said she is looking forward to downtown Whiteville hosting the Kevin Connor Memorial Run on Saturday, Around the Corner Market on Oct. 26, N.C. Pecan Harvest Festival on Nov. 2 and Mistletoe Market the first weekend in December.

Jennifer Holcomb, president of the Chamber, said she was “super excited about the great turn-out.” She saw members of the Whiteville Rotary Club, Chamber and Junior Woman’s Club in addition to the volunteers Martin saw. “At the Chamber, we often hear people have ideas about what should be done,” Holcomb said. “That’s great, but without people to do them, we get nowhere. We’re excited and thankful for every person who showed up and gave selflessly to make sure this community is pretty and can prosper.”

Holcomb explained that many people want to see growth in downtown Whiteville, and those people are taking time out of their busy schedules to give back to the community to “make it look good, prettier and more conducive to shoppers.”

Mary Wheatley of FiA (Females in Action) said heard about downtown Whiteville cleanup from Melissa Williamson. “She got this thing together because she was tired of hearing all the negative comments about downtown Whiteville and wanted to do something about it,” Wheatley explained. “I know that we’re here to clean up, but she went as far as to contact store owners to see if we could decorate store fronts with artwork from the city schools.” Wheatley said she wants to make downtown look good and be proud of it.

 
Erica Evans sweeps beside the median on Madison Street in downtown Whiteville Saturday morning during a city-wide volunteer cleanup effort.

Erica Evans sweeps beside the median on Madison Street in downtown Whiteville Saturday morning during a city-wide volunteer cleanup effort.

 

“We have raked, pulled weeds, picked up trash, weed-eat and blown – you name it, we’ve done it. I am here on behalf of FiA, and my son, Price, came on behalf of Boy Scout Troop 513.” Joey Butler of F3 (Fitness, Faith and Fellowship) said he enjoyed his time with the cleanup effort. “The community coming together and the fellowship was awesome,” Butler said. “Poor Whiteville needs saving and the community needs to get involved to make it happen.”

Frankye Boone-Newkirk of GirlTrek said it was important to get involved in the community cleanup because of the fellowship with others and sharing common goals. “By cleaning up, you are investing in your community which gives you a sense of pride,” Boone-Newkirk said. “The cleanup was amazing with everyone helping each other and working together with positive vibes.”

Leaders break ground on major WHS construction project

A crowd of approximately 50 people attended yesterday morning’s official groundbreaking on the campus of Whiteville High School. The $19.4 million project is expected to be complete during the summer of 2021, said Chip Overman, who will manage the project for Wilmington-based general contractor Clancy and Theys Construction.

 
Members of the Whiteville City Schools Board of Education participate in a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday morning for a new building at Whiteville High School.

Members of the Whiteville City Schools Board of Education participate in a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday morning for a new building at Whiteville High School.

 

School board members and other elected officials, led by city schools superintendent Marc Whichard, used gold-toned shovels to lift ceremonial dirt from a pile on the lawn in front of the cafeteria, one of the buildings that will be demolished once the new building is ready to use.

The new two-story building will bring classrooms, administrative offices, food service, performing arts rehearsal areas and career-technical education under one roof, connected to the existing gym.

Before the groundbreaking ceremony, Whichard recognized city, county and state government representatives, as well as city school principals and administrators and other community leaders present. He said that previous superintendent Kenny Garland sent his regrets for not being able to come. Garland spent “countless hours” over many nights and weekends to bring the project close to the construction stage before taking another job in Monticello, Ga., Whichard said.

Whichard gave special thanks to WHS alumnus Bill Valentine, with whom he said he speaks frequently. Valentine and his wife Jane donated $250,000 toward the construction project in July. Valentine “believes in this community like none other,” Whichard said.

Bill Valentine, a retired architect, told the school board at the time of the donation that he and his wife would not be in Whiteville for the groundbreaking, but that the board would be able to hear them shouting “Hooray” all the way from California.

School board chairman Coleman Barbour commented that, “The community is looking forward to the changes” that will now begin on the WHS campus. “The present keeps progressing into the future. The future keeps progressing into infinity,” he said. “This is a great day.”

“My mother taught here for many years,” said Clerk of Courts Jess Hill after the ceremony. He recalled “running the halls” of the high school while he was still in elementary school. Past generations of educators would be happy and proud to see the progress now occurring, he said. “It’s a great day for Whiteville City Schools,” Hill said, and he was glad to see “educational improvements being made all around the county.”

Architect Ginny Magrath stated that LS3P Design “is very excited for construction to start on this wonderful project for Whiteville High School. Whiteville City Schools, USDA Rural Development, Columbus County, Clancy and Theys Construction, and all agencies involved have been a pleasure to work with.” She emphasized the improvements to instruction and security that the new design will bring, while also complementing “the rich history of Whiteville’s community.”

After the celebration, retired educator and former school board member Carlton Prince reminisced about how the band building soon to be demolished had served as a gym, library, classroom building and “anything you could imagine” in the past. The basketball court and bleachers were inadequate, he said, and the dressing rooms were “deplorable.”

When the school’s other buildings were lost to a fire in 1958, Prince said, his least-favorite building survived. The classroom and cafeteria buildings that replaced the burned structures were not well built, he said, and caused him frustration and extra work during his years as WHS principal.

Prince looks forward to seeing “a well-constructed building” take the place of all of them.

Asbestos abatement in the former band building is complete, said Corey Douglas, assistant project manager, and the next stage of work will be demolition of that building.

Clancy and Theys superintendent Rob Bridgers said his workers will do their best to salvage vintage decorative elements of the structure for reuse elsewhere on campus.

Band students currently practice in the former weight room at the south end of the campus, adjacent to West Williamson Street. Weights have been moved to the balcony of the gym. Band and weight rooms will both be included in the new building. A new media center that was planned will not be included, and students will continue to use the media center in the building shared with science classes.

Jes Sealey was principal of WHS for seven years and said he is thankful to see the students getting a new facility. “These buildings have served their purpose and their time,” he said. Sealey predicted that the staff will appreciate the new school building, “and it will help the community.”

Donnie Hannah graduated in 1974 and has worked as an Exceptional Children assistant for 41 years. His classroom will be in the new building. He said he is pleased to see construction on the new building about ready to begin. “This will be exciting for our kids,” Hannah said.

Current WHS Principal Michael Hobbs said faculty members are also “very excited to see construction start. For a lot of them, it’s been a long time. They’re super excited to see something starting.”

WHS Performance Arts Series to help fund 2020 Scotland trip

Whiteville High School’s theatre department has put together a “Performance Art Series” calendar in an effort to fund their Scotland trip next August. The students will take their talents abroad to perform in Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. Only 30 schools from the United States were selected to participate.

 
The cast of “Little Shop of Horrors.”

The cast of “Little Shop of Horrors.”

 

To be selected, the American High School Theatre Festival selection committee must review all completed applications. The selection panel is made up of professional artists and college and university professors.

Schedule of events

Schedule of events

“Our students were chosen because of their talents, their dedication, and their work ethic,” said WHS theatre and dance teacher Julia Heckathorn. “These students have a great sense of pride in their work and they constantly encourage one another to grow as artists.”

About 20 students will be chosen to attend following an audition process conducted by Heckathorn. The estimated travel price is $6,500 per student.

“We hope that the community will come together and support these children in becoming global ambassadors for our school, community, state and country,” said Heckathorn.

Gin with local connections wins national awards

Since the first distiller started experimenting with various grains and techniques, many a would-be artisan has searched for the elusive combination that would produce a spirit hailed for its perfect taste and flawless presentation.

For half a century, this quest has been illuminated in poems, stories and lyrics penned by the likes of Robert Burns, Jack London and Steve Winwood. Their protagonist, John Barleycorn, is a metaphor for the indignation, suffering, death and rebirth in the cyclical nature of planting, growing, harvesting and distillation.

The prestigious John Barleycorn Awards honors the innovative distillers and marketers who cultivate the fertile traditions of the spirits industry. The John Barleycorn Awards team is comprised of elite authoritative and influential spirits journalists and judges who were selected to administer the flagship component of the Awards, a double-blind tasting competition destined to become the preeminent arbitrator of spirits taste, quality and character.

 
Cape Fear Distillery owner Alex Munroe and distiller Rick Neisler are pictured with awards for the company’s Maritime Gin. Contributed photo

Cape Fear Distillery owner Alex Munroe and distiller Rick Neisler are pictured with awards for the company’s Maritime Gin. Contributed photo

 

This year, the John Barleycorn Awards presented a Gold Medal for Taste and a Silver Medal for Design to Maritime Gin, produced by Cape Fear Distillery of Elizabethtown. Cape Fear’s owner, Alex Munroe, and distiller, Rick Neisler, are from Whiteville.

Earlier in the year, Cape Fear Distillery won Double Gold and Bronze national recognition from the Food and Beverage Proof Awards.

“We entered our Maritime Gin into the competitions at the first of the year when we were just getting into distribution, so we really didn’t know how the market was going to react,” said Munroe. “But soon enough, many ABC stores began to double and triple their orders. Obviously, the market likes our gin. The Proof Awards and John Barleycorn Awards validate what our customers are telling us: that we’ve produced a world-class gin!”

Ricky Benton exchanges land to to save Cerro Gordo gym

By Diana Matthews, The News Reporter

The Columbus County Board of Education voted unanimously Monday evening to accept a land donation to expand playing fields at Cerro Gordo Elementary School. The land comes from neighbor Ricky Benton; in return for the 6.7 acres, the school system will give Benton a 1.58-acre tract containing the old gymnasium, which sits close to Andrew Jackson Hwy (N.C. 76).

Associate Superintendent Jonathan Williams said Benton had been talking to the board in closed sessions since spring and the board felt the exchange was “a win-win. The old gym has value to the community,” he said.

Plans for the new school include a gym, and the old one was to have been demolished, with a retention pond taking its place. The pond will be shifted a short distance now, according to drawings by architect David Clinton.

The additional space will allow a different orientation to the baseball field and the addition of a softball field, Williams predicted.

Board members commented that they were thankful not only for the land Benton is donating but also for the money he is saving them on demolition and asbestos abatement.

Benton previously donated a tract of land at the western edge of the campus, without which the L-shaped PreK and kindergarten building could not have been built. Board members said the value of that parcel of land was well over $60,000 at the time, and Benton did not ask for anything in exchange.

At that time, the school system conveyed the campus to the county in order to issue a bond for building money, said board attorney Bill Phipps. The commissioners therefore must release the property from a lien, which will involve advertising and hearings, before Benton can take possession of the gym.

After the vote, Associate Superintendent Jonathan Williams carried a letter to the county commissioners explaining the exchange and asking them to act as soon as possible.

The board approved Williams’ request for Clinton of Szostak Design to proceed with his design in the meantime.

Benton said his goal in preserving the vintage gym is the betterment of the community.

Williams said he didn’t know exactly how Benton will use the gym, but that it will certainly be well taken care of and probably improved.

“The board is very appreciative to the Benton family,” Williams added.

Bill Phipps explains the Benton gym-land deal as board members look at plans.

Bill Phipps explains the Benton gym-land deal as board members look at plans.

New Verizon partnership promises customer support and community involvement

By Raven Boone, The News Reporter

Verizon Wireless has become the latest in the franchise to partner with Victra, an independently owned authorized retailer of Verizon products and services. The company’s primary focus will be customer service and consumer satisfaction.

The partnership was unveiled during a Columbus Chamber of Commerce and Tourism ribbon cutting ceremony Thursday. “There could have been a chance that we lost this locally, and that would have been terrible for the service and the customers,” said Chamber President Jennifer Holcomb.

Manager Jason Barnes and Assistant Manager Whitney Hannah cut the ribbon at Victra Verizon Wireless Thursday during a Columbus Chamber of Commerce and Tourism ribbon cutting. Also pictured, from left, are Chamber Chair Jamille Gore, Chamber President Jennifer Holcomb, County Commissioner Jerome McMillian, Whiteville City Manager Darren Currie and Whiteville Mayor Terry Mann.

Manager Jason Barnes and Assistant Manager Whitney Hannah cut the ribbon at Victra Verizon Wireless Thursday during a Columbus Chamber of Commerce and Tourism ribbon cutting. Also pictured, from left, are Chamber Chair Jamille Gore, Chamber President Jennifer Holcomb, County Commissioner Jerome McMillian, Whiteville City Manager Darren Currie and Whiteville Mayor Terry Mann.

“Victra coming here is a positive step for the community.” The change reflects Verizon’s commitment to connect with consumers on a more personal level, company officials said. Victra is a North Carolina based Verizon affiliate that operates out of Raleigh.

The company has over 1,000 store locations in 46 states and works to pair customers with products in a “caring, fun and trustworthy manner.” Guided by core values of integrity, collaboration, innovation, performance, and celebration, Victra prides itself on being a company of human connections.

“We’re the largest Verizon retailer around,” said manger Jason Barnes. “Our motto is ‘connecting technology to life’ so what that means is we try to provide our customers with the best products and the best service,” he added.

Victra is also a proponent of community involvement and supports local initiatives that serve the communities in which their stores are located.

Current Verizon users can expect business to go on as usual, company representatives stressed. “Think of us as the middleman, or your local ‘Mom and Pop’ shop,” explained assistant manager Whitney Hannah.

Economic developer offers reassurance about safety of big cat rescue in Fair Bluff

By Allen Turner, The News Reporter

Gary Lanier, director of the county’s economic development program, sought Monday night to reassure the two county commissioners who represent residents of Fair Bluff that a proposed big cat wildlife sanctuary there will be safe. Lanier’s remarks came during a departmental update he presented during a scheduled commissioners’ meeting

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Commissioner Ricky Bullard, a portion of whose district stretches into the Fair Bluff town limits, said he had heard from some former residents of the town who were displaced by hurricanes in the last three years that they are afraid to return to Fair Bluff out of a fear that animals might escape. “I know it’s probably going to be a good thing. I’m not kicking it, but there is a big concern with almost everybody in the city limits of Fair Bluff about having those wild cats right there,” Bullard said.

Commissioner Jerome McMillian, whose district includes an even larger portion of the incorporated town limits, said that former residents also have expressed the same reservations to him. Fair Bluff officials have voiced concern that a loss of population since the hurricanes will be catastrophic for the town’s finances because much of the municipality’s revenue from state and federal sources is dependent on population.

Although similar safety concerns were expressed by town officials and residents in zoning meetings when the sanctuary was first proposed, those concerns were satisfied and the town government has been enthusiastic about welcoming the animal sanctuary.

“The facility will be safe,” Lanier told commissioners. “You probably heard about a big cat recently killing a lady at a sanctuary near Greensboro, and those former Fair Bluff residents probably have heard about it, too, but the facility where that happened was not accredited.” Lanier said that Shazir Haque (founder of the proposed Fair Bluff rescue) has made sure that his refuge will be fully accredited and meet the same safety specifications as the zoos in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta from which no animals have ever escaped.

Haque heard similar concerns during the earlier zoning meetings in Fair Bluff and successfully convinced citizens and town commissioners that his project will pose no risks to area residents.

The entire facility will be surrounded by a 12- foot high perimeter fence, which is awaiting preliminary inspection from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Lanier said. After the first inspection, the fence will be completed. Inner fences will be other fence enclosures containing the animal habitats themselves.

Not only are the den boxes within those enclosures above the flood level, but also evacuation plans already exist for tranquilizing the animals and temporarily moving them to another facility should it become necessary. Lanier suggested, and commissioners agreed, that it might alleviate safety concerns if the county organizes a field trip to a similar big tiger rescue in Pittsboro, a facility from which no animal ever has escaped.

Commissioner Charles McDowell suggested, and Lanier and other commissioners agreed, that a video should be made of the field trip to be shared with senior citizens groups, churches and other groups. “Y’all need to work on the [public relations], because safety is a big concern for Fair Bluff to get the people back in there,” Bullard said as McMillian nodded in agreement.

Commissioners accept Riegelwood water customers into county system

By: Allen Turner, The News Reporter

Columbus County commissioners, following a nearly two-hour closed session Monday night, unanimously agreed to add customers of the Riegelwood Sanitary District (RSD) to the county’s water system and voted to lower the rate for industrial and municipal customers throughout the county from $7.10 to $4.45 per thousand gallons of water used.

Technically, what commissioners agreed to was the acceptance of a gift to the county by the RSD.

Commissioners agreed to terms of a resolution passed a week earlier by the board of the RSD moving all tangible assets (except accounts receivable, cash and bank accounts) to the county, including any storage tanks, connections and meters and all easements and rights of way to the county. The “gift” also includes all customers of the RSD.

 
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Excluded from the transfer will be real property at 210 Riegelwood Shopping Center and a tank and real property at 207 Waccamaw Rd. They will continue to be owned by RSD.

If the transition goes as planned, RSD customers will receive one more monthly water bill from the RSD, with all future bills after that coming from Columbus County Water and Sewer District IV, according to Harold Nobles, the county’s director of public utilities.

Monday’s closed session also was devoted to personnel issues, economic development and attorney-client privilege, although no other action was taken after the closed session.

Department of Social Services Director Algernon McKenzie met with commissioners for a portion of the closed session. In other business during the public portion of the meeting that preceded the closed session, commissioners spent less than a minute in rejecting without any discussion an application by Med1 NC Services for a franchise to operate a non-emergency ambulance service in the county.

Commissioner Ricky Bullard made a motion that was seconded by Charles McDowell and unanimously approved to keep the county’s medical transport franchise list “as is,” despite the fact that Med1 representatives and Tabor City Mayor Pro Tem Lamont Grate were in the audience. Grate was there to tell commissioners that the Tabor City town council endorsed Med1’s plan to locate in Tabor City, creating about 40 jobs. However, neither Grate nor the Med1 representatives were offered a chance to speak.

Commissioners did not hear a scheduled presentation from a representative of the U.S. Census Bureau because the census representative failed to show up for the meeting. In other business, commissioners scheduled a public hearing for Sept. 16 at 6:30 p.m. on a public transportation grant; heard a DSS departmental update from McKenzie and, as reported elsewhere in this issue; held three public hearings and took action on economic development matters; heard an update on security and safety in county buildings from Purchasing and Safety Director Stuart Carroll and recognized Tanner David Wilson for earning the Eagle award, the highest honor in Boy Scouting.

Free Fitness Court opens in Whiteville

Columbus County was the first North Carolina location to open a “Fitness Court” with the launch of a newly constructed facility on Government Complex Road in Whiteville Wednesday morning. 

 
Left to right : Adam Linker, Project Officer-Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust  Clarence Williams, Vice Chair-Columbus County Recreation Advisory Board  Trent Burroughs, Chairman-Columbus County Commissioners  Julie M. Strickland, Director-Columbus County Parks and Recreation  Kim Smith, Director-Columbus County Public Health  Edwin Russ, Columbus County Commissioner (standing behind Mrs. Smith)  Leo Green-Green Engineering  James Prevatte- Columbus County Commissioner  Mike Stephens, County Manager (green shirt)

Left to right : Adam Linker, Project Officer-Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust

Clarence Williams, Vice Chair-Columbus County Recreation Advisory Board

Trent Burroughs, Chairman-Columbus County Commissioners

Julie M. Strickland, Director-Columbus County Parks and Recreation

Kim Smith, Director-Columbus County Public Health

Edwin Russ, Columbus County Commissioner (standing behind Mrs. Smith)

Leo Green-Green Engineering

James Prevatte- Columbus County Commissioner

Mike Stephens, County Manager (green shirt)

 

The Columbus County Parks and Recreation Department opened the outdoor gym to the public Wednesday during a 9 a.m. kickoff.  After a brief ceremony and ribbon cutting, locally trained Fitness Court ambassadors demonstrated how to use the court’s features. The public  also learned about a free mobile app allowing users to take classes and learn workout routines. The event also featured healthful snacks from local vendors and swag giveaways.

The bodyweight circuit training facility is suitable for adults (ages 14+) of all fitness abilities and is completely free of cost.

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Verizon to add new cell towers in Columbus

By: Allen Turner, The News Reporter

Verizon Wireless, acknowledging frustrations of many customers in parts of Columbus County, says it will construct three and perhaps four new cell sites in the county in an attempt to alleviate problems but blamed service disruptions at the Fair Bluff site on an unnamed third-party vendor.

Kate Jay, an Atlanta based Verizon public relations spokesperson, said in an email Wednesday afternoon that new sites in Tabor City and Cerro Gordo are expected to be on the air by the end of this year and that another between Tabor City and Chadbourn is expected in 2020.

 
New sites in Tabor City and Cerro Gordo are expected to be on the air by the end of this year and another between Tabor City and Chadbourn is expected in 2020.

New sites in Tabor City and Cerro Gordo are expected to be on the air by the end of this year and another between Tabor City and Chadbourn is expected in 2020.

 

“We have heard and understand the concerns and frustrations of our customers in some parts of Columbus County. As a result, we have accelerated plans for several new cell sites in the area,” Jay said.

In addition, a Verizon engineer and a governmental affairs director from Verizon told Rep. Brenden Jones, R-Columbus, this week that a possible fourth site at an unnamed Columbus County location could be established next year.

Verizon’s Columbus County service issues were highlighted in a July 23 story in The News Reporter revealing that Jones received over 2,000 complaints after posting on social media about Verizon’s problems here.

As a result, Jones was able to talk this week with the Verizon engineer and governmental affairs director, who shared with him plans for the new sites in the county. However, Jones said that although he specifically mentioned the ongoing problems at the Fair Bluff site, they didn’t talk about any plans or efforts to resolve the situation there. They told Jones they were “going to look into this area,” he said.

Jay, the public relations spokesperson, blamed the problems in Fair Bluff on fiber (cable) cuts by a third party vendor. “Though the site is operating normally at this time…Our network team is aggressively investigating opportunities for improvement and will take appropriate action as needed,” she wrote in an email.

The News Reporter tried unsuccessfully to reach Jay by phone to ask why Verizon believes the problems in Fair Bluff are because of a third-party vendor, especially since other sites in the county and region don’t appear to be plagued by such cable cuts.

Verizon customers served by the cell site in Fair Bluff have experienced outages several times in the last several months, service disruptions lasting from a few hours to a few days. In some months they have experienced only one outage, but service interruptions have occurred in greater numbers in other months.

Jay acknowledged receipt of an email in which we asked her seven specific questions, but she did not respond to those questions.

“Verizon has built its brand on network reliability,” Jay said, “and when our customers are not getting the network experience they expect from Verizon, we encourage them to contact customer service and open a trouble ticket. These are entered into our system and allow our network team to identify and respond more quickly to potential issues. We will then work with our customers on an individualized basis to find a solution that works best for them.”

Jay did not reply to a specific question about whether Verizon views service interruptions as a safety issue for customers who rely on their cell phones for connectivity to medical and law enforcement first responders. Jones said he intends to continue to stay in contact with Verizon. “They have promised to provide me with further information on the upgrades in Columbus moving forward,” he said. News of planned cell sites in Cerro Gordo, Tabor City and between Tabor City and Chadbourn will likely be well received by Verizon customers who have noted “dead zones” without cell service along parts of U.S. 76 in the Cerro Gordo area and along parts of N.C. 904 between

The "Fifteen under 40" Class of 2019

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The News Reporter recognized the fifteen under 40 Class of 2019 during a ceremony Thursday night at Vineland Station. Nominations were submitted from the community. An independent panel of judges considered the nominees’ impact on Columbus County, professional success and involvement, achievement and commitment to improving the community. The Class of 2019 pictured, front row, from left: Rachel Todd, Jason Graham, C. Ashley Gore, Jenny Clore and LaShoney Frink. Second row, Greg Jacobs, Garrett Tolley, Jennifer Phipps, Amanda Dale, Jason Soles, Daniel Britt, Nikki Walker, Jordan B. Carter, Kalee Hill and Dustin Fowler. See additional photos at NRcolumbus.com.

Downtown interest blossoming despite Florence flooding

By Les High and Diana Matthews, The News Reporter

Since 2016, the blocks between Walter Street and Soules Swamp in Whiteville have suffered two destructive floods and a series of business closings, but building owners and businesspeople are still investing their energy to bring life to empty buildings.

Naysayers believed flooding from Florence would be the end to downtown, and although some businesses have moved or closed, interest in downtown properties has been high.

Developer John Fisher is optimistic that work on U.S. 701 Bypass will make it easier for north- and southbound traffic to pull into Whiteville via a new entrance alongside BB&T’s planned building at the Columbus Street intersection.

“These are huge positive things for downtown,” Fisher said.

Several buildings have sold or are close to being sold, and some of the people who have bought them have big plans.

 
East Main Street boasts four new businesses that reopened after the flood and another one that will open soon.

East Main Street boasts four new businesses that reopened after the flood and another one that will open soon.

 

A busy block

The block of East Main Street facing the railroad tracks is one area that has seen a noticeable resurgence since last year. The Farmacy on Main salt spa and kombucha bar/retail shop opened in a previously vacant space in November.

Polished Hair and Nail salon occupies the former Body Beautiful location just east of Smith Chiropractic Clinic. When dance instructor Wanda Thorne retired, instructor Summer Hinson  reopened the site as Hidden Language Dance Company, with a refreshed front.

Brothers Adam and George Wooten plan to build on the success of their Farmacy by opening a tap room next to Columbus Insurance Company in a now-vacant spot.

Apartments and more

Fisher’s renovation of the Paul Leder Apartments on East Commerce Street is an example of the optimism now taking hold. “I’m hoping to have those ready this fall,” he said. “We’ve rented one and are taking applications. We’re taking our time.” The apartments, all on the ground floor, will have a security system, paved parking and outdoor lighting.

Fisher said his storage facility at 135 E. Main St. was doing well and he was hoping to open an event center in the old Cinema around the corner on South Madison Street.

J.E. Thompson has a plan to turn the former Pope’s Five and Dime along with the adjacent Pawn and Gun in the 800 block of South Madison into apartments and business space.

“The bank is working on the financing,” Thompson said. “It’ll happen in two phases. The first phase is apartments on the second floor.” The building has 5,000 square feet upstairs. For the 10,000-square-foot ground floor, “I’m working with a business to possibly move in.”  The business, Thompson said, was formerly located in Whiteville, and the owner is considering moving back.

The old Meares Hardware store next to Thompson’s property on Madison Street has been bought and is undergoing major renovation, and the former Waccamaw Bank call center has been purchased, as has the former Sherwin Williams building. There is interest in the Lewis Smith Shopping Plaza.

Nautilus

Greg and Lynne Hewitt, owners of Nautilus on Frazier Street, expanded their fitness business to one of the former Body Shapers locations at 617 S. Madison Street. The property opened June 28 as a 24-hour women-only workout facility. Members let themselves in the front door with magnetic key cards.

“I think we found the perfect niche,” Greg Hewitt said.

The building was in better shape than it appeared to be after Hurricane Florence; water flooded in because the adjacent storefront’s roof collapsed, but Jeff and Cindy Faulk had previously replaced the roof at the 24-hour gym. The Hewitts updated the flooring and walls, creating a more upscale atmosphere. The facility has more than a dozen cardio exercise and strength training machines, Wifi, self-service cold water and a large-screen TV playing exercise moves clients can follow on the mats below.

Downtown advocates have been working to get the N.C. Vocational Rehabilitation office downtown, as state officials have narrowed the list to the downtown address and a strip center.

Flooding and government interventions

The elephant in the room about a downtown resurgence is flooding. The city is currently in the process of completing a major upgrade of underground infrastructure that will remove more water off Madison Street between the chamber of commerce building and the railroad, extending to Lee Street.

A larger fix, if there is one, for Soules Swamp is in the planning stages, but officials concede that any area that gets 23 inches of rain in three days will be faced with flooding.

A citywide storm water fee has been implemented to provide more funding for flooding issues.

Now is a good time for investors with capital gains from any source to invest them in downtown and skip paying taxes they otherwise would have owed on those dollars, Fisher said.

“Downtown Whiteville is in what they call an Opportunity Zone,” he said.

The tax plan passed by Congress in 2017, Fisher said, makes it easier for investors to take gains they made in the stock market or in other ventures and use that money to improve properties in more depressed urban areas.

“If you had $10,000 worth of Apple stock, for instance,” Fisher said, “and you sold it and made money, you can take all that value and reinvest 100 percent of it in an Opportunity Zone” without paying capital gains tax first.

“It’s a way to attract new investment into areas that need it.”

Another government incentive is the historic district program. The city is just short of having enough complying buildings to have downtown designated as a historic district. This would allow building owners who carry out historical renovations to receive up to a 40 percent tax credit on the project. If the city can identify 11 more buildings that would fit the criteria, downtown would qualify as a historic district. Historic districts have been critical components in the restoration of downtowns across the nation.

New ventures

JACI Party and Event Rentals at 710 S. Madison St. opened March 9 with the goal of turning customers’ party dreams into reality, said co-owners Joy Green and Carole Higgins.

It’s more economical to rent real dishes than to buy disposable ones, Green said, and customers get the additional benefit of Higgins’ creative and elegant tablescaping ideas. However, JACI will soon have disposable dishes and tablecloths for customers who prefer that option.

Higgins, JACI’s inventory and design specialist, frequently changes the displays in the shop, which spark customers’ ideas for their own events. Most of the shop’s customers have come in for help with weddings, reunions and church events, the owners said.

Both women were busy Saturday as customers came to pick up chairs for a wedding and fill up pink and blue helium balloons for a “gender reveal” party.

“Whoever thought of this idea (of throwing parties to announce the sex of a baby on the way) should be really rich,” Higgins said. “It’s another opportunity to have a party, eat, give gifts and enjoy family time.

“But the one who thought of it first probably isn’t the one who turned it into a big thing,” she said. “That’s how it goes.”

JACI is a member of Columbus Chamber of Commerce and Tourism and will hold a ribbon-cutting and open house with door prizes and party food Saturday, Aug. 3, from 3-6 p.m..

Next door to JACI, Julissa Gachett and Lauren Thurman’s hair salon opened in April. “Braids are pretty much what we do,” said Thurman as she worked on a young customer’s long hair. “We also do dreads, all natural hair,” she said.

Fisher is in serious negotiations with a restaurateur about the vacant Big W site (formerly Southern Kitchen), which they hope to develop into “a high-end steakhouse and a nice bar,” he said.

“There’s a lot of investment going on,” Fisher said. “A lot of it is in anticipation of new developments downtown. This is a great time to invest,” he said. “Probably the greatest opportunity in my lifetime is going on right now. I believe it, and I’ve put my money behind it.”

Valentines’ donation will help build Whiteville High School

By: Diana Matthews, The News Reporter

Whiteville High School alumni Bill Valentine and Jane Dorward Valentine appeared at the city school board meeting this evening offering a gift a $250,000 for school construction. The board accepted the donation unanimously.

Bill Valentine took the podium briefly and spoke with a trembling voice of the pride he and his wife still have for their alma mater. “It was really great then,” he said, “and I’m sure it’s even better now.”

 
Whiteville City Schools staff and friends thank Bill and Jane Dorward Valentine for their gift of $250,000 for school construction.

Whiteville City Schools staff and friends thank Bill and Jane Dorward Valentine for their gift of $250,000 for school construction.

 

Valentine, a retired architect, said he has been closely following the plans for new construction at WHS and believes the design created by LS3P Associates “should make a really terrific high school.”

The finished facility will be “as different as night and day from the other high schools in Columbus County,” Valentine said, and “it looks like it belongs in Whiteville, which I think is a real asset.”

The city schools accepted bids from general contractors in December and hoped to have a contract within a few weeks, but all bids came in well over budget. During the spring semester WCS and LS3P negotiated with the apparent low bidder to scale back on some of their hoped-for features before they could obtain financing. As of Monday morning, the school system’s USDA loan application was still in process, Superintendent Marc Whichard said.

Knowing that construction cost overruns are a fact of life everywhere, Valentine said,  “We promised to donate a quarter of a million bucks to help with construction costs.”

The couple is at the end of a five-week visit to their hometown. “We won’t be here for the groundbreaking,” Valentine said, but he and his wife would be sharing the happiness on that day, and “you’ll hear a Yahoo! from California.”

Upon the board’s approval of the gift, board chairman Coleman Barbour told the Valentines, “Here’s that Yahoo!” The audience gave a standing ovation to the couple and filed by to shake hands and express thanks.

Whichard, who was sworn in as superintendent just a few minutes before the Valentines’ presentation, called the couple’s impact on the community “amazing.” At the last school board meeting they donated funds to purchase digital subscriptions to The News Reporter for WHS students. “I think getting kids to read the newspaper is a really important thing,” Bill Valentine said.



‘We are the American story’: Council Tool participates in White House Made in America Showcase

Council Tool President John Council and his son, Cameron, traveled from their family’s 133-year old manufacturing plant in Lake Waccamaw to represent North Carolina Monday at the White House’s Made in America Product Showcase. It was their first time setting foot in the White House.

 
Cameron Council, left, and his father John Council of Council Tool present Vice President Mike Pence with a custom axe Monday during the Made in America Showcase at the White House.


Cameron Council, left, and his father John Council of Council Tool present Vice President Mike Pence with a custom axe Monday during the Made in America Showcase at the White House.

 

“It feels kind of surreal,” John Council said, standing behind an 8-foot table that contained a variety of the company’s forged tools, including axes and hammers. “We’re glad to be here. We’re really excited about it.”

Although he appreciated the invitation, John Council said he wasn’t sure why the company was selected to represent the state. 

“When we ask they say ‘you’re supporting American manufacturing and employing American workers.” Council said. “So whatever the reason is, we’re just excited and thrilled to be here.”

Cameron Council, a supply chain manager with the family business, said his great-great grandfather John Pickett Council, who founded Council Tool, in 1886 would be honored to have the company represented at the White House. 

“In a way, we are the American story,” Cameron Council said, explaining that the company’s products are still 100 percent American made. “And that won’t change.”

The showcase displays, spread throughout several rooms inside the White House, featured a wide range of products from one company in each state, including boots from Montana, cowboy hats from Wyoming and sandals from Florida. 

Vice President Mike Pence toured the showcase, and the Councils were able to present him with a custom axe. Several members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet attended, including Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. 

Large products, like motorcycles manufactured in Indiana and a boat built in South Carolina, were displayed on the south lawn of the White House where President Donald Trump addressed attendees, including the Councils, shortly after noon. 

In his remarks, Trump touted strong economic growth under his administration, including 600,000 new manufacturing jobs since he was elected in 2016. 

“And that number is going to go substantially higher,” the president said.

Trump said that last year saw the largest increase in manufacturing jobs in 25 years and that the United States is “reawakening our industrial might.”

In an interview prior to the speech, John Council praised the president’s stance on trade. 

“This administration is the first in a long time that I think really gets it,” Council said. “There’s no such thing as free trade. There’s managed trade, and they’re taking a hard stance — particularly with China — which is I think is what’s required. We want a free market, we want a free enterprise culture, but we want our government fighting for us as far as trade is concerned.”




Jobs Foundation OKs entrepreneurial study

The Columbus Jobs Foundation board voted at its quarterly board meeting Thursday to pursue a feasibility study for an entrepreneurial center.

 
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Entrepreneurial centers, sometimes referred to as business incubators, provide shared space and expertise for small businesses to grow. Once a business gets a toehold in its respective market, typically after two to three years, the owners find their own space in the community and grow, creating new jobs.

Entrepreneurial center committee chairperson Jonathan Medford told the board that the study will examine potential sites and make recommendations. The Jobs Foundation then plans to pursue a federal economic development grant that is an 80/20 match.

The Town of Tabor City recently received a similar grant and plans to renovate an abandoned downtown furniture store. A business incubator on the outskirts of Tabor City, which includes the Ganz plush toy company and RadixBay computing support center, is now full.

This year, the Jobs Foundation has created committees that will explore opportunities beyond its usual task of assisting the county’s Economic Development Commission in business and industrial recruitment.

In addition to the entrepreneurial committee, other committees include one to promote private residential development to increase the tax base and support service industry jobs, another to develop a 3 1/2-mile hard trail along the south side of Lake Waccamaw State Park to attract fitness enthusiasts and ecotourism, and Fair Bluff recovery.

The Columbus Jobs Foundation is a non-profit corporation with a volunteer board that supports economic development in Columbus County. The group also operates Southeast Regional Industrial Park near Union Valley.

Three local leaders graduate from REDI

By Clara Cartrette, The News Reporter

Three Columbus County residents recently completed rural leadership training at the N.C. Rural Center.

They include Latoya Beatty, MD, MPH, founder of her newly designed organization, Alumni in Action: Bolton and Neighbors Recovery Team; Devoria Berry, CEO of Community Support Agency; and Susan Rockel, manager of the Columbus County Farmers Market.

 
Devoria Berry, Latoya Beatty and Susan Rockel, left to right, were selected for and successfully completed the 2019 N.C. Rural Center’s Rural Economic Development Institute (REDI).

Devoria Berry, Latoya Beatty and Susan Rockel, left to right, were selected for and successfully completed the 2019 N.C. Rural Center’s Rural Economic Development Institute (REDI).

 

They graduated June 6 from the N.C. Rural Center’s Rural Economic Development Institute (REDI), an intensive, three-month training program designed for rural community leaders.

Rural Center President Patrick Woodie presented certificates to the program’s 30 graduates. Attending the graduation service by invitation were Columbus County residents Randolph Keaton, executive director of Men and Women United for Youth and Families, and Bolton Mayor Shawn Maynor. Both completed the REDI program in 2016.

For 29 years, REDI has helped leaders improve their leadership skills and increase their knowledge of economic and community development strategies, equipping them with tools they need to tackle issues facing rural North Carolina.

“This year’s REDI class had tremendous passion for and commitment to their rural communities,” said Bronwyn Lucas, the Rural Center’s director of leadership development. “The Rural Center recognizes the critical link between rural leaders who are inclusive, connected and informed, and the potential for creative, healthy and more vibrant rural communities across our state. We are proud to have this class as the newest members of our growing network of leadership alumni.”

This year’s REDI participants included elected officials, economic development professionals, health care professionals and civic leaders. More than 1,200 rural leaders have graduated from REDI since the program began in 1989.

Profiles on Beatty, Berry and Rockel about how they will use the knowledge they learned at REDI will follow in later editions of The News Reporter.

Lake gives nod to trail grant application

By: Jefferson Weaver, The News Reporter

The long-planned trail that would allow bicyclists and pedestrians to circle Lake Waccamaw got a new lease on life Tuesday.

Commissioners approved a request by the Friends of Lake Waccamaw State Park to apply for a Department of Transportation grant to study and plan a trail circling through the town and the park.

Commissioners approved a request by the Friends of Lake Waccamaw State Park to apply for a Department of Transportation grant to study and plan a trail circling through the town and the park.

Commissioners approved a request by the Friends of Lake Waccamaw State Park to apply for a Department of Transportation grant to study and plan a trail circling through the town and the park.

Harry Foley, president of the Park Friends, emphatically promised the board that the grant would come at no cost to the town. “We pledge that there will never be a request for town monies to fund any portion of this project,” he said.

The town’s only responsibility is to submit the application, Foley said. The $35,000 matching grant will require ten percent from the town. Foley said those funds have already been committed from other sources.

That money will be provided to the town as the grant applicant before the application is signed and sent to the DOT. “We will do all the work, and you will get all the credit,” Foley said.

A similar project was in the works while Foley was town manager, but funding for the program was stopped when Gov. Roy Cooper made changes to a number of programs shortly after his election.

The grant is for planning and engineering, not construction, Foley said.

Work would only begin if the grant application is approved in November. Foley noted that ecotourism is on the rise in North Carolina, and events like the annual Take The Lake challenge would make good use of the enhanced trail – and bring money into the town.

“Look at the loss of those jobs in Fair Bluff last week,” he said. “The future isn’t big manufacturers any more. We have to look at different forms of economic development. Ecotourism can be a godsend to our county. What better destination can there be than Lake Waccamaw?”

The commissioners unanimously approved submitting the application.

‘fifteen under 40’ class of 2019 announced; celebration is July 18 at Vineland Station

The “fifteen under 40” class of 2019 is another outstanding group. An outside panel of judges chose 15 young professionals from nominations submitted to The News Reporter.

The “fifteen under 40” class of 2019 includes Amanda Dale, Daniel Britt, Jordan B. Carter, Jenny Clore, Dustin Fowler, LaShoney Frink, C. Ashley Gore, Jason Graham, Kalee Hill, Greg Jacobs, Jennifer Cox Phipps, Jason Soles, Rachel Todd, Garrett Tolley and Nikki Walker. The News Reporter invites the public to celebrate the “fifteen under 40” class of 2019 with friends, family and co-workers July 18 at Vineland Station in Whiteville for an evening of music, fun and food.

2019 Class of Fifteen under 40

2019 Class of Fifteen under 40

The News Reporter, along with local businesses and organizations, uses the event to acknowledge the next generation of leaders for what they do above and beyond their workplaces to make Columbus County a special place to live. “Readers will enjoy learning how this group of influencers is making a difference in Columbus County. They have commitment and compassion for their communities,” said Becky High, director of business development at The News Reporter and organizer of the event.

A special, magazine style publication featuring the 15 young leaders will be included into the Tuesday, July 16 edition of The News Reporter. Judges found it difficult to select only 15 people, High said, and the panel encourages readers to resubmit nominees not selected this year for the class of 2020.

Actress lends a hand at Fair Bluff cat sanctuary under construction

Persistence and an inability to take no for an answer on the part of Shazir “Shizzy” Haque, developer of By By Allen Turner, The News Reporter

Shizzy’s Wildcat Rescue, resulted in a television and movie star being on hand in Fair Bluff Saturday to help about 60 other volunteers with development of the first of 11 planned habitats on the former Fair Bluff Motors property.

Canadian-born actress Jessica Parker Kennedy played in the CW’s “Secret Circle” and “The Flash” series, and in the Starz original “Black Sails.” She’s also appeared in the “Supergirl” TV series and the 2018 movies “Cam” and “Deep Murder.” But Saturday she was in Fair Bluff lending elbow grease to the wild cat sanctuary project.

Kennedy said she has always been a lover of animals and, because of that, Haque contacted her on Instagram to ask whether she would take his telephone call. “He was extremely persuasive,” she said. “He doesn’t know how to take no for an answer.” While she and Haque share a major love of animals, Kennedy said, “He’s the brains behind figuring out how to do something like this.”

Saturday was only the most recent of several days in which volunteers converged on the sanctuary site, and Kennedy flew into North Carolina from Los Angeles to take part. Other volunteer workdays are planned.

 
Actress Jessica Kennedy Parker volunteers in the construction of Shizzy’s Wildcat Rescue in Fair Bluff Saturday. Staff photo by Allen Turner.

Actress Jessica Kennedy Parker volunteers in the construction of Shizzy’s Wildcat Rescue in Fair Bluff Saturday. Staff photo by Allen Turner.

 

This weekend, volunteers concentrated on finishing an enclosed animal habitat, the first of 11 planned for the facility, and constructing platforms for the animals that will be included as part of the habitat. Kennedy wielded a power hammer to help drive nails into the platforms.

Haque, who is based in Greensboro but who plans to live in Fair Bluff full time when the sanctuary opens around August of 2020, says the project is on schedule. Clearing and de-stumping of one large lot that was previously forested has been completed and de-stumping efforts are continuing on an adjoining lot, in large measure due to financial assistance the non-profit venture is receiving from the Columbus Jobs Foundation.

Haque expects P&W Fencing Company to install the first 20 feet of a perimeter fence that will surround the entire property in about three weeks, after which inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be called in. If those inspectors like the construction of the first 20 feet of fencing and the first animal habitat, construction of the rest of the fence and other animal habitats will be completed.

The property has already cleared environmental hurdles imposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as receiving zoning approvals from the Town of Fair Bluff. The USDA inspection process is the next step in the process.

The sanctuary will be located on about 50 acres donated by Capital Investments of Fair Bluff on the former Fair Bluff Motors property that was decimated in Hurricanes Matthew and Florence.

It already has four full-time employees funded through the N.C. Works program at Southeastern Community College and when it opens next year Shizzy’s intends to hire 10-20 full time employees and 30-50 unpaid volunteers.

The facility will be devoted primarily to big cats such as tigers, lions, jaguars and leopards, as well as black bears and wolves. While his group works primarily with a good mix of both predatory and prey animals, Haque says they don’t turn any animals away. “For example,” Haque says, “we recently got a call to rescue a cow.” The group has even been involved in the rescue of 86 dogs and cats from all over the United States.

There will be 16-foot fences around the animal enclosures – more than the required 12-foot fences – and additional eight-foot fence around the perimeter of the entire property, so Haque said that safety concerns and any potential fears about animals escaping are unfounded. He envisions his sanctuary as becoming a major tourist attraction which will help Fair Bluff recover after being devastated from Hurricanes Matthew and Florence. 

Grant will help ATMC bring high-speed internet to Beaverdam

By: Justin Smith, The News Reporter

ATMC has received a $1 million state grant to extend high-speed internet to 750 residents in the Beaverdam area, the utility announced Wednesday.

The funds are from the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) program, which provides grants to internet service providers and electric membership cooperatives to expand high-speed internet service in the state’s 40 most economically distressed counties.

Twenty-one applicants in 19 counties will receive a total of nearly $10 million in GREAT Grant funding, Gov. Roy Cooper’s office announced.

“Access to reliable, high-speed internet service is critical for businesses to grow, students to learn, and communities to thrive,” Cooper said. “These grants will help connect thousands of homes and businesses with opportunities across the state and around the world.”

 
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GREAT applicants are scored based on the number of households, businesses and agricultural operations they propose to serve, the average cost to serve those households and the speeds offered. Applicants receive higher awards for agreeing to provide higher speed service, defined as a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.