Take the Lake number 10 is Labor Day weekend

By Diana Matthews, The News Reporter

Organizers of the tenth annual Take the Lake weekend at Lake Waccamaw are saluting the holistic basis of human well-being with the theme “Body, Mind and Spirit.” People from all walks of life are welcome to take part as always.

This year’s Walk/Run and Bike/Hike will circle Lake Waccamaw entirely for the first time since 2011, thanks to the new bridge at the dam end of the state park.

The annual Take the Lake event celebrates 10 years Labor Day weekend at Lake Waccamaw.

The annual Take the Lake event celebrates 10 years Labor Day weekend at Lake Waccamaw.

Get ready

The deadline for online event registration passed at midnight Friday, but volunteer registration is still open at www.takethelake.org, according to planning committee head Julie Stocks.

Preregistered walkers, runners, paddlers, bikers and swimmers can pick up their number bibs now through noon Friday at Body Shapers Fitness Center, 618 S. Madison St., in Whiteville to avoid standing in line during the weekend. 

Those who did not register online should arrive an hour before their first event to register in person. Same-day registrants are not guaranteed to have their finishing times recorded due to the large amount of data that volunteers must enter into the timing computer at the last minute.

Get set: staying safe on land or water

The planning committee emphasizes that the responsibility for a safe and healthful weekend lies with individual participants.

Participants are expected to know their own physical limits and be adequately prepared for the endurance challenges they choose to attempt. Minors must be signed in by an adult, and children must be accompanied during their events. 

The wisest participants have been training for months by covering increasing distances under hot, humid conditions.

The Fun Family Walk/Run and Fun Family Bike Ride are shorter, more supervised alternatives for those not ready to complete a full-length Personal Fitness Challenge.

Columbus County Health Department Director Kim Smith, who took the lake for the first time last year, reminds everyone to stay well hydrated, look out for traffic and fire ants, apply sunscreen and wear a hat.

Go (sensibly): the events

Walk/Run: Saturday at 8 a.m. with the 6.5-mile fun family walk starting at 8:30. The start and finish line is at Elizabeth Brinkley Park.

No one should undertake the 16-mile Walk/Run unless they have trained adequately to complete the distance without help. Expect the Walk/Run to take up to six hours for an average walker. Watch out for cypress roots and other hazards on the state park trail. 

Paddle: Sunday, 8 a.m., Dale’s Seafood parking lot. 

Most Grand Slammers and X-Tremists, who are familiar with all four TTL events, consider the 14-mile paddle to be the most grueling, with choppy water, hand blisters, broiling sun and muscle cramps being risks. The circuit can take six hours for an experienced paddler. Life jackets are required. Paddlers must stay between the no-wake markers and shore, and they must be prepared to finish the event without help. 

Bike/Hike: Sunday, 2 p.m., with the 6.5-mile fun family ride at 2:30, both beginning and ending at Elizabeth Brinkley Park.

All bicycle riders must wear helmets and ride single-file with traffic, yielding to vehicles. They must walk their bikes the three miles of state park trails; riding there is dangerous and illegal, with a fine and court costs totaling $215.

Swim: Monday at 8 a.m., starting at Dale’s or the dam. Each swimmer must have a separate boat escort. Most good swimmers complete the four-mile crossing in three to five hours, but wind conditions can complicate progress.

Take the Lake X-Treme will also be held on Monday, starting with the swim at 6:30 a.m. Starting location will depend on weather conditions.

U.S. 74/76 near Delco to get medians, traffic signal

A section of U.S. 74/76 in eastern Columbus County will be improved with the construction of medians and a traffic signal.

The N.C. Department of Transportation this month awarded a $9 million contract to Highland Paving Co. of Fayetteville to improve a 2.7-mile section of U.S. 74/76 between Water Tank Road in the Delco community and a point just east of the Brunswick County line.

The department will be reconstructing the road into a superstreet design, which redirects motorists on the side roads into turning right onto the highway. U-turn areas will be created to allow drivers who turned right to safely turn around and go in the opposite direction. The design is intended to reduce the risk of crashes, especially high-speed intersection crashes. It is also intended to improve traffic flow along the highway.

The project will also include the installation of a traffic signal on U.S. 74/76 at N.C. 87 to improve safety and mobility.

Construction will begin later this year, and the project is scheduled for completion in summer 2020.

This is one of six road and bridge projects the department awarded this month. The contracts went to the lowest qualified bidder, as required by state law. They are worth $166.2 million, which is $16.3 million under engineer estimates.

More than 3,000 acres preserved at Crusoe

By Jefferson Weaver, The News Reporter

Doug Smith casts a Beetlespin toward a ripple under the Crusoe Bridge.

Doug Smith casts a Beetlespin toward a ripple under the Crusoe Bridge.

On a hot August morning recently, Doug Smith cast a Beetlespin toward a ripple under the Crusoe Bridge. The lure flashed in the brown water, where moments before a fish had swirled. 

“From the start,” he said, “we wanted to make sure this was like this forever.”

Smith and his wife Jimmi, along with the Waters of Waccamaw project of the Coastal Land Trust, took steps last week to protect more than 3,000 acres of wetlands, forests and swamps from logging and development. The Smiths signed a conservation easement for 34 acres adjacent to their home and the Crusoe bridge, while the Coastal Land Trust worked with its partner organizations, including the Nature Conservancy, to purchase a section of riverfront and woodlands stretching from the Smith property to the Columbus-Brunswick county line.

Around 1,000 acres of the property was transferred to the Wildlife Resources Commission for public game lands. That property will become a managed forest as well as public hunting grounds, with a long-term goal of returning the forest to its original state. The Coastal Land Trust will manage the remaining 2,000 acres as a preserve.

Joint effort

The project was a joint effort of more than a dozen organizations, working with Campbell Global of Oregon. The firm manages and owns multiple tracts across the country, including a number of large properties in Columbus County.

The property was purchased using grant money as well as the settlement from the Freedman Farms pollution case from 2012. The corporate farm was found guilty of illegally releasing untreated hog waste from a Western Prong operation into the headwaters of the Waccamaw River.  The settlement has also been used to help fund expansion of Lake Waccamaw State Park.

“We are grateful for the support and interest of local and state leaders during the last two years, as the Coastal Land Trust carried out the work necessary to make this conservation project a reality,” said Janice Allen, deputy director of the Coastal Land Trust. “We couldn’t be more pleased that it is completed at last.”

Restoration of the forest will benefit many species of wildlife such as white-tailed deer, wild turkey, wood stork, and Swainson’s warbler. The waters of the Waccamaw and wetlands on the tract also support many rare plant and animal species, Allen said, including several fish, mussels, and snails only found in the Waccamaw River system.

As development has spread from Brunswick County and upstate South Carolina, Smith said, more and more forests are being harvested and turned into residential developments.

“You can see the beauty of these places and understand why someone wants to live here,” he said.

The newly preserved land will serve a more mundane purpose than just preserving nature and providing additional public hunting grounds, Smith said. The lowland cypress forest provides overwash areas for floodwaters heading downstream. When the river floods, it spreads across the wide, flat areas, providing nutrients for the soil as well as slowing the flow rate downstream, preventing worse flooding along the lower Waccamaw, where development is more common than in the pine, cypress and Atlantic juniper woods of Crusoe.

Some of the cypress trees in the preserved tracts are hundreds, if not thousands of years old, Smith said. The “juniper line” – the extent of the natural range of the Atlantic white cedar, commonly called juniper – extends through the middle of the tract. Carnivorous plants, rare flowers, and at least three varieties of Carolina bay trees flourish in the flood-prone forest land.

The ancient cypress trees along the Waccamaw, however, draw the most interest from scientists and historians to river tourists in kayaks and canoes. Those trees are also highly sought after by timber harvesters, but the cypress in the Smith and Campbell tracts will not end their days in sawmills or pulpwood plants.

“We will never see trees close to this in our lifetimes,” he said. “There may not be trees like those ever again. That’s why they need to be preserved, and why this river is so important.”

“The Waccamaw is special in more ways than you can count,” Allen said. “It’s not just that the Waccamaw River system contains some of the most beautiful and extensive cypress swamps and blackwater bottomland hardwood forests in the state. It›s truly unique; due to its rare water chemistry and geology, many of the plants and animals that flourish in the Waccamaw are found nowhere else on Earth.”

Economic engine

Smith said the acquisition by the trust not only protects the beauty of the river, but could provide an economic engine for the area.

“Nature tourism is a really big thing,” he said. “We have an incredible resource here – there’s room for outfitters and guided hunts, fishing trips, you name it. 

“There are people who love to hunt, but don’t have a place to go, and no time to maintain it if they did,” he said. “We have deer, bear, wild hogs, small game and waterfowl down here, and plenty of them. There are plenty of choice places to hunt, too.”

The Smiths have a river guide business that Doug said he hopes to expand using riverfront property surrounded by the protected area.

“I hope someday to have kayak and canoe classes, to help people learn how to paddle, then take them out on the river or let them go themselves,” he said. “There is so much natural beauty and history here that needs to be preserved. I think people would flock here if there was a museum featuring Crusoe—so much of the culture here is disappearing. The way of life is disappearing.”

A museum focusing on the culture of Crusoe, from its outdoors heritage to traditional dugout canoe construction, would be a perfect fit for a river paddling business or hunting and fishing outfitters.

“People need jobs, so their communities don’t die,” Smith said. “Every time someone leaves Columbus County or a place like Crusoe, our community loses. People want to do well, and have good paying jobs, and they can’t do that by staying home any more. I’d like to see this resource being used to create jobs in our community, so people don’t have to leave the land of their parents and grandparents to make a living.”

As a river otter chased the fish Smith had been tempting a few minutes before, the Army veteran and retired International Paper employee said he sometimes receives “a letter a month” from timber harvesters wanting access to his land now under conservation easement.

“I do not want to see this place look like the White Marsh heading into Whiteville,” he said, referring to a controversial clearcutting project on Jefferson Street. “The wildlife that would be displaced – just the number of owls alone would amaze you. Never mind the other species, the endangered plants, the game animals.

“As long as I have my way about it, at least this section will be preserved. We need more protection for places like these.”

City council accepts storm water study that could result in $2 million in grants

By Allen Turner, The News Reporter

The Whiteville City Council Tuesday night unanimously accepted a $150,000 storm water study funded by the Golden LEAF Foundation, a study that could eventually result in the awarding of other grants of about $2 million for a five-phase storm water improvement program.

Todd Steele, president and principal engineer, and Mark Bacon, business development and grant writer, for Engineering Services, PA, presented the study to the board.

The approach of the study was to evaluate and inventory downtown Whiteville’s man-made and natural drainage systems and determine their conditions and deficiencies. The study investigated ways to address deficiencies, mitigate flooding and reduce property damage.

The study recommends implementation of the five-phase program, pursuit of funding for identified storm water improvements, implementation of an annual storm water maintenance program, conversion of the storm water system base map into an electronic format that can be updated regularly as improvements are made to the system, obtaining of easements or ownership of private systems that are connected to the city system and investigation of the feasibility of establishing a separate storm water utility similar in function to a water and sewer utility.

In other business, council adopted the city’s local water supply plan and water shortage response plans, as is required annually by state law. The also board reappointed Jerry Ganus and Janice Smith to three-year terms to the planning board and board of adjustment.

A public hearing and subsequent decision on a zoning matter had been scheduled for Tuesday to amend the zoning ordinance to allow MedFlight, LLC to have bulk storage of petroleum and products for operation of the medical helicopter at Columbus Regional Healthcare, but the matter was tabled until a subsequent meeting because MedFlight officials were unable to attend Tuesday.

City Manager Darren Currie told council that work is progressing well on the new city hall. Exterior walls are going up and structural steel is nearly complete. Currie said exterior walls should be complete by the end of  next week. Currie hopes to have council tour the site prior to the next council meeting and said he would have the architect on hand for the tour.

Currie also told council that interviews of “several qualified applicants” for the new economic planner position have been completed and that he expects to soon make an offer to one of those applicants.

Big cat sanctuary clears last zoning hurdle in Fair Bluff

Shizzy’s Wildcat Rescue cleared its final zoning hurdle Monday night as the Fair Bluff Planning Board unanimously approved, with one member abstaining from voting, a site plan for the venture, which will be located on the former Fair Bluff Ford auto dealership property.

That means the property, currently owned by Fair Bluff Motors, Inc., will be deeded – probably in a few days –  to either the Columbus Jobs Foundation or directly to Shazir Haque, who is establishing the non-profit wildlife sanctuary.

Planning board member Carl Meares Jr. abstained from voting on the matter because he, along with Willard and David Small, is one of the owners of the property.

Original plans were for the property to be donated to the Columbus Jobs Foundation with the Jobs Foundation then deeding the property to the refuge, but Meares said Monday that attorneys still are working out the details of how the actual transfer will work and there’s a chance it will be transferred directly to Haque.

Haque said the sanctuary, which initially will employ 7-10 workers and utilize dozens of volunteers, will be open within two years. It will house big cats, such as lions, tigers and bears, as well as smaller species and some birds.

In other business, the planning board deferred a decision on a request by Ben Cooper to approve a gaming center in a former auto parts store building at 911 Main Street because Cooper did not show up for the meeting. According to the town’s zoning ordinance, whenever the usage of a commercial property changes, the operator of the business must get planning board approval. Cooper wants to open a 20-machine center featuring “games of skill” in the former parts store.

Concerned because Cooper didn’t attend the meeting after having said he would be there, board members agreed to defer a decision until the applicant could be present at a later meeting, which will be scheduled for the future. The Fair Bluff planning board doesn’t convene on a regular schedule and, instead, meets on an “as-needed” basis.

County fitness park gets large grant

By Margaret High

margarethigh@nrcolumbus.com

By early 2019, people will be able to do a lot more than just walk or run at the Columbus County Fitness Park.

Julie Strickland, Columbus County Parks & Recreation director, said a $156,000 grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust will provide funding for major upgrades at the fitness center, including a state-of-the-art outdoor workout system and bathroom facilities.

The 2018 National Fitness Campaign (NFC) system boasts free gym access to people of all ages. There are seven sections of the 38-foot by 38-foot basketball court-style fitness center, each section targeting a different aspect of a workout.

The center has more than 30 pieces of body weight equipment. It is designed with a seven-movement, seven-minute system to provide a workout for people of all abilities.

Construction is planned to start by the end of 2018 at the fitness park, located near the Farmer’s Market off U.S. 701 North. The addition will be situated immediately in front of the parking lot, allowing for easy access.

In addition to building a new fitness court, the NFC will provide a downloadable app in partnership with Fit Radio. The app allows users to find workouts using the equipment and syncing it to music. NFC compares it to having a free personal trainer at people’s fingertips.

“There aren’t obstacles to anyone joining a gym because it’ll be free,” Strickland said.

Applying for the project and grant happened very quickly, Strickland said. She had been looking for ways to improve the Columbus County Fitness Park when she found the 2018 NFC. Usually, Columbus County struggles with grant opportunities because grants are based on per capita demands, Strickland added.

The first time she requested the NFC come to Columbus County, officials said no. Strickland tried again, eventually winning them over after they saw the fitness park.

“For whatever reason, everything’s falling into place,” Strickland said.

Being awarded the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust grant was a major part of securing the NFC’s support. While NFC foots $10,000 of the bill, it costs cities or counties requesting installment $60,000. Strickland didn’t have the funds from the Parks and Recreation Department budget, so she looked for other funding.

The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust is the legacy of the late Kate Gertrude Bitting Reynolds, who was married to William Neal Reynolds, chairman of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. The family established the trust in 1947 and it is now one of the largest private trusts in North Carolina. Its mission is to improve the health and quality of life of financially disadvantaged residents in North Carolina.

“This funding will establish an accessible outdoor training system without a cost barrier and give residents the ability to improve their overall health,” Strickland said.

For some time, Strickland asked for feedback on the fitness center. She pitched the opportunity to Rachel Smith, an organizer of Girls on the Run, and other members of the county who are invested in providing fitness for the public.

Everyone was excited and supportive, Strickland said.

By 2019, Columbus County will have the first “new age” Fitness Court in North Carolina, according to a spokesperson for the NFC.

“I’m really excited that it doesn’t matter if it’s an 80 year old or an 8 year old,” Strickland said. “Anyone who wants to be healthy can use it.”

Jobs Foundation members hear good economic development news

Allen Turner, The News Reporter

Members of the Columbus Jobs Foundation heard lots of good local economic news Monday at their annual spring meeting at The Spillway outside Whiteville.

They heard presentations from Ron England of Cape Fearless Extreme, a zip line adventure park in Delco that has just started operations, from James Harris, the chief operating officer of an Australian transportation company that expects to triple its business here in six months (see story on page 1), and from the owner of a Cerro Gordo winery whose firm has just picked up a major contract for distribution of its product.

Jobs Foundation Chairman Les High presided over an informal gathering in which members were told that Shizzy’s Big Cat Sanctuary in Fair Bluff has cleared almost all zoning hurdles and expects to employ 15 people in three years, Gann Memorials Plush Toys now employs 20 people in Tabor City, an agribusiness firm is looking at the former Nice Blends building in the industrial park, there is renewed interest in the former Tortimex building in that same park, and that Whiteville Fabrics has just purchased five additional acres for possible future expansion of its operation in the old Conflandey building.

RadixBay, the computer consulting center at the Tabor City business incubator, now has 10 employees and hopes to hire 10-15 more if it can score a contract with a Fortune 500 company the Jobs Foundation just entertained.

There’s only one parking spot left at the Tabor City incubator. “That’s a good problem to have,” High said.

Hans Schreus of Cerro Gordo’s Carolina Vintage Winery told the group that his company’s signature blueberry wines, now sold in 27 stores, will soon be offered in more than 500 stores in North Carolina, thanks to a new contract with Food Lion. In addition, he’s looking at venturing into a wine canning venture. “Over the last four years, we’ve had a lot of people say they like our wine, but they can’t take it onto the beach with them, so we’re going to start making a canning wine that people can take to the beach,” Schreus said.

High touted the recent purchase of the former Georgia-Pacific site by the RJ Corman Railroad Group as the biggest economic decision in Columbus County in the last 20 years. “If they had not purchased the site, it would have been scrapped and it would have looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off there. It’s an industrial park within an industrial park,” he said.

He called Corman a “first-class operation” that has its own economic development arm. “They have 12 employees in Chadbourn and have gone from zero to 12 industrial customers since they’ve been operating here. When that G-P site takes off, they hope to have a number of train crews working out of Chadbourn with many more employees.”

High also said that final negotiations on “Project Black,” the still-unidentified bio-fuels company that wants to locate on the former G-P site, are well underway. “It’s getting close,” High said, “and there’s a good chance that you’ll see not just Project Black, but two or three more companies on the G-P site.” That’s in addition to S&A Railroad Ties, whose manager, Columbus County native Ron Gaskins also was introduced to the group.

The site could easily employ more than 200 people if other companies locate there.

“Columbus County needs a win right now and I think we’re going to get a big one this year,” High said. “Momentum is everything, and we’re looking forward to moving forward at the G-P site.”

Rick Edwards, who recently stepped down as head of the Jobs Foundation, reluctantly accepted recognition from High, who presented him with a Jobs Foundation hard hat. “Rick took the old Committee of 100 and reinvented it to form the Jobs Foundation,” High said. “For three years, we had a full-time volunteer in Rick. He put his heart and soul into it.”

NCSU class unveils options for rebuilding Fair Bluff

October 5, 2017 | Allen Turner

A fall semester postgraduate class at the N.C. State University’s College of Design in Raleigh has proposed several potential plans to renovate flood-damaged downtown Fair Bluff.

Students were asked to come up with their visions for rebuilding the downtown area, and their proposals were unveiled at a meeting in Raleigh last week.

Adam Walters, a graduate teaching assistant in the School of Design, coordinated the meeting, which was attended by four Fair Bluff-area residents but by no officials from the Town of Fair Bluff.
The site boundaries for which students were asked to develop theoretical plans were the riverside of downtown, the area between the river and the buildings on the north side of Main Street from an empty lot beside the N.C. 904 bridge over the Lumber River to the new Town Hall in the former BB&T bank building.

Walters said students were asked, “to extend their design to include the Riverwalk and the adjacent forest land. Students are tasked with creating forward-thinking designs that will help to inspire revitalization efforts in downtown Fair Bluff. This review was the culmination of the conceptual design phase.
Students will now incorporate the feedback they received from the review into a final plan. The remainder of the semester will have them creating construction documents for that plan so that each of the 15 students’ designs should be ready to build if there were funding and support from the town.”

Walters issued a disclaimer that students often create designs that would be too difficult or too costly to implement, so there is not a strong expectation that the designs presented last week will be put in place as they were presented, but he said they could be the start of a conversation about downtown redevelopment.
Concepts ranged from establishing facades of existing old structures behind which a farmers’ market would operate to setting up cabins along the Riverwalk in which “artists-in-residence” could reside.

Four Fair Bluff locals, chamber of commerce President Kathy Ashley, Evelyn Waddell, Carolyn Foley and Gayle Hayes, attended the three-and-a-half hour meeting in Raleigh last week, and they said that many of the design ideas presented look promising but that other ideas were not realistic.

Among other attendees were Lincoln Walter, a certified urban planner who has been retained by the State of North Carolina to work with Fair Bluff in helping come up with ideas to redevelop the town after the flood, Chilton Rogers, director of community engagement for the N.C. Rural Center, Jessica Southwell of the state’s disaster hazard mitigation program, Antonio Rowland and Brandie Haywood of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Robby Layton and Andrew Fox of the NCSU School of Design faculty.
Walther plans to be in Fair Bluff Monday to continue gathering information for a study on identifying techniques to retrofit Fair Bluff to prevent future flood damage and to assess feasibility and associated costs.
All four Fair Bluff attendees at last week’s Raleigh meeting said they were impressed with the designs presented, although they felt some were somewhat unrealistic because, when students were assigned to come up with redevelopment plans for Fair Bluff, they were given no budget restraints. Before plans can be implemented, funding would have to be obtained.
Ashley, the chamber president, said she was impressed to see the visions of young people from outside Fair Bluff.
“It was very interesting,” she said. “Now whether we can get these things done is something else. The students are not involved thinking about funding because their professor told them to go into it like they don’t have a budget and to only think about design.”
Ashley said that some of the proposals would keep existing buildings in downtown Fair Bluff, while others would eliminate those buildings. “Andrew Fox, a professor, said he grew up in a small town of 1,200 people, and he told the students they might want to tone their proposals ‘down’ a bit,” Ashley said.

One proposal that all four Fair Bluff participants found intriguing and financially practical was one student’s idea of putting an amphitheater on the former Scott Chevrolet property beside the existing boat landing on the Lumber River.

They felt that is something that might be doable without being too expensive to become a reality.
“I think you could take some of the concepts they came up with and use them, but not everything, because the funding is not there,” said Ashley.

“I thought their concepts of rebuilding Fair Bluff were very interesting in certain ways,” Waddell said. “Some of them had some ideas that I think were practical and usable, so to speak, but some of them were a little bit far-fetched.”

“The students shared a variety of ideas, shedding a ray of sunshine on a bad situation,” said Gayle Hayes. “It was so good. They were only discussing the riverfront and backstreet behind the stores and, of course, there are a lot of people who are upset about their homes and businesses being destroyed, and you can’t have one without the other.”

“It gave you an upbeat feel that Fair Bluff is not forgotten,” Carolyn Foley said. “I felt like some of the students, the ones who had visited Fair Bluff, were in touch with reality, but some others were not. But they had some really good ideas and I think that, if you took a couple of their ideas and put them together, it would be a good fit for Fair Bluff.”

Foley said that money to implement whatever plans are agreed will be the big issue.
Both Waddell and Foley were critical of the fact that town officials did not attend the session.

“My complaint about that meeting is that none of the powers that be went. It bothered us that, out of all of Fair Bluff, only four women cared to go. We were upset by that,” Waddell said.
Foley was even more emphatic. “It’s worse than a shame that nobody from the town went to the meeting. Here they are, these people in Raleigh, trying to help us and nobody with the town government cares enough to go and see what they’re doing or give them any input.”

Walters said the design group will probably hold another meeting, this time in Fair Bluff, in the near future, and that suits Foley. “I think it would be really good for them to talk to a whole bunch of people in Fair Buff. They need to talk to the ‘Average Joe’ in Fair Bluff.”

County accepts R.J. Corman offer of $2.15 million for G-P property

October 5, 2017 | Allen Turner

Columbus County commissioners Monday night unanimously voted to accept an offer from the R.J. Corman Railroad Group to purchase the former Georgia-Pacific property between Whiteville and Chadbourn for $2.15 million.

The Nicholasville, Ky. railroad company, which in 2015 obtained ownership of the former Carolina Southern Railroad that operates in Columbus, Horry and Marion counties, will have 30 days to close the sale or forfeit $50,000 in earnest money to the county, and Corman’s senior vice president for commercial development said Wednesday that the company fully intends to exercise its option to purchase the land.

Corman’s Noel Rush was succinct in commenting on the deal. “Here’s the thing,” he said. “Our plan to purchase that property is consistent with our intent to add increasingly significant freight rail on our Carolina Lines company, and that’s it. That’s what this is about. Increasing freight rail is a means to that end.” Rush expressed thanks for the support of the county commissioners “that awarded this opportunity to us.”

Rush wasn’t sure exactly the land deal will be closed, but emphasized that the company fully intends to purchase the property.

Columbus County commissioners voted 6-1 in November to buy the property from Georgia-Pacific for $1.896 million with Chairman James Prevatte casting the lone dissenting vote.

Project Black, a company whose identity has never been publicly announced, then obtained an option from the from the county to purchase the property, but their option expired at midnight Friday. Project Black had been under deadline to obtain financing for Phase I construction and didn’t do so by the time its option expired.

Project Black officials had said they would employ more than 150 people initially, which would make it the most significant new industry announcement here in years, but Project Black was unable to obtain necessary financing for the before their option on the property expired. When Project Black couldn’t finalize the purchase before their option expired, R.J. Corman Railroad stepped up to make the buy.

Despite having voted against the county acquiring the property in November, Prevatte Tuesday characterized the sale of the property to Corman as a “great opportunity” for the county. “We’re dealing with a strong, financially stable company (Corman) who has all kinds of options on what they want to do on the development of that property. I can see numerous jobs coming out of any of the options they choose to exercise.”

Although he was enthused about the sale to Corman, Prevatte defended his November vote against the county buying the property and said that he would vote the same way again if given the opportunity. “I still would have voted no, because we were talking about getting into business with a company (Project Black) for which I did not see any history or anything concrete to show me that they were going to have the ability to purchase,” Prevatte said.

If Corman hadn’t stepped up at the last minute,” Prevatte said, “we’d have been owning $2 million worth of property that was off the tax books and we would have been spending $7,000-10,000 a month on maintenance and security at the site.”

“I was afraid in November that we were going to be holding a pig in a poke and, if it wasn’t for Corman, we would have been. I didn’t like to see the county in that situation,” Prevatte said. “But Corman has a strong economic development arm and things are going to happen. Corman can sell, they can lease, they can subdivide and they can devote the property to their own use.”

Prevatte said that, in addition to paying $2.15 million for the property, Corman also will reimburse the county for any expenses it has incurred in maintaining and providing security at the site since November.

Observers see Corman’s purchase of the property as a major development in making the former G-P facility a viable industrial site once again. Corman will work with Project Black until it receives the financing it needs to begin operating. In the unlikely event that Project Black falters, R.J. Corman will partner with the county to find another company to bring jobs to the G-P site.

Yet another company, S&A Railroad Ties, also is prepared to set up shop at the site as an ancillary business to Project Black.

Columbus Jobs Foundation President Rick Edwards, who has worked closely behind the scenes with county Economic Developer Gary Lanier and the county Economic Development Commission, was ecstatic. “R.J. Corman buying that property is the greatest economic development news ever to hit Columbus County,” Edwards said Tuesday. “I think Corman buying the G-P site rivals the Riegel Paper (now International Paper) deal way back in the 1950s. I really believe it’s that important for future economic development here. If you look at the total puzzle that Corman is creating now, they’ve got a rail line with Project Black and other ancillary companies as drivers for the rail cars going out of Whiteville to the CSX line. This not only will create a huge amount of revenue for Corman, but also will make a major economic difference in Columbus County.”Edwards added, “With Corman’s help and with the help of North Carolina’s Southeast, we will be able to work together to accumulate ancillary businesses working together on that 145 acres to improve the local economy.” NC’s Southeast is an 18-county public-private economic development consortium headquartered in Elizabethtown that is headed by Columbus County resident Steve Yost.

Chairman Harry Foley of the Columbus County Economic Development Commission said, “We are delighted the county commissioners could work out the deal. It’s a positive all the way around. The commissioners ought to be commended, and so should the Columbus Jobs Foundation, the Economic Development Commission and Gary Lanier.”

Lanier, the Columbus County planning and economic development director, said, “Project Black is such a critical project for the success of the railroad operation and for the economic development of Columbus County. It is great that R.J. Corman is going to be able to help Project Black locate on the site and come to fruition.”

The economic developer revealed for the first time Tuesday that Columbus County still is in competition with an unnamed Oklahoma location for Project Black but said that with Corman’s acquisition of the G-P site, “Project Black will be a go in Columbus County.” He added that several other companies besides Project Black also have expressed an interest in the G-P property. “But Project Black will be able to get their financing now,” Lanier said. Project Black has received approval for issuing millions of dollars in solid waste recycling bonds to finance construction and start-up of their plant here, but the firm is awaiting a required air quality permit before those bonds can be issued.

“I am nothing but impressed with R.J. Corman railroad and all their folks,” Lanier said. “They are going to be a superior partner when it comes to economic development in Columbus County.”

The county commission chairman, Prevatte, heaped praise on County Attorney Mike Stephens, who also is serving as interim county manager while a replacement is sought for former manager Bill Clark.

“Mike Stephens is the one who put this deal together,” Prevatte said. “He worked all the way, even up to the eleventh hour, and he already had the deal signed by Corman when we met Monday night. Mike kept me abreast of developments all along and he was a very good asset throughout the negotiations. He had the legal expertise to handle the deal and it certainly helped that he had built a good relationship with the folks from Corman. I give him all the credit for making this thing happen.”

Aerial adventure park projected to open in Riegelwood this spring

November 13, 2017 | Allen Turner

If things go according to plan, a new tourist attraction that probably also will be heavily utilized by locals should be completed by this spring, Columbus County commissioners were told at their meeting last week.

 Ron England, general managing member of Envalish Recreation, LLC, told commissioners that his company has purchased 26 acres at 1571 Neils Eddy Rd. in Riegelwood. Preliminary work has been done on the site by Duke-Progress Energy, paths have been cut on the property and builders will begin two or three months of expected construction work as soon as they finish repairing hurricane damage at a similar facility in Florida.

“We look to be ready to rock and roll and have the park open by early spring,” England told commissioners. A highlight of the park experience will be ziplining, but other aerial adventure options, such as wobbly bridges, cargo net climbs and swings also will be included.

The entire park is designed to it blend into the natural forest habitat, giving users a sense of “being lost in the woods.” England said the fact that his group has 26 acres has allowed a design that permits the park “to kind of wander and kind of zig-zag through the woods.”

Park adventurers will be anywhere from 10 to 70 feet above the ground, but safety will be a major design issue. Guests will be harnessed in with lifelines with double-fail protections to prevent accidents. “Our safety equipment goes above and beyond anything required by the state. Our harnesses will make it physically impossible for someone to unclip their safety lines and either fall or step off the platform,” England said. “Everything our park users will do, they’ll be clipped in from the overhead the entire time, and the maximum they possibly fall would be about six inches,” he said.

England and one of his four partners have 17 years experience in an industry that is only about ten years old. The Riegelwood site was chosen because of its abundance of mature, healthy trees with natural shade to give park-goers a “lost in the woods” feeling. Another factor in selecting the site was relative easy of access from major highways like U.S. 74/76, N.C. 87 and U.S. 17.

Research also indicated to the developers that location area essentially is between the property centers of Wilmington, Fayetteville, Jacksonville and Myrtle Beach, making it a prime area from which to draw customers.

“Through research, we’ve found that people don’t mind driving two hours or more to get to a facility like ours,” England said. “Once they’re on site, to completely navigate the course will take users about four hours.”

Everything will be built in a natural environment and construction techniques will be employed to keep trees from being damaged, England said. “We’re not hippy tree-huggers, because we’ll cut down every tree we have to in order to build this park the correct way, but we will preserve the environment.”

Although paths already have been cut on the property and Duke-Progress Energy already has installed underground light poles and pedestals, construction will begin in earnest as soon as crews from Outplay Adventures, LLC, the exclusive U.S. builder for TreeGo (which has built similar parks worldwide), finish hurricane repair work in Florida.

Outplay takes special care and concern, England said, to customize each park to blend in with its natural setting and minimize environmental impacts to maximize tree health. The company uses a compression system that secures platforms to trees without damaging those trees in any way, and no chemically treated wood is used in the construction process.

In addition, England said the course builders further minimize damage to trees by climbing without spikes. “In addition to having fantastic carpentry skills, they have to be great rope tree climbers, too,” England said.

Platforms will be attached to trees by two sets of logs that act as vises. That not only eliminates damage to trees from nails and spokes driven into the trees, but also allows for expansion as trees grow or tightening if a tree shrinks. “We make our money on the health of our trees,” said England, “so we don’t want to damage them at all.”

England believes the area is ripe for a venture like his to be financially successful here. He gave commissioners demographic numbers from the N.C. Dept. of Commerce showing that in 2013 alone, tourism-related spending was $477 million in New Hanover County and $470 million in Brunswick County, while Columbus only saw $49.59 million in tourist expenditures the same year.

“A lot of tourists will come to this area, and a lot of locals will use the park, too,” England said. “I want to take some of that tourism money out of Brunswick and New Hanover and bring it into Columbus County. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur that we’ll be taking $300 million away from those other counties, but I believe we can get our share of those tourism dollars.”

In response to questions from commissioners, England stressed that safety will be a primary concern in the design and operation of the park, with part-goers being required to use fail-safe safety harnesses and equipment.

He also said the park will be available to local civic, Scout, church and school groups, as well as by fire and EMS groups for training purposes. The rates for local groups will be much less than charged to tourists.

“We want the park to be well-received by local residents, as well as by tourists,” England said, “and we absolutely will keep it affordable. What we charge local groups won’t be close to our normal daily rate. It probably will be as much as 50 percent off. We’ll try to make sure we’re charging enough to pay for our guides without operating in the red, but we are not looking to get rich off of local groups.”

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CCCA business advisory board meets in Fair Bluff

The inaugural meeting of
the Columbus Career and
College Academy business
advisory board was held recently
at the CCCA Fair Bluff
campus. The group, composed
of school representatives and
business leaders from the
community, will meet again
in November.
Business and stakeholder
representatives in attendance
included Jennifer
Holcomb and Karen Grainger,
presidents of the Columbus
Chamber of Commerce and
Tourism and the Greater Fair
Bluff Chamber of Commerce,
respectively, David Baker
of owner of Baker’s Bug
Business in Fair Bluff, plant
manager Tony Rogowski of
Ply Gem Building Materials
in Fair Bluff and Gary Lanier
and Samantha Alsup of the
Columbus County Economic
Development Department.
School faculty present were
CCCA Principal Nicky Hobbs,
career development coordinator
Rod Lykins, broadcasting/
radio/video teacher Alisha
Alston, drafting, metals and
scientific visualization instructor
Lionel Sweat, masonry
instructor Fred Mason
and chef Sherman Axelberg,
whose culinary arts students
prepared the meal for the
occasion.
But the stars of the meeting
were several students who
have excelled in regional, state
and national competitions.
Broadcasting student Emily
Pridgen, along with classmate
Blair Watts (who was not present
Tuesday), won first place in
the nation in a recent Public
Service Announcement competition,
and she attended to
discuss the award and the efforts
that went into it.
Other students who briefly
spoke included SkillsUSA
regional and state commercial
winner Hannah Brown,
who also was instrumental
in CCCA’s Barbecue on the
Bluff competition entry, regional
and state culinary
arts SkillsUSA winner Tris
Faulk and Maggie Barnhill,
SkillsUSA local pledge contest
winner.
Faculty members gave updates
on their programs and
discussed upcoming events in
which their students will take
part, including SkillsUSA state
leadership training, the masonry
contest at the N.C. State
Fair, the N.C. Yam Festival
and the N.C School Boards
Association video contest.
Principal Hobbs encouraged
the visitors to sign up to come
out to the school and speak to
students about what they do,
work ethic and what it takes to
be successful. Plans for a chicken
bog fundraiser and ideas for
funding the school’s radio station
also were discussed.
The group’s next meeting
will be Nov. 29 and Hobbs said
that a major positive announcement
involving the school and
the community will be made at
that time, but that he couldn’t
discuss details until then.

CCCA broadcasting student Emily Pridgen, right, discusses how she and classmate Blair Watts won first place in the nation in a public service announcement contest. Their PSA on bullying, which they wrote and announced, is being broadcast nationwide through the National Association of Broadcasters. Looking on are culinary instructor chef Sherman Axelberg, seated, and Hannah Brown, award-winning commercial baking competitor in state and regional SkillsUSA contests.

CCCA broadcasting student Emily Pridgen, right, discusses how she and
classmate Blair Watts won first place in the nation in a public service announcement
contest. Their PSA on bullying, which they wrote and announced, is being broadcast
nationwide through the National Association of Broadcasters. Looking on are culinary
instructor chef Sherman Axelberg, seated, and Hannah Brown, award-winning
commercial baking competitor in state and regional SkillsUSA contests.