Masonry student wins national contest

By Diana Matthews

Rossy Ballesteros, an advanced masonry student at Columbus Career and College Academy, won $1,000 in prizes this week for her entry in the Build Your Future contest sponsored by the National Center for Construction Education and Research.

 
 
Nancy Ballesteros, left, was learning basic skills in her masonry class this spring as her sister Rossy, right, completed a fi nal Advanced Studies project. Rossy could have graduated in June but decided to stay in school long enough to get her associate degree.

Nancy Ballesteros, left, was learning basic skills in her masonry class this spring as her sister Rossy, right, completed a fi nal Advanced Studies project. Rossy could have graduated in June but decided to stay in school long enough to get her associate degree.

 

Ballesteros is attending CCCA for a fifth year to earn her associate degree after completing Advanced Studies under the guidance of instructor Fred Mason during the spring.

She previously won prizes in SkillsUSA competition and at the H.A. Hardy Memorial High School Masonry Contest. Ballesteros’ senior masonry project, which she completed in the spring, was a custom-designed mailbox pillar incorporating several specialized bricklaying techniques.

Mason remarked that Ballesteros got frustrated with simple assignments he gave her but was enthusiastic about the more complicated jobs. Ballesteros and Mason created a video about the mailbox project and posted it last month at the NCCER’s “I Built This!” website, along with projects by a dozen other high school and post-secondary students.

Each finalist had the opportunity to explain what he or she had constructed and how. Of the other finalists in the contest, seven had completed, or assisted on, carpentry projects ranging from a doghouse to a house.

Three projects were in the heating/air conditioning/ventilation (HVAC) field, and two were metalworking jobs. Ballesteros was the only contestant exhibiting a masonry project and also the only female. Competition was stiff.

Professional judges awarded first-place honors for individual and group competitions for both secondary and post-secondary students. NCCER judges gave the first-place secondary level awards, both individual and group, to students at Carroll County Career and Technical Center in Maryland.

The individual winner had devised a lifting and log-splitting mechanism to meet the needs of a local business.

]The group award went to two students at the same school who designed and built a set of steel and wood steps for disabled children to use in physical therapy sessions. Post-secondary awards went to apprentices already employed in construction trades.

The individual winner’s video explained his role in retrofitting a Washington, D.C. building’s heating and air conditioning systems to achieve “net zero status,” in which the building would produce the same amount of energy it uses in a year.

The group post-secondary award went to a team of young workers assisting on construction of a college dormitory in Virginia. In addition to the judges’ awards, a People’s Choice category was up for grabs, and that is where Ballesteros swept the field.

Visitors to the website cast a total of 4,916 votes over 17 days, out of which Ballesteros received 2,487 votes, or slightly more than all 12 of her competitors combined, making her the clear winner in the People’s Choice category.

In her video at nccer.org, Ballesteros describes the stages of her project and says that she enjoys masonry but probably will not make a career of it.

The online video contest “gives aspiring craft professionals and their instructors an opportunity to showcase outstanding construction projects,” according to the sponsoring group.

Whiteville City Schools posts higher graduation rate

By Diana Matthews, The News Reporter

Kenny Garland, superintendent of Whiteville City Schools, announced that the system had achieved one of the highest graduations rates in North Carolina for the latest school year.

North Carolina’s State Board of Education released the 2017-2018 North Carolina Public Schools Accountability Results for 2,538 traditional schools.

DISTRICT RANKS 20TH IN STATE

DISTRICT RANKS 20TH IN STATE

The city district’s 2018 graduation rate is 91.3 percent, which places WCS 20th out of 115 public school districts across the State of North Carolina.

Students at North Whiteville Academy, the district’s alternative school, graduated at a rate of 77.4 percent, and Whiteville High School had a graduation rate of 93.3 percent.

The overall rate of 91.3 percent “is the highest graduation rate of all districts in the Sandhills region,” Garland said. “According to my records, this is the highest graduation rate ever achieved by Whiteville City Schools.”

While graduation rates are in the top 20, end-of-grade and end of course standardized testing showed WCS ranking 38th in the number of students from third grade up achieving grade level proficiency (test scores of 3, 4 and 5). Also, the district ranked 44th in College and Career Readiness (scores of 4 and 5).

Measures of College and Career Readiness showed that the district’s English Language Learners placed 4th out of 115 districts statewide. The Hispanic population placed 10th out of 115; students with disabilities placed 13th; the black population placed 14th; the white population placed 18th out of 115 and the economically disadvantaged population 33rd.

The superintendent said that the graduation rates and test scores reflected the work done by teachers from kindergarten level through high school. “I believe the efforts made by our schools to promote the value of a high school diploma along with meeting annually with high school students to review transcripts has been very beneficial to our system,” Garland said.

“Beginning with rising freshmen, each student receives individual guidance on how to achieve a high school diploma. Also, beginning in kindergarten, we emphasize the importance of graduating college and career ready.”

Future editions of The News Reporter will detail high school graduation rates from Columbus County Schools and Thomas Academy, a charter school operated by Boys and Girls Homes.

DMA lands on N.C. Mid-Market Fast 40

Tabor City-based DMA Holdings, Inc. (DMA) has been named one of the top 40 fastest-growing mid-market companies in the state of North Carolina for the second year in a row. The parts manufacturer and supplier to the automotive aftermarket industry climbed six spots to number 9 on the list. 

Presented by Business North Carolina and Cherry Bekaert LLP., in partnership with Manning, Fulton & Skinner, P.A. and Regions Bank, the awards honor privately owned or publicly traded companies that are headquartered in the state of N.C. with a net annual revenue in the range of $10 million to $500 million, which have demonstrated sustained revenue and employment growth over the past three years.

The 40 honorees will be featured in the November issue of Business North Carolina magazine.

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GOVERNOR ROY COOPER VISITS

Gov. Roy Cooper looks at pictures showing damage to Jeanette King’s house in Ash from Hurricane Florence in front of the Columbus County Disaster Recovery Center Thursday. The newly opened center is in the former County Board of Elections office. Cooper was also scheduled to visit with leaders from Boys and Girls Homes and survey hurricane damage at Dale’s Seafood in Lake Waccamaw.

Gov. Roy Cooper visits the Columbus County Disaster Recovery Center.

Gov. Roy Cooper visits the Columbus County Disaster Recovery Center.

Businesses benefit from hurricane grants

By Diana Matthews

dianamatthews@nrcolumbus.com



Already 39 county businesses have received $500 apiece as hurricane recovery grants from the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. Jennifer Holcomb, chamber president, was in Lake Waccamaw yesterday morning delivering a check to Dale’s Seafood, and she has traveled the county handing out awards all week. 

“Our application criteria were very broad,” Holcomb said. Recipients had to be small businesses with physical damage from Hurricane Florence. 

The chamber hopes that by infusing “a little bit of capital,” they can help provide struggling businesses with needed momentum “to reopen and keep on employing people.

“A lot more would qualify,” Holcomb said. She hopes the chamber can provide a second round of grants. “That will depend on funding.”

Contributions to the chamber’s recovery fund are tax-deductible. Holcomb said money has arrived in large and small amounts; one Burlington business with connections to the county sent $200. “That was cool,” she said.

Downtown Whiteville business owners visited by The News Reporter said they will apply the chamber’s grants to floors, walls, computer equipment, furniture, extra labor and lost inventory. 

Many of them have already invested large amounts of money, which was not in their budgets, to repair damage. All have put in hard work to reopen. And all expressed gratitude for the $500 grants.

For Furniture Depot, the money is going to be “a help,” said Bobby Pratt Thursday. “I think we’re blessed to get it.” Owner Darian Ransom will apply the money to ongoing restocking and repair projects, Pratt explained. “It will buy a lot of paint. I admire what the chamber’s done.”

Dyrell Hill of Auto Parts Express, on the corner of West Main and Franklin streets, said the money would go toward replacing inventory that was destroyed. 

At Polished Hair and Nail Salon, stylist Tiffany Nealey said there were damages to the stylists’ workstations as well as to the recordkeeping computer equipment. She thought the owner, Jack Yates, and manager, Cheryl Noble, planned floor improvements as well. “There’s a long list of things” that need to be done, she said. 

Nealey and the other stylists worked together during the immediate cleanup stage to get the shop open again, but “We were out of work for two weeks,” she said. “It’s hard being self-employed.”

At Hewett Glass, office manager Gina Ward looks forward to replacing ruined office furniture. The company was closed for a week and a half, then lost additional days of business due to lingering phone problems that kept customers from being able to call in.

Hewett employees cut out and treated the building’s soaked interior walls. “We got that horrendous smell out,” Ward said, and now,  “I desperately want a new desk. I can’t tell you how much we appreciate the grant.”

Earl and Diane Stewart are owners of Ed’s Grill on South Madison Street. They plan to replace cracked floor tiles in one dining area and sand and refinish the wooden floor in the other room. As a licensed contractor, Earl Stewart knows how to get the maximum improvement value out of the grant money. 

“It’ll help, and I’m thankful,” Diane Stewart agreed.

Wanda’s School of Dance and Gymnastics has been in its location on East Main Street for 31 years; the building flooded for the first time during Hurricane Florence.

Wanda Thorne’s biggest concern was her custom-built, multi-layer cushioned dance floor, which would be expensive to replace if water rotted it.

Before reopening, she and her husband spent a week of long days removing carpets, scraping up glue, replacing baseboards and painting throughout the building.

Thorne is still not sure that her dance floor is completely out of danger.

The grant money will help to recover some of the supplies the couple bought and two workers they hired. “It will definitely help,” the Thornes agreed. “We’re really grateful.”

Robin Long, owner of The Cutting Edge on Madison Street, missed two weeks of work, during half of which she was unable to travel from her Robeson County home to Whiteville due to road restrictions. “If Teresa (Jacobs, fellow hairdresser) hadn’t been able to come in here and clean up, we’d have been in worse shape,” Long said. The shop was among Whiteville’s first three downtown businesses to reopen. Still, Long found herself short of ready cash for replacing destroyed furniture. She will use her recovery award to provide new seating for her waiting area. “I’m very thankful for the grant program,” said Long.

Robin Long, “I’m very thankful for the grant program.”

Robin Long, “I’m very thankful for the grant program.”

Hearing that yet another downtown business, Sunshine Cleaners, will soon reopen, Long said that people would be excited over the news. “We may not be a big metropolis, but when a business is closed down for a while, people miss it.”

The chamber continues to accept donations for the grant program through a link on its website, thecolumbuschamber.com, and by mail or in person at 601 S. Madison St., Whiteville, NC 28472.

CCCA student in national construction competition

Columbus Career and College Academy student Rossy Ballesteros is one of 13 finalists in the Build Your Future “I Built This!” contest. The award-winning brickmason and her unique mailbox pillar are featured on a website sponsored by the National Center for Construction Education and Research.

Site visitors can see how Ballesteros built her project and vote for her once per day until Oct. 29 for the People’s Choice category, where $1,000 in prizes are at stake.

Ballesteros has previously won prizes in SkillsUSA competition and at the H.A. Hardy Memorial High School Masonry Contest.

Ballesteros is attending CCCA for a fifth year in order to earn her associate degree after completing Advanced Studies under the guidance of instructor Fred Mason during the spring.

The online video contest “gives aspiring craft professionals and their instructors an opportunity to showcase outstanding construction projects,” according to the site.

Columbus Career & College Academy masonry instructor Fred Mason and student, Rossy Ballesteros, a finalist in the Build Your Future contest. 

Columbus Career & College Academy masonry instructor Fred Mason and student, Rossy Ballesteros, a finalist in the Build Your Future contest. 

Educators pledge transparency with sales tax funds

By Diana Matthews

dianamatthews@nrcolumbus.com

The boards of both local school systems and Southeastern Community College want voters to know how funds raised from the proposed sales tax would be put to use.

The Southeastern Community College Board of Trustees unanimously passed a resolution Oct. 9 in favor of the sales tax increase. The resolution said in part:

“Whereas, if passed, Southeastern Community College will provide an annual report to the citizens of Columbus County how the monies are spent for capital outlay needs within the system; 

“Now, therefore, be it resolved that the Board of Trustees of Southeastern Community College urges all registered voters of Columbus County, North Carolina to vote in favor of the Quarter-Penny Sales and Use Tax in the general election on Nov. 6, 2018.”

SCC President Tony Clarke said that the sales tax money will not take the place of funds already budgeted for facilities improvements at the community college but will supplement those funds, allowing greater improvements. He said four major areas where the funds will be immediately used are the welding program, improving library usage, updating science labs and expanding student services.

“We’re in a competitive environment in higher education,” Clarke said. Improving facilities, he said, will allow SCC to do a better job training workers in skills needed for business and industry. “It will help us contribute to economic development,” he said.

The community college will provide a report to the county each year detailing how the sales tax funds have been spent in pursuit of its stated goals.

“We will use the money for capital outlay — for buildings — only,” said Coleman Barbour, chairman of the Whiteville City Schools board. “We will take steps to let people see that we’re using the money appropriately, as we said we would and as the commissioners told us. We will not use the money for anything other than buildings.”

The Columbus County Board of Education passed a similar resolution Sept. 10, the same evening as the city school board.

County schools spokesman Kelly Jones said that, if the tax increase passes, “It means for the cost of 25 cents for every $100 spent, our school system will receive much-needed funds to make crucial repairs.

“We will give a detailed report at the end of each fiscal year describing the exact uses of the funds. This will be posted on our website no later than 30 days from the end of the fiscal year,” Jones said.

The transparency resolution was a proposal by the county commissioners. 

Burr, Acosta and Tillis visit downtown Whiteville

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, left, U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, left, U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, left, U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis listen to county officials and Whiteville business people who were impacted by Hurricane Florence flooding Monday, October 15. The delegation included U.S. Rep. David Rouzer and toured Fair Bluff later in the afternoon.

BB&T to consolidate local operations into new $20 million building along J.K. Powell Blvd.

BB&T announced Tuesday it will consolidate its Whiteville-area operations into a new $20 million facility that will be built at the intersection of J.K. Powell Blvd. and Columbus Street in Whiteville.

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BB&T announced Tuesday it will consolidate its Whiteville-area operations into a new $20 million facility that will be built at the intersection of J.K. Powell Blvd. and Columbus Street in Whiteville.

The 100,000-square-foot building will house the 500 BB&T employees who currently work in nine locations in the Whiteville area, including its Client Care Center on U.S. 701 N.

Phil Marion, BB&T southeastern Regional president, speaks at a press conference in Whiteville Tuesday. Staff photo by Les High

Phil Marion, BB&T southeastern Regional president, speaks at a press conference in Whiteville Tuesday. Staff photo by Les High

“We’re going to combine all of our facilities that we have here into this one amazing center, so our headquarters, our care centers will all come [together as] one family working here to serve our clients,” said Donta Wilson, BB&T chief client experience officer, at a press conference on the Kramer Soccer Field.

The soccer field, as well as an adjacent flea market and former bowling alley will be the site for the new L-shaped building, which will front J.K. Powell Blvd. and Columbus Street. The property is owned by Gary and Robin Kramer.

The bank expects to begin site work on the project during the first quarter of 2019 with an opening date yet to be determined.

“We made a commitment years ago that we wanted to make Whiteville a home for BB&T in a significant way, and we’ve done that,” said Phil Marion, BB&T southeastern Regional president. “And this [announcement] is very symbolic of that continued commitment. To me, this should be looked at as very positive news not only for Whiteville, but Columbus County, southeastern North Carolina and the state of North Carolina.”

Marion said decisions haven’t been finalized about the future of the bank’s current facilities in Whiteville.

“We will sort that out in the future,” he said when asked specifically about the multi-story glass headquarters on Columbus Street. “Today we don’t have plans for that, but we will continue to evaluate it and we’ll make that decision in due time.”

During the press conference, the bank presented a $1 million ceremonial check to Southeastern Community College President Tony Clarke and representatives from the community colleges in Bladen, Robeson and Sampson counties. The four colleges will share the funds to “train and prepare students to be workforce ready, potentially for BB&T’s Client Care Center, and other businesses requiring these skills,” a BB&T press release stated.

In an interview after the press conference, Marion suggested the training could help attract new employers that would utilize BB&T’s existing facilities.

“We’re trying to help these community colleges create a technology curriculum to help not only BB&T for its needs but other companies that would choose to relocate here,” he said. “These are magnificent facilities. You have BB&T, the eighth largest [bank] in America building a state-of-the art facility. You have city hall, who chose to go on the other side of our existing campus. So, I see a bright future for Whiteville and what we’re doing here.”

Public to weigh in on incentives for $22 million bio-gas plant

By Allen Turner

allenturner@nrcolumbus.com

The public will have a chance to weigh in on proposed county incentives for a $22 million bio-mass plant near Clarendon that would create 15-19 full-time jobs. 

The proposed Green Energy Sustainable Solutions (GESS) plant would convert hog waste, as well as silage from county farm row crops, into natural gas that would be sold to Duke Energy and possibly other power companies. In addition to the plant occupying 10 acres of farmland, another five acres will be utilized for storage of bio-mass materials.

Columbus County commissioners Monday night scheduled a public hearing to get feedback on $631,376 in proposed economic development incentives that would be paid to GESS over five years. The company would pay $825,530 in property taxes during that same period, according to estimates by Economic Developer Gary Lanier. GESS would have to pay its property taxes before receiving the incentive grant each year. 

The public hearing will be held Monday, Nov. 5, at 6:30 p.m. 

Shaun Lee, director of field operations for GESS, told commissioners in June that his company wants to build the plant on about 10 acres of the 450-acre Double B Farms at 6022 Old Stake Road. 

The plant in Clarendon would use waste from the 18,000 hogs at Double B Farms, as well as potentially waste from other hog farms in the county. It would purchase row crops such as corn silage, wheat, oats and straw from other farms in the county for use in its green energy process. GESS might also purchase chicken manure from poultry farmers.

While the company has 160 plants worldwide and already operates a different sort of bio-gas plant in North Carolina, the facility in Columbus County would be the first of its kind in the state and Lee did not rule out the possible establishment of other such plants in Columbus County in the future.

Lee said in June that when the plant is operational, it will employ four to six full-time employees making $15 to $25 an hour and an additional 15-20 jobs will be created by trucking contractors serving the plant. 

“The jobs will be permanent jobs,” he said. “The people working will be long-term, 20-year or longer, employees.”

The plant will have an annual revenue stream of $14-15 million, Lee said.

“The benefit is not only that we’ll be providing clean energy in the form of bio-gas to the power company, but also that we will be working with row crop farmers to buy their products, such as corn silage, wheat, oats and straw,” Lee said.

Lee said that the plant would use about 6,000 acres of row crops from local farmers annually, including 3,500-4,000 acres of corn. The crops would be purchased at premium prices under contracts of up to 20 years in length.

“The farmer will be maximizing their agricultural land, not only for one crop, but for three crops that put nutrients back into the land,” Lee said. “We’re working with N.C. State University to make sure we’re producing the proper nutrients from the plant, and then those nutrients will be put back into the soil at the proper levels.”

Although Double B Farms generates enough hog manure to supply the plant, Lee said in June that a feasibility study would also be done to determine whether materials can also be trucked in. 

“Double B Farms has enough hog manure to sustain the size of plant we’re looking at,” he said, “but if we bring in more manure from outside, it would be in sealed containers.”

He mentioned possibly trucking in chicken waste in that June meeting, prompting Commissioner Charles McDowell to voice concerns about possible odors, not only from the plant itself but also from trucks transporting chicken manure. 

“The digesters and the concrete tanks are sealed. The trucks that would bring it in are sealed, too, so you won’t get any smells,” Lee said. “Any chicken manure would be capped in and sealed with minimal ventilation and any materials would be covered. The farm would meet all air and water quality standards.”

Another benefit, the company says, is that the plant will take hog manure out of lagoons and process it for fertilizer and process the resulting methane gas into clean gas to be purchased by energy companies. The gas will be deposited into a gas pipeline to produce clean electricity. 

“By reducing the waste in hog lagoons, it will almost dry up the lagoons except for rainwater,” Lee said. “It will reduce smell and odor and stop any harmful materials from getting into the water table.”

There’s no firm timetable for when the plant will be in production. Duke Energy will be required by law to start buying gas produced by the plant no later than 2021. In the meantime, the company will work with county planners and state air and water quality personnel to make sure all zoning, land use and environmental regulations are satisfied. 

Commissioner Buddy Byrd said in June that the plant could benefit farmers from throughout the county. 

“The company can contract with area farmers to buy corn as it is harvested in July, and then the farmer can contract with them to plant sorghum as a second crop to harvest in October or November, and then put it back in wheat, and the farmer will get to keep the wheat seed,” Byrd said. Lee replied, “That’s right. We just want the straw from the wheat.”


Almost $15 million in state construction grants for schools

by Diana Matthews dianamatthews@nrcolumbus.com

Both local school systems will have millions of dollars in additional construction money, thanks to a Needs Based Grant from the state Department of Public Instruction.

The Columbus County School system has been awarded $10.6 million, and the Whiteville City Schools system has been awarded $4.3 million. State Superintendent Mark Johnson announced the grants this evening. Statewide, 13 school systems shared a total of $141 million this year. The funds are marked specifically for construction of school buildings in economically distressed areas. Last year’s Needs Based Grants totaled $30 million.

Rebecca Owens' kindergarten class enjoys a sunny day on the playground at Whiteville Primary School

Rebecca Owens' kindergarten class enjoys a sunny day on the playground at Whiteville Primary School

“We are extremely grateful,” said Columbus County Schools Interim Superintendent Jonathan Williams. “We’re excited about the potential things this grant will enable us to do.

“With the money we (already) have to plan new construction, things were tight,” Williams said. The schools will continue to make frugal decisions so that “this money is going to go a long way,” he said, but “it will enable us to do things we want to do.”

Whiteville City Schools superintendent Kenny Garland broke the news to principals and audience members attending the Whiteville Board of Education’s monthly meeting only about an hour after receiving confirmation of the award from Johnson. Of the 13 systems obtaining grant money, Garland said, Whiteville City Schools is the only city system.

The announcement came at the end of a presentation by architect Paul Boney and two of his associates at the LS3P firm, in which they outlined details and costs of the Whiteville High School construction project that is soon to be advertised for bidding.

Garland agreed with board members that it would be appropriate to send letters to the Department of Public Instruction and to the General Assembly, thanking them for the support. He also commented that $4.3 million will not cover the WHS project, and “we have needs at the other schools,” so he hoped voters would approve the quarter-cent sales tax increase on the Nov. 6 ballot for continued renovations and maintenance.



Corman gets $600,000 grant to re-establish rail service at industrial park

R.J. Corman Railroad will receive a $600,000 grant from the N.C. Department of Transportation (DOT) to re-establish rail service to the Southeast Regional Industrial Park between Whiteville and Chadbourn, including service to the former Georgia-Pacific plant site that is now owned by Corman.

Corman is one of 14 short line railroads in the state receiving a total of $7 million in matching grand funds as part of the DOT’s short line improvement program.

“We look forward to seeing the positive impact these grant funds have on North Carolina’s short line rail infrastructure, which plays a key role in our economy,” said Julie White, DOT deputy secretary for multimodal transportation. “These improvements not only spur economic development, but also enhance the safety and reliability of rail operations across the state.”

The short line improvement program supports short line rail infrastructure health and performance throughout the state and enables DOT to partner with short line rail companies on rail improvement projects. This partnership helps the short lines meet customer needs in an efficient and cost-effective manner while also preparing them for growing service demands and partnerships with potential customers, according to a DOT news release.

Samantha Alsup is new county planning director

Following a recent decision by the Columbus County commissioners to split the operations of the Economic Development and Planning departments into two separate offices, newly-appointed County Planner Samantha Alsup is preparing to move sometime in the next two weeks from her current office in the county Administration Building on Washington Street to the Miller Building on Jefferson Street.

Samantha Alsup, Columbus County Planning Director

Samantha Alsup, Columbus County Planning Director

Commissioners decided to return to separate departments after implementation of the county’s zoning ordinance in 2014 made it apparent over time that planning operations had become much more technical and time-consuming.

Economic Developer Gary Lanier had agreed to take on the additional role of planning director several years ago, but the role has become more complex. 

Also making sense to them was the appointment of Lanier’s administrative assistant, Alsup, as the new planning director. While most county and city planners in North Carolina hold degrees in planning, Alsup’s background as an attorney will aid her in implementing complex zoning regulations in the county.

“Planning is a very technical field. I am confident that, with her legal background, Samantha Alsup will do a great job as planning director,” said County Manager Mike Stephens.

Lanier, who will now focus exclusively on economic development, was equally supportive of the change. “Samantha has played a key role in handling a multitude of tasks related to the planning department since she joined the county staff almost four years ago,” Lanier said. “As a licensed attorney, she has the ability to interpret and apply planning and zoning statutes in support of our efforts to make Columbus County an even better place to live and work. Her experience and expertise have been, and will continue to be, invaluable.”

Lanier said Alsup’s contributions included helping county residents deal with FEMA following Hurricane Matthew, handing special use permit applications and complaints from citizens about abandoned structures and abandoned vehicles. 

“She’s done all of this while supporting our economic development efforts and while getting the training needed from the School of Government to become a certified zoning officer,” Lanier said. “She is an outstanding asset to Columbus County in her new position and I wish her all the best as she takes on her new role as county planner.”

A native of Columbus County, Alsup grew up in Tabor City, the daughter of Vivian Orrell and the late Johnny B. Edwards. She and her husband, Keith, a banker, live at Lake Waccamaw with their two children. 

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in political science from UNC Chapel Hill, Alsup graduated from the Campbell University School of Law in 1991. She was employed by the local district attorney’s office for 18 years before opening a private legal practice, which she continued for three years before joining Lanier in the economic development/planning office.

She says she looks forward to working with the county planning board and county commissioners to create and fine-tune regulations for land uses within the county. She noted about 14 land uses are regulated by the county’s ordinance. Some have regulations required to obtain a special use permit, while others don’t. 

“For example, when the zoning ordinance was passed we didn’t have any regulations for solar farms, but now we have such regulations,” she said. “Right now we don’t have anything in place for electronic gaming regulations and we need to do that. Electronic gaming is in legal limbo right now, but if the appellate courts eventually say such operations are legal, we have to be ready with regulations on that issue.”

Zoning issues and changes can be technical and cumbersome, with public hearings required before the planning board and, at times before the quasi-judicial board of adjustments, as well as before the county commissioners. With each proceeding, proper legal advertising has to be placed, adjoining property owners have to be notified and input taken from the public. In many instances, education of citizens who might be affected by zoning decisions also is part of the job. 

Alsup believes that with her legal background, combined with specialized training in flood plain management (for which she’s also the county director), zoning, planning regulation and zoning certification from the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill, she is qualified for the challenges that lie ahead as the planning department enters its new phase.

Exactly when her office will move from the county Administration Building on Washington Street to the former offices of the Guardian Ad Litem program in the Miller Building on Jefferson Street is still undetermined, but it is expected to take place within the next two weeks. 

Take the Lake has 577 participants

The 10th Annual Take the Lake brought 577 participants to Lake Waccamaw this hot Labor Day weekend.

Bicycle events included the 16 mile personal endurance challenge around Lake Waccamaw and the 10K Family Bike.

Bicycle events included the 16 mile personal endurance challenge around Lake Waccamaw and the 10K Family Bike.

An estimated 200 people took to the roads and trails Saturday morning during the Walk/Run. Events began and ended at Elizabeth Brinkley Park on the north side of the lake.

A 16-mile circular route challenged some of the runners and walkers, while the family walk and run followed a 10-kilometer (6.5-mile) course from the park to the boat landing near the state park entrance and back.

It was the first time participants were able to cross over dry-shod from the state park’s Lake Shore Trail to Waccamaw Shores Rd. with the help of the new pedestrian bridge near the Lake Waccamaw dam.

The Sunday 14-mile paddle started at Dales Seafood at 8 a.m. with 35 participants. The 16-mile cycle and the 6.5 family bike ride followed in the afternoon.

The Swim began this morning with 14 participants. TTL X-Treme Challenge was still underway at midday with two four-man teams and two individuals competing. The X-Treme Challenge is the only competitive portion of the weekend and combines all four endurance challenges in one intense day.

 

Over 150 walk/run participants completed the Lake Waccamaw State Park section of the 16-mile route over the new pedestrian bridge at the dam.

Over 150 walk/run participants completed the Lake Waccamaw State Park section of the 16-mile route over the new pedestrian bridge at the dam.

35 paddlers including several stand-up paddleboarders made the 15-mile round trip around Lake Waccamaw.

35 paddlers including several stand-up paddleboarders made the 15-mile round trip around Lake Waccamaw.

Property changes hands for Fair Bluff big cat sanctuary

The former automobile dealership property in Fair Bluff that will be transformed into a wildlife sanctuary for big cats has officially changed hands and work is expected to begin soon on the site.

A deed giving Shizzy’s Wildcat Rescue ownership of the former Fair Bluff Motors property was recorded earlier this month to give the nonprofit title to 56 acres. The land was donated by Capital Investments, whose principals are Willard Small, Carl Meares Jr. and David Small.

Shazir “Shizzy” Haque said that one of his longtime supporters, Alisha Brazeau, flew in from Canada for the closing of the real estate transaction. “Our goal is to get to opening day within two years,” Haque said, calling the projected timeframe very realistic.

Haque had high praise for Columbus County Economic Developer Gary Lanier, as well as for Rick Edwards and Les High of the Columbus Jobs Foundation for helping navigate the nonprofit through zoning and ordinance changes in Fair Bluff that had to occur before plans could start being put into action.

He said that the rescue intends to use local companies whenever possible to help stimulate economic growth. 

The facility, which will employ 7-10 workers, including two veterinarians, and utilize dozens of volunteers, will house big cats, such as lions, tigers and bears, as well as smaller species of wild cats and some birds.

The sanctuary cleared its last zoning hurdle in Fair Bluff in July after the town’s planning board approved the site plan. 

Construction will be in phases, each of which will require additional approval from the planning board. Phase 1 will include completion of separate habitats for big cats and smaller cats, completion of a food preparation area and development of parking and animal loading/unloading areas. Phase 2 will include additional big and lesser cat areas and the bird aviary along with a walking path.

The big cat habitats will be surrounded by 16’ high fences, while the habitats for smaller cats will be 10’ high. The bird aviary, which will include a dome-shaped roof, will feature a 15’ fence. In addition, the perimeter of the entire property will be surrounded a 10’ fence. Video cameras and drones will provide surveillance to protect both the community and the animals. The site will have two electrical generators in the event of power failures.

Ever since the concept of the sanctuary first rose, officials of the Fair Bluff government, the Columbus County Economic Development office and the Columbus Jobs Foundation have been hopeful it will be will be a launching point in revitalizing the town after devastation nearly two years ago from flooding associated with Hurricane Matthew.

“If we get people to come here, then they will want to spend money on other things as well,” Haque told the planning board in July. 

Safety will be a major priority in both the development and operation of the facility, Haque said. He has worked with two other similar facilities in his planning, neither of which has had an animal escape. He modeled his plans after their sites. He pledged to maintain close communications with the Fair Bluff Police Department and other public safety officials when the facility opens. 

In another development related to the property transfer, Fair Bluff Auto relocated last week from the former Ford dealership property that will house the sanctuary to 1080 Main Street, the Scott Properties property formerly known as the Scotsman. 

“We all knew this day was coming and our new location is ideal,” Fair Bluff Auto owner Jeff Prince said. “I was determined to keep my business operation in Fair Bluff, and this location gives us more flexibility with a comfortable lobby area, more office space and much better exposure, as we are now in the path of downtown traffic.” 

Lake Bridge officially opens for business

Although the Lake Waccamaw pedestrian bridge has been in use since July 4, it’s finally officially open for business.

State Park Superintendent Toby Hall, along with Dwayne Patterson of the Division of Environment, Health and Natural Resources and Hannah Cockburn of the Department of Transportation cut the ribbon on the $340,000 bridge Tuesday morning. A large crowd of park supporters and town residents turned out for the event.

Dwayne Patterson of DEHNR joins Toby Hall of the Lake Waccamaw State Park and Hannah Cockburn of the DOT to cut the ribbon on the Lake pedestrian bridge.

Dwayne Patterson of DEHNR joins Toby Hall of the Lake Waccamaw State Park and Hannah Cockburn of the DOT to cut the ribbon on the Lake pedestrian bridge.

The bridge was officially opened just in time for this weekend’s Take The Lake personal fitness challenge. Thousands of runners, bicyclists and spectators are expected to use the bridge to make a complete — and safe — 14 mile circuit of the lake. TTL crossed the dam as a crossing in its early years, before safety concerns forced participants to start making an awkward U-turn at the dam.

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.