First Posted: 1/15/2009
Legerton sees River Way as hub in ecotourism wheel
Rev. Mac Legerton has a dream for the people and land of Robeson County.
Legerton, is not a teaching theologian, but an ordained minister in community work and the executive director for the Center for Community Action.
He is a walking, talking activist for ecotourism and education. He is especially enthusiastic when speaking about CCA's newest endeavor, River Way Outdoor Adventure and Education Center.
Spending 30 minutes with him is perhaps easier and more insightful than reading a Cliffnotes book on this neck of southeastern North Carolina.
Check out his opening statement, which splashes into the heart of the Lumber River while criticizing local ignorance about what he calls “a pristine treasure land of knowledge and history which could be a key to the area's future.”
“We live in a natural theme park and most of the people here have never been on the river,” Legerton said. “This area of the Coastal Plains is the second most humid region in the Western Hemisphere. So if that's true, we have the second most important jungle - second only to the Amazon. All we ever talk about is cultural diversity, ecologically, this land is more diverse and profound.”
Legerton said most people know more details of the three races and little about the land; more about national and international events than Robeson County history, and that few fully recognize the economic power natural resources play in the growth of the area.
“We have all the potential resources to make this a recreation and tourism Mecca,” he said. “It's about finding our niche - just like every creature does in nature. It's there, we just have to develop it and incubate more jobs than we import. Spend more here and it will stay here.”
Waters of life
River Way is one of eight CCA programs, each of which has an annual budget of around $200,000. CCA is a nonprofit organization with seven full-time employees.
The four-acre River Way facility hugs the Lumber River at the corner of Chippewa Street and Kingsdale Boulevard.
In the third year of a five-year structural plan, River Way has made some major upgrades and additions in the past 18 months.
Canoe and kayak tours are now available daytime and evening, aided greatly by donations from the Kiwanis of Lumberton that built a dock and deck. The facility has two canoes and eight kayaks in its fleet. Legerton is seeking businesses to sponsor a canoe or kayak. The $800 cost would include the life preservers, paddles, a corporate name emblazoned on the vessel and provide time on the river for employees.
The plan is to have about 40 canoes and kayaks on hand and later add tubing and rafting events - two extremely popular recreational activities on rivers throughout the country.
In addition to nature studies, River Way teaches boat and water safety. The two-hour canoe trips are perfect for beginner and novice paddlers, and nature-loaded for seasoned canoeists. Cost is $10 for adults and $5 for students.
Churches, civic groups, clubs, schools and families can book two-hour, half-day and full-day trips.
Saturday, the Hyde Park Baptist Church had a picnic at River Way and Legerton escorted 40 people on a river cruise.
The Lumber River Canoe Club put 70 bodies on the water at its annual festival last year and will return Oct. 16.
“Take someone out one time, and they'll certainly come back again and again,” Legerton said. “I think it makes them realize what we have in our own backyard.”
This fall, the facility has plans for educational field trips for schools. It is in the process of developing a curriculum of native plants for the arboretum.
“It's going to be a major attraction,” Legerton said. “We hope to have 500 plants displayed. We want it to be the largest arboretum of edible and medicinal plants in coastal southeastern North Carolina. We want to have information on all 500 plants.”
River Way's outdoor education craft center has been screened in, and added insulation and fans have made it more usable. More life was added when Youth Start workers painted the walls and ceiling with their artistic designs.
Another recent improvement came when fencing was installed around the perimeter of the festival area. Plans are under way to double the size of the 16-by-32 foot stage. The area will comfortably hold 2,000 people for a concert or festival.
Activities such as overnight camping, wall climbing, campfires, picnicking, volleyball, horseshoes and other games and activities are done in another gated area of the property.
The main building has indoor rest room facilities, a kitchen and two meeting rooms. The small room holds about 40 people. The larger R.M. Skipper Conference room will seat between 80 and 100 people. Three ceiling fans cool another screened porch, just off the main building.
While much progress has been made, Legerton has a vision that supersedes River Way's small but picturesque scene.
“We would love to have the many walking trails reopened, see the bike path go to U.S. 74 to make it a 10-mile loop, triple our operating budget and make River Way to this region of the state what the Nantahala Outdoor Center is to the mountains. The inspiration is the nature center at Brookgreen Park in Murrells Inlet (S.C). I just see this having the potential to become a center for nature, education and ecotourism that is far beyond what anyone may have thought it could ever become.”
The kicker of it all is the natural resources of the river and Robeson County area are the building blocks.
“It's right under our noses,” Legerton said. “While the programs of CCA have changed over the last 24 years as we've respond to the needs of our people, the economy and education are our greatest needs.
But will River Way ever reach the high-water mark in Legerton's imagination? “Yes, it's a big dream,” he said before pausing. “But the time frame for development is largely based on leadership of the time and the synchronization of opportunities that are out there … and, the time for opportunity is now.”
Legerton said that the biggest obstacles are staffing and establishing relationships with businesses in the area.
“The City of Lumberton has helped us out as have organizations like the Kiwanis and Ace Hardware,” Legerton said. “What we face now is getting people to see what we are doing. Building this is a community effort. The return is great. We just need people to donate their time or allocate money to fund projects that help children and adults here in Robeson County.”
Grants from the Z. Smith Foundation, Mary Reynolds Foundation, Gold Leaf Foundation and other donations helped set up River Way.
Legerton hopes that some day Robesonians recognize and appreciate the beauty of 50 swamps and 8,000 Carolina bays like many do the beach or a trip to a Carowinds.
In his dream, people will anchor and provide respiration to the area's resources like the “knees” of Cypress trees do in the Lumber River.
For information on the River Way facility, call 739-7851.