LUMBERTON — The Lumberton City Council changed the landscape of downtown Lumberton in about an hour and a half on Tuesday morning.
The council, during a special meeting, authorized three downtown projects that will be paid for with a combination of city money and a $94,340 grant from the state: a system of directional and welcome signs; a new design for the downtown plaza; and upgrades to an alley that runs behind the Carolina Civic Center.
“All of these things will improve the aesthetics of the downtown area, the connectivity and just the overall environment,” said Connie Russ, the city’s downtown development coordinator and a member of Rediscover Downtown Lumberton.
Lumberton was among 53 cities awarded the downtown revitalization grant as part of the state budget approved in June. City staff received information on how the money could be used on Aug. 1, along with a Sept. 1 deadline to tell the state its plans. Another $35,000 set aside in the city budget will also be put toward some work discussed Tuesday.
Because of the quick turnaround, city staff began looking at “shovel-ready” projects that had already been researched and discussed. The city must provide a report to the state by March 31 detailing “how the funds were spent and the outcomes of the project.”
Rediscover Downtown Lumberton pitched the signage known as a “way-finding system.”
Richard Monroe, who is president of the group, told the council it would cost approximately $13,000 for seven “Welcome to Downtown Lumberton” signs and 12 other signs directing visitors to Lumberton landmarks like the plaza, library and Carolina Civic Center. RDL would contribute $3,000 to the project.
Monroe said RDL members — intent on highlighting the Lumber River — went through “probably 5,000 designs” before landing one featuring waves and two people paddling a canoe. The group took cues from other towns where way-finding systems are in use.
“We had no idea there would be money this quickly,” Monroe said. “… This really is an excellent opportunity.”
The downtown plaza will get new brickwork and a new water feature that will better accommodate events like Alive After 5, held there since the construction of the Southeastern Health Performance Shelter. The city plans to replace the current fountain, which is recessed and takes up prime seating area during concerts, with a flat, level feature similar to a splash pad that could be turned off instead of drained.
Several council members and Mayor Bruce Davis said the new water feature was the highlight of Tuesday’s presentations because it will maximize space in the plaza and give children a safe area to play.
Improvements to the alleyway behind the Carolina Civic Center will include brick work, lighting, planters and benches, connecting public parking at the courthouse to the plaza. The plan also includes some improvements to the parking lot next to the Civic Center on North Chestnut Street, including planters and a designated area for trash bins. Councilman Leon Maynor suggested that bricks be sold in dedication to raise money.
The alley is “greatly in need” of lighting, paving and cleaning, said Richard Sceiford, the Civic Center’s executive director.
“These improvements will be really beneficial to the theater and its audiences,” Sceiford said. “We have an increasing number of visitors from out of the county who are seeing downtown Lumberton with fresh eyes. We get a lot of feedback from them about the downtown’s appearance and we know to them this will make a big difference.”
Sceiford said the way-finding system will not only guide people to the theater, but will spread awareness of the theater and other landmarks and show that the city values those places.
“As everybody drives by, they are reminded that we’re here,” he said.
Sceiford said he foresees more visitors to the Civic Center taking a “stroll” to the redesigned plaza.
“Anything to make the plaza more approachable and people feel secure would be beneficial,” he said.
The council on Tuesday also approved the Department of Transportation’s plans to landscape the interchange at Exit 22. The DOT will plant trees, shrubs and flowers at the interchange, with the city taking over maintenance after a year.
City Councilman John Cantey cast the lone vote against DOT’s plan, questioning whether city staff will have the time and energy to maintain the landscaping, especially after recently taking on upkeep at Northeast Park. Cantey said residents he has spoken to would rather see the city clean up vacant lots.
Sarah Willets can be reached at 910-816-1974 or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.