LUMBERTON — The Lumberton City Council unanimously approved a conditional-use permit Wednesday that the Lumberton Christian Care Center needs to operate a homeless shelter on Second Street, but did so only after making some concessions to critics of the plan by reducing the number of people it could sleep at one time.
The hearing Thursday had originally been scheduled for Oct. 9, but was delayed because it was not properly advertised. About 60 people crowded the council’s chambers, with proponents saying the shelter would not compromise safety or development in downtown Lumberton, as critics have suggested.
After 14 people spoke for and against, Councilman John Cantey’s motion to grant a permit for a 24-bed shelter with counseling services and a 90-day limit for overnight occupants was approved. The Christian Care Center had originally asked for a permit that would allow as many as 44 beds.
Most people applauded the vote, putting a happy ending to a debate that had at times become contentious.
Before the vote, Jim Parker, a local physician and among the most vocal in opposition, repeated his concerns while clarifying his position.
“We have the need, but is this the best place for it?” said Parker, who stressed he is opposed to the shelter’s new location, not the shelter itself. Parker said he worries that larger shelters can be “magnets for crime” and pointed out the planned Second Street location is near the Partnership for Children, the main branch of the county library and the Exploration Station, a children’s museum.
Although the facility would move just 265 feet from its current location on First Street, that move places it inside Lumberton’s historic commercial district and near the downtown plaza, often a centerpiece for activity.
Parker said in a statement sent to The Robesonian after the meeting he was disappointed that the location could not be changed but called the council’s decision to lower the maximum number of beds “wise.”
Rob Redfearn, a Lumberton businessman who says he has invested heavily in downtown Lumberton, also addressed the council, saying that the shelter’s location would deter potential investors. Redfearn said he has five tourist-oriented projects in development downtown and will probably have to put a few on hold. He declined to elaborate on the nature of those projects, saying that doing so would violate a non-disclosure agreement.
“This really takes the wind out of my sails” he said following the council’s decision.
Those who spoke in favor of the new location reassured the council that children at the Partnership for Children and Exploration Station would not be endangered. Anyone who stays overnight must pass a police check, said City Manager Wayne Horne. Approval is not required to eat at the center’s soup kitchen.
According to Councilman Erich Hackney, Exploration Station and the library have not expressed disapproval of the project.
The new building, which will be paid for with grant money, is needed because the current facility is old and in disrepair.
“We plan to provide a facility that will be the pride of Robeson County,” said Bob Caton, a member of the Christian Care Center’s board. The current center can house about 10 people for no more than three days. The soup kitchen feeds as many as 100 people a day six times a week
Barbara Andrews, a member Christian Care Center board, provided a list of seven sites that were considered before the lot on Second Street was selected, and said there were reasons why each was eliminated. She said the Robeson County Church and Community Center, which is on West Fifth Street, was the board’s first choice, but that the building was unlikely to pass environmental inspections.
Horne also pointed out that changing course now would be a problem as $50,000 had been spent on studies such as the possible environmental impact.
The Christian Care Center has secured a $550,000 Community Development Block Grant for the next 20 months. Horne said, if the location were changed, some parts of the process would have to be redone, likely placing the center’s completion date beyond that deadline. If the Christian Care Center were to that funding, it could also jeopardize a $650,000 North Carolina Housing Finance grant that will also be used for the project.
Once the designs are complete, the project will go up for bid and then into construction, according to Renie Mills, president the Christian Care Center’s board. The center is currently projected to be complete by July 12, 2015.