LUMBERTON — A Maxton commissioner is being accused of undermining the town board and community residents in their long battle to gain control of an abandoned school gym for use as a community youth center.
Commissioner James McDougald, the economic development chairman for the Greater Maxton Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit, has approached both the Public Schools of Robeson County and the Robeson County Board of Commissioners about purchasing the old Maxton High School gym to be used as a community center.
At the same time, town officials and other residents are requesting the schools and county to hand the old gym over to the town so it can provide free athletic and educational programs for children. Those calling for the building to be handed over to the town say that since at least 2000, they have been led to believe by school officials that once a gym was built adjacent to the Townsend Middle School, located across the street from the old high school, the old high school gym would be given to the town.
“The thing that really bothers me the most is that Commissioner McDougald is not supporting the town and working with us to get this building for a youth recreation center, ” said Commissioner Cynthia Johnson. “With this building we could schedule year-round activities for our youth. The only thing now the youth have is the basketball goals located in the park.”
The school system designated the building as surplus property and attempted to turn it over to the county, which declined the offer. The county, by law, has to be given the first chance to purchase the property from the school district.
Ricky Harris, the county’s interim manager, said that the school board has been informed that the county has authorized it to sell the building and use the money from the sale at its discretion.
Johnson told The Robesonian on Thursday that the town will continue its fight to obtain the building from the school system, contending that the gym would have been offered to the town by the county if McDougald had not stepped in and offered to buy the building.
“It was already in the process of being transferred to the town,” Johnson said. “We were all excited that it (the gym) was coming back to the town. We know what this means to our youth and the community.”
In a letter to The Robesonian, Effie McEachin, the mother of town Commissioner Mark McEachin, chastised McDougald for going before the county commissioners and school board and telling the officials that the town cannot afford the building.
“He spoke for the town when he stated the town could not afford it. He had no right to speak for the town, other commissioners and citizens (who) were not aware that he was being underhanded in his dealings,” McEachin said. “… Keep in mind he is supposed to be for improving and the betterment of the town and its youth. McDougald is undermining you, me, and the youth of an opportunity to have a much-needed recreational facility. Even when one such as a public figure doesn’t agree for personal reasons, one usually thinks of the greater good and does the right thing. McDougald didn’t.”
McDougald told The Robesonian that he does not intend to profit by getting the building for the Greater Maxton Economic Development Corporation. He said that his group would be helping the town because it has the private and public funding available to renovate and make necessary building repairs, a project he estimates will cost between $250,000 and $500,000.
McDougald said that his organization is attempting to partner with the town to make a community center available to all residents of the town and the surrounding area. Because of the town’s current financial woes, having others partner with the town to assist in providing services is the recommendation of the state Local Government Commission, he said.
“The town doesn’t need the building. The people need the building and we (town) can’t afford it,” McDougald said.
While the town was responsible for helping to create the Greater Maxton Economic Development Corporation, McDougald said that the organization now operates as its own entity. It is governed by a board of 13 directors, he said.
McDougald contends that the center needs to be available not just for use by young people, but for by all members of the community. He said it would be perfect for providing community events — especially those requiring a large seating capacity — such as family reunions, job fairs, free medical clinics and youth-related activities.
“The youth would have a place in the building, but the center needs to be available to the entire community,” McDougald said. “Having it just for the youth would be like saying the ocean is just for fish.”
Brenda Fairley-Ferebee, who represents Maxton on the county school board, told The Robesonian that this is the first time during the 14 years she has served on the school board that she has seen the county send right back to the school system property that has been designated as surplus.
“If the building is sold, the money received from the sale should be used to fund the schools in Maxton,” she said.
It is unclear when the board will address the issue. The board’s next regular monthly meeting is July 17.
— Reach staff writer Bob Shiles at 910-272-6117 or firstname.lastname@example.org.