Lumberton Civic Center in Limbo

Lumberton, NC – Step into the old Carolina Theater, and you enter an echoingly large space. But for Executive Director Richard Sceiford, the building, which houses Lumberton's civic center, could be much bigger than just its several hundred seats. It could be something that helps define the town's future.

If the town can afford it.

The Center, which has been shut down since May, needs more than a million dollars in restoration work, from installing a new heat and air system, to bringing back office space, to making the bathrooms complaint with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture would have covered those costs. But after several years of preparations, and only two weeks before the Center had planned to kick off its renovations, the Lumberton City Council is having second thoughts about signing on the dotted line.

City Councilman Erich Von Hackney, the Council's liaison with the Civic Center board, points to a lot of factors that have cooled the city's appetite for big-ticket projects. Residents are struggling with increased property taxes after recent reevaluations and higher water and sewer bills to make up a shortfall after two recently announced plant closings. And, he said, voters last year overwhelming rejected a bond referendum to build a park in the northeast section of the city.

"The cards were, in my opinion, starting to fall at that point. One thing was leaning up against another that was leaning up against another, with the hopes that those things would go through. When they started falling, I think that's what put the park and the Civic Center in the demise that it finds itself now." Hackney said.

After some debate, the City Council did vote to go ahead with the first phase of the northeast park project Monday night, authorizing construction of six multipurpose fields, a walking trail, and picnic areas. This phase is expected to cost roughly $770,300 out of the project's estimated $6 to 8 million final price tag.

But at the same meeting, the council decided to keep the Civic Center in limbo, putting off to its November 8th Policy Committee meeting any decision about whether to accept the USDA loan.

Time Running Out

The Council can't postpone its decision much longer. The Civic Center has until next August to use the money from USDA loan. Sceiford thinks that the longest they could hold off on construction and still make that deadline is early January. But things are getting tight.

If the Council votes not to accept the loan, Lumberton can't reapply under this program. And some have voiced concerns that turning down federal money could hurt the city as it goes after grants in the future.

That's not logical, says Hackney.

The officials administering grants should instead respect the city for being fiscal responsible if it refuses loans that would be difficult to repay. That kind of discipline would be "a plus" in administrators' eyes, he said.

Before the next City Council meeting, board members for the Civic Center hope to get a chance to make their case. The board has proposed contributing $15,000 a year for the first ten years toward the loan's annual payment of $85,000, using money from the county's room occupancy tax. After Monday's meeting, Lumberton mayor Ray Pennington said he welcomed the postponement as a chance to talk.

"It'll give their board, their patrons an opportunity to look at some ways they can raise some money toward this expense," Pennington said. "Of course, when you talk about forty years, that's a long time, it's hard to predict that."

The Center's Future

Either way the vote goes this is hardly the end for the Carolina Civic Center. The building, on the National Register of Historic Places, is in no danger of being torn down. It just might be a lot longer before the public is again filling its seats. And Sceiford, who has grand visions of silent movies and a singer-songwriter series, would have to put aside programming plans, to instead direct a major capital campaign.

It's a frustrating situation, he said, after all the planning that's gone into the renovations, to have the city's support suddenly jeopardized. Especially when, as Sceiford sees it, the project is so important to the Lumberton's future.

Standing on the edge of the mezzanine, with the theater's chandelier glittering above and the echoes bouncing off the high walls, Sceiford points out that a lot of North Carolina's small cities are renovating their performance spaces as part of civic revitalization projects. Lumberton, he says, has to decide if it's that kind of city.

"You have to have commitments and just sometimes take leaps of faith in terms of your investments to see far enough into the future to see the value of what you're investing in. And that's certainly the case here," Sceiford says, before leading the way through crumbling side rooms he hopes to turn into non-profit meeting spaces.

A Downtown Asset

With the plaza fountain splashing to itself on a quiet weekday afternoon, downtown Lumberton is a sleepy time capsule of storefront churches, furniture showrooms, and law offices. A sign near the fountain lists the Civic Center's restoration phase five in the Downtown Renaissance Project, the city's official plan to bring more people and businesses to the city's historic core.

Downtown Lumberton Association president Mac Legerton thinks the city's other financial problems make prioritizing arts and culture a hard sell these days.

"We need to do a better job here, and across our rural communities, to educate our officials, Legerton said, to the importance of civic life and culture and its role, not only in generating not just income and business, but in preserving and promoting the spirit of community."

But for citizens like Thelma Horne, whose concern about her utility bills brought her to Monday's City Council meeting, talk of restoring the performance space is a lot of fiddling while Lumberton burns. Things in the city are as bad as she's seen them in her forty years there, Horne says, and the government doesn't need to take on any more debt. UNC-Pembroke has a theatre, if the public wants to see shows.

When they take up the Civic Center's loan again at their November 8th meeting, it will be up to Lumberton's City Council to decide which way to roll the dice in the gamble between investing in the future, and surviving today.

You can find a photo tour of the Carolina Civic Center and downtown Lumberton here. Click on each picture to read about the Carolina in the words of people from the story.