LUMBERTON — Thirty municipal officials from across the country are getting a taste of Lumberton this week at the annual conference of the National League of Cities Small Cities Council.
The Small Cities Council works to create visibility for cities with populations less than 50,000, and to ensure that the interests of these communities are reflected in the league’s policies and programs. It also serves as a forum for sharing ideas and practices that work best among smaller communities.
The council includes city councilmen, mayors and city administrators from at least a dozen states, including North Dakota, New York, Texas, Oregon and Minnesota, according to Lumberton Councilman Leon Maynor, who is its chairman.
The conference is held in the small city or town of a different council member each year, and is in Lumberton from Wednesday to Sunday.
Council members kicked off the event Thursday with a series of presentations and workshops at City Hall, including a presentation on loan and grant programs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“What we do is share ideas about how we have survived through economic times,” Maynor said. “Lumberton really has not done bad. I was very pleased with what we had to present to them.”
Highlighted during the Lumberton presentation were the new Police Department and Northeast Park, which are among the projects the city has received federal funding for. In the past two years, Lumberton has received about $10 million in federal funding for such projects.
After the presentations, the council members boarded a bus and took a tour of Lumberton, including stops at Northeast Park and Robeson Community College.
“That’s one that we take pride in. We’re having to do a little bit at a time, we’re using different types of funding sources,” Maynor said of the park. “Part of what we did at Northeast Park was a partnership with our community college, because the president implemented our heavy equipment program and in doing that, they actually were training on our ball fields. They cleared the ball fields and did a lot of things.”
The council rounded out the tour with visits to the Department of Social Services building, the Lumberton Regional Airport and the new multi-purpose pavilion at the Southeastern N.C. Agricultural Center. They capped off the day with dinner at Fuller’s Old Fashion BBQ and the Alive After Five concert series in downtown.
“It’s beautiful. I haven’t ever been out to this part of the country,” said Marie Lopez Rogers, mayor of Avondale, Ariz.
Rogers, who’s been mayor for five years and a member of the council for 16 years, said she’s seen firsthand the improvements that come from governments meeting and collaborating. Her city’s population has grown from 30,000 to 78,000 in about 10 years.
“To go around the country and hear people talk about what they’ve done, how it’s worked and how it hasn’t worked, that’s lessons learned that we can take back to our cities,” she said.
After a series of presentations and discussions today, the council will take a driving tour of Pembroke, with educational stops at Old Main on the campus of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, an American Indian museum and a special presentation by the Lumbee Tribe at the tribal housing complex.
“We basically showcase our city,” Maynor said.
Throughout the rest of the visit, the council will get to sample more Lumberton cuisine, including The Village Station Restaurant and Tuscan Garden. When not in policy meetings or workshops, council members will get to take in the movie “War Wagon” at the Carolina Civic Center, and experience Luther Britt Park with dinner on the beach following.
Clyde Schulz, a town councilman from Beulah, N.D., said he comes from a town of about 3,000 people in a state of about 600,000. Robeson County, by comparison, has a population of about 134,000.
“I was surprised how big Lumberton is, square mile wise. The population is spread out a little bit,” Schulz said Thursday while holding his first plate of southern barbecue at Fuller’s. He said the most impressive site on the tour of Lumberton was the pavilion, which was financed with a $3.7 million allotment from the state General Assembly and a $1.2 million grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation.
Schulz said he’s never been to the South before, and that it’s been “interesting” so far.
“Again, I’m North Dakota, so trees are something we don’t have up there,” he said. “We’ve got them, but it’s far in between. We’re flat, rolling plains, a lot of wheat fields. There’s no mountains in the whole state.”
In addition to ideas on governing a municipality, Schulz said networking is also attained through the conference.
“You start talking, you drum up a friendship. Two months from now, I got no problem calling up Leon and saying, ‘Hey, we saw this. What was that about?’” he said. “… There’s a lot of things here we’re never gonna have, never gonna afford. But yet, there’s a lot to pick up and drive home and try to do some stuff.”