RALEIGH — A legislative directive to relocate the headquarters of the Lumber River State Park from Princess Ann Landing near Orrum to Fair Bluff in Columbus County reappeared this week in a budget bill that is nearing approval by the General Assembly.
The news has upset Lumber River Park supporters, but Sen. Danny Britt Jr., a Republican who represents Robeson and Columbus counties, offered some comforting words Wednesday, saying any move is “extremely, extremely unlikely.” He noted that there is no money provided for the move.
Two sentences mandating the move were inserted into an early draft of the Senate budget bill. The initiative was engineered by Britt, Rep. Brenden Jones, a Republican who represents Robeson County and parts of Columbus County, and Sen. Bill Rabon, Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and a Fair Bluff native.
After learning of the possible move in early June, park supporters were told by Britt the mandate was removed, said Colin Osborne, a former member of the Lumber River Basin Committee and one of the original members of the park’s Advisory Committee.
“I was told not to worry, and we may get a substation in Fair Bluff instead,” Osborne said. “I’m astonished. This was done in secret.”
Britt continues to reassure Robeson County residents that the relocation is unlikely, pointing to language in the budget bill.
Section 14.9 of the Senate Bill 257 reads: “The Division of Parks and Recreation of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources may move the Lumber River State Park’s primary office and headquarters to the Lumber River Visitors Center in Fair Bluff. If the Division decides to relocate the headquarters, the Division and the Department of Transportation shall work together to enable and facilitate the move.”
Britt said it would take several million dollars to move the park’s headquarters, and there may not be a site in Fair Bluff that is not prone to flooding.
“The Division of Parks and Recreation does not support a move,” Britt said. “The local delegation will be key to any decision.”
Robeson’s first-term senator said there is a lot of good news in the budget for hurricane relief and other projects in Robeson and Columbus counties.
“It’s unusual for a freshman senator to get anything for his district,” he said “I’ve been working with senior leadership, and they’ve looked out for me.
“It makes more sense to have a (satellite) site in Fair Bluff with staff. I am working for that.”
Osborne said news of a possible relocation was “alarming.”
“Robeson County should not lose this great asset,” said Osborne, a Lumberton dentist. “Princess Ann is the logical place for the headquarters. It is the key feature of the river, which has Wild and Scenic designation.”
Before the flood, Fair Bluff had a Lumber River Visitors Center that was funded through the state Department of Transportation. The town also had a River Walk and is a popular destination for boaters who launch from Princess Ann.
Alan Turner, a reporter for the Whiteville News Reporter and a Fair Bluff native, wrote an article that was published on May 11 about the planned relocation of the park headquarters. He quoted Sens. Britt and Rabon. Turner said Fair Bluff “was essentially destroyed by flooding from the hurricane, including the downtown business district. When all is said and done, I think they will bulldoze it.”
He understood the relocation was a way to help Fair Bluff recover from the flooding, Turner said.
A park footprint in the town would be beneficial for the recovery, said David Scott, who is also a Fair Bluff native and was a member of the Lumber River Park Advisory Board for its first eight years.
“I want the best for my little town,” Scott said. “But — and this is a big but — from the standpoint of the park and how it is designed, it does not make sense. It does not make sense to have the headquarters at the southern terminus of the park.”
From an administrative standpoint, a headquarters in Fair Bluff is not good management, said James Sessoms, who was the Lumber River Park superintendent from 1993 to 2006. The park has two additional sites upriver from Princess Ann: Wire Pasture, near Pembroke, and Chalk Banks in Scotland County. The park encompasses more than 150 miles of the winding Lumber River.
“The impact of locating your supervision outside the park makes no sense,” Sessoms said. “Visitors to the park expect to see an office inside the park.”
From its start, the Lumber River State Park was largely a Robeson County initiative, Osborne said.
“We raised the money for initial planning and environmental studies,” Osbourne said. “A lot of work and public hearings went into the master plan and earning the National Wild and Scenic River designation.”
Gayle Bigelow, Friends of the Lumber River State Park vice president, called time out on changes to the park.
“The people of Robeson County have invested time, money and energy to make this park a reality,” she said. “We are deeply committed to keeping the park headquarters at the Princess Ann location of the Lumber River State Park.
“The Princess Ann site needs many critical additions, a visitor center and a trail system incorporating the newly acquired Big McQueen tract. Expanding the park to Fair Bluff is an idea that has merit, but let’s sit down and talk about it with all the stakeholders.”