LUMBERTON — Gov. Roy Cooper made a swing through Lumberton on Tuesday to pay tribute to the community’s resilience and to its future.
He helped break the ground for a new terminal at Lumberton Regional Airport, and later celebrated the future of a business that employs 200 in Lumberton and has been flooded twice since 2016.
REMPAC Foam’s Starlight Drive manufacturing plant survived two hurricanes but faced an uncertain future in Lumberton. A $1.1 million grant through the North Carolina Department of Commerce will pay for the construction of an earthen wall to keep the building dry and its jobs in Robeson County.
The 50-year-old terminal building at the airport is gone, and Cooper took a shovel to the ground for a new $3.1 million terminal that will be in service by March 2020.
Cooper hailed both projects as keys to the economic development of the city, Robeson County and region. As the governor spoke, a small plane took off. He called the sound “wonderful background music.”
“When it comes to economic development, your airport is the front door,” Cooper said. “It sends the signal that Southeastern North Carolina is open for business.”
The new terminal is a “strong investment” in the future of a region wracked by twin 500-year storms within two years, he said.
“Things are looking up, and today, this is an example of a state moving forward,” the governor said.
An architect’s renderings of the new terminal show a building that appears ready for take off. Airport Manager Troy Gammon said the design is called “remember me.”
“When people fly into the Lumberton Regional Airport, this building will stand out, and it will be remembered,” Gammon said. “The citizens own this building, and we want them to enjoy it.”
The two-story building will boast 8,000 square feet, more than twice the 3,000 feet of the previous one. It will have ample seating, meeting rooms and be handicapped accessible.
The airport has two runways, one 5,500 feet long, the other 5,000 feet long. There are 35 airplane hangers on the airport’s property housing about 36 airplanes. On average the airport receives four to five flights a day.
Three years in the planning, the terminal is “much needed” and “a long time coming,” said Bill Tubbs, a local pilot and Airport Commission chairman.
The project is funded through state and federal grants with matching funds coming from the city of Lumberton and the Robeson County Board of Commissioners.
After tossing a little dirt, Cooper traveled less than a mile as the corporate jet flies to celebrate with REMPAC’s owner and employees. The funding for future flood protection at the vulnerable building also was a team proposition, and company owner Mark Bushell thanked city, county and state leaders for their help.
“I thought REMPAC was finished,” said Bushell, whose father founded the company in 1962. “We were devastated and discouraged. There was 18 inches of stinking, filthy, contaminated water in the entire building.”
A manufacturer of household sponges, drywall sanding sponges and packing materials, REMPAC is a survivor of globalism and shifting economic winds. But a second flood and weeks without production and damaged equipment might have finished the company.
“The hard work of our employees made it happen,” Bushell said. “We’re still limping, but to my employees, I give the credit. They worked tirelessly.”
Recovery is one issue, but the future of a twice-ravaged business that remained vulnerable to another flood is a larger issue facing the company.
“Thanks to a creative plan for future flood mitigation, we are here to stay,” Bushell said.
He thanked governments officials for obtaining a Community Development Block Grant to protect the manufacturer in the future.
“Robeson County and Lumberton people are resilient,” Cooper said. “Two 500-year floods in two years are enough to get anyone down.
“This company could have given up, and nobody would have blamed them. They opened back up and began to plan for the future.”
Cooper also credited the entire community and its leadership for pulling together to save the plant.
“We looked at this project as both hurricane recovery and economic development,” the governor said. “Losing 200 jobs is something Robeson County could not afford.”
Cooper said the recovery continues and will continue for years, but the signs are good for the future.
“There are lots of battles yet to be fought and a lot of people to help,” he said. “We are ready to stand with you.”
Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 or [email protected]