RDL aims high with 10-point downtown plan

Lumberton’s is like a lot of downtowns in North Carolina, certainly those in rural and impoverished areas, gasping for its next breath during a time when people find everything they need at a box store or order it online.

But we doubt many downtowns have a group as determined and as capable as Rediscover Downtown Lumberton, which faces a strong headwind in trying to recapture at least part of what that area once was, a vibrant place where people went to shop, have a sandwich or enjoy a movie at the theater.

One of the downtown jewels, the Carolina Civic Center, endures, and stands almost alone as a reason to visit the area. But it needs company.

The RDL last week unveiled a 10-point, five-year plan that is incredibly ambitious, but it’s better to aim high and come up a tad short than to aim low and be satisfied with a success of less.

The plan is crafted to exploit two of downtown’s main attractions, the Lumber River, which runs right beside it, and the preservation of existing historic structures.

“This event shows that you do care about downtown Lumberton,” Richard Monroe, a retired educator and a leader of the organization, told about 75 people at a meeting last week, among them key officials who will have to help steer the effort. “This is a dream, but it is a realistic dream.”

Some work has been done, including the addition of a covered stage on the Plaza, a roundabout at the intersection of Water Street and Elizabethtown Road and the installation of directional signage.

Some of the plan is low-hanging fruit and can be achieved with little expense, such as: converting the plaza pool and fountain into a splash pad that, when turned off, will provide seating at the stage; conversion of an alley from Third to Fourth streets from the courthouse parking area to the Plaza into an attractive pedestrian link; a viewing platform along the Lumber River at Water Street between Fourth and Fifth streets, as well as a boardwalk above the river bank; a memorial park at the site of the former Robeson County jail at the roundabout; converting one-way traffic on Elm and Chestnut streets into two-way traffic with angled parking; and the use of the Robeson County History Museum as a model for the restoration of historic buildings.

Others are decidedly more ambitious, and will take time — and money, such as sale of the old fire station to a private investor, who would convert the historic building to retail and office space; conversion of the water plant into a craft brewery or winery; sale and conversion of the former First Union/Progressive Bank building at Fourth and Chestnut streets into a boutique hotel or bed and breakfast; and the re-occupation of the former BB&T headquarters by the county.

Several hundred thousand of dollars have been secured for some of that work, but millions of dollars will be needed for upgrades to Carthage Road, the entrance into downtown from Interstate 95, and other enhancements.

We don’t know how much of the downtown’s former glory can be recaptured, but for the area to again be vibrant, people have to be given a reason to head in that direction beyond business at the courthouse. It will take money, but that can be found in grants, and it helps that RDL, which is not affiliated with the city but works as a partner, has a plan in place and people who can implement it.

Much of what RDL envisions is expected to be achieved by the end of 2018, with more time obviously needed for the more ambitious projects. We look forward to watching the transformation of the downtown area, and seeing how many of those 10 points can be successfully checked off.