After two hurricanes, Fair Bluff moves its downtown to higher ground
This is the third installment in our new Main Street NC series from the WUNC Politics Podcast. In the coming months, we’ll be visiting communities across the state to hear from local leaders about the positives going on in their towns, and the challenges they face, from population loss to flooding to aging utility infrastructure.
Downtown Fair Bluff’s historic storefronts are just steps away from the dark waters of the Lumber River and the swamps that surround it. It’s a beautiful, serene location where the waters are low. But when hurricanes bring heavy rains and flooding to southeastern North Carolina, the location can be devastating for businesses in downtown Fair Bluff.
When Hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina in 2016, every business on Main Street was underwater. A few had reopened in 2018 when Hurricane Florence brought more flood damage. With two floods in just two years, none of those businesses returned after Florence.
Mayor Billy Hammond and other town leaders ultimately came up with a dramatic plan to address the issue: build a whole new downtown-style commercial district a few blocks up the street on higher ground.
It means saying farewell to a century of the Columbus County town’s history, but it is likely the only option to bring businesses back to town.
“People are ready for it to go,” Hammond said. “They said at one time they hated to see it go, but now it's getting to be at the point where it is getting to be rundown and getting to be an eyesore.”
The new business district will be called Uptown Fair Bluff. There’s room for 16 businesses in a two-story brick building fronting Main Street. It’s nearing completion and will welcome its first tenants in 2024.
The hope is to bring businesses back to a Main Street that has dwindled to a single restaurant, a gas station, a used car lot and a Dollar General.
And it could be a model for other flood-prone downtowns. About 30 minutes northeast of Fair Bluff, the town of Bladenboro just completed a similar project. It replaced a cluster of old storefronts with new, elevated buildings around a central parking area, called Bladenboro Town Square.
Fair Bluff’s old downtown will soon be demolished and turned into a park. The goal is to create an attractive entrance to the town’s popular River Walk, a boardwalk that runs for about a mile along the Lumber River. The area could become part of the Lumber River State Park, which already includes a campground a few miles up the river.
To hear more about Fair Bluff’s plans for a flood-proof future, WUNC sat down with Hammond and Town Manager Al Leonard at the new town hall, which replaced a downtown building that experienced flood damage from hurricanes.
NOTE: This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Tell me about the history of the town and how it got built next to the river.
Hammond: “Hearsay is that years ago, a lumber company was floating logs down the river and they see this place and they said, ‘this looks like a bluff.’ And somebody said ‘fair,’ and then they came up and named the town Fair Bluff. Until they did away with the tobacco markets, it was a booming town, because we had three grocery stores in town. We had five tobacco warehouses in town.”
Leonard: “Fair Bluff boomed when the railroad came through, which would have been in the 1880s. And like the mayor said, we were certainly an agriculture town based primarily on tobacco. And so although they started out initially as a river town, it evolved into a railroad town, and then it evolved into a farming, agricultural community.”
What did Fair Bluff experience during Hurricane Matthew?
Leonard: “It had been raining off and on for about a week and the river was full. And I remember saying to the town clerk, ‘You know, if this hurricane doesn't turn and go out in the ocean like it's projected to do, we may be in trouble here because the river’s full.’
“And when I thought we would be in trouble, I thought it would be something like Fran back in the ‘90s, or Floyd back in the ‘90s. The river got out, it got in the highway, it came up to the front door of the town hall and maybe got the carpet wet a little bit around the door. That's what I thought we would be facing. The next time I was in the town hall, the fire department drove me in a military vehicle. I had on chest waders, and the water was up to my chest. And everything in the town hall from shoulder down was underwater. I knew then everything in Fair Bluff was going to be dated before the flood or after the flood.”
At what point did the thought come up that maybe simply rebuilding the downtown wasn’t the right path for Fair Bluff?
Leonard: “After Matthew, there were so many state and federal experts that came to Fair Bluff and did studies. There were quite a few studies about what could be done to make the existing buildings more resilient. And then boom, two years later, it happened again. And there were a couple of businesses that had come back, a Japanese restaurant, a beauty salon, places like that. They had come back in and tried to reinvest, and they were wiped out again financially. I don't think after Hurricane Florence there was anybody left that thought downtown Fair Bluff could come back.”
How did the town settle on the idea of building a new commercial district instead?
Leonard: “The mayor and the town council did look at all of the options that were available to them, and they made the decision that we're going to have to relocate to higher ground, we're going to have to build a new commercial area that is not susceptible to flooding.
“It did take an act of Congress: Congress actually had to appropriate a disaster relief bill. They put money into the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration budget of $4.8 million. We had to match that with $1.2 million. And we didn't have $1.2 million. So the mayor and the council lobbied our legislative delegation in Raleigh, and they secured an earmark of $1.2 million. And that allowed us to go out and build a $6 million new Uptown.”
How much interest are you seeing so far in leasing out these spaces as they get closer to completion?
Leonard: “I think there is what I would call pent-up demand. The council has asked the Chamber of Commerce here to be the initial clearing house. The chamber has come up with a list of 13 people who have merely said ‘we're interested.’ And we got a little bit of everything — we've got a restaurant, we've got a bakery, we've got a hair salon, we've got a computer repair business. We’ve got a couple of office users that say they’re interested. There's been a lot more initial interest than we thought.
“It's probably unlikely that we will get a drugstore to come back, it's probably unlikely that we will get a bank to come back. But that does not mean that we can't have a good local economy.”
Is it possible to make the Lumber River more of an asset to the town than a liability?
Hammond: “We could wake up in the morning and have the same situation that we had in the past, but the Lumber River is a calling card for people that are interested in it. We've had people from Pennsylvania, Oregon, New York, and some from California come here and walk the River Walk and put their boats in the river.”
Leonard: “What a lot of people are overlooking is our Main Street is U.S. Highway 76. It's the main artery from Florence (S.C.) to Wilmington. So there's still a lot of traffic on that road. We're less than an hour from the Brunswick (County) beaches, we're less than an hour from the Grand Strand beaches. It's very much the case that our park, yet to be developed, could become a tourist attraction. It has all the ingredients to become one.”
What has the housing recovery here looked like in terms of places that were flooded? Have homeowners gotten the support to elevate their homes or rebuild?
Leonard: “What I've learned is when it comes to natural disaster recovery, don't bring your watch, bring your calendar. If you’re going to time this thing, it takes a long, long, long time to recover. Fair Bluff’s recovery will go as far as someone else's money will take us. So we're waiting on federal money, we're waiting on state money. And when you take their money, you take their regulations, and you take their timetable. So the houses have been repaired, but it's taken a long time. There’s a lot of red tape built into these programs, and it's taken a lot longer than any of us would have imagined. And I'm disappointed in that. But the finished product looks great. If you drive through our community and look at some of these brand-new elevated houses, they look fantastic.”
You’re a couple of miles from the South Carolina line, and some of the towns there also experienced flooding. How has the recovery here with North Carolina’s programs worked compared to what you’ve seen in your South Carolina neighbors?
Leonard: “I think initially, South Carolina was much quicker with their response. However, I think North Carolina's response has been more prolonged. I think South Carolina threw a lot of resources initially into recovery, and then they stopped. In North Carolina, here we are seven years after the hurricane, and Fair Bluff is still getting $12.5 million dollars from the General Assembly for recovery. And if you think about it, North Carolina has set up some things to keep us in the recovery business. We've now set up the Office of Recovery and Resiliency. We've now set up some ongoing drainage programs in the state budget that should be there year after year after year.”