Return to the River
Story by Teresa A Mclamb
Photography By Keith Ketchum
Mulberry Street off Main Street in downtown Shallotte and the road dips. To the left, the Shallotte River flows. From the river, a little finger creek takes off in a northerly direction, trickling under Mulberry and across several acres.
Here in this creek, among oak and pecan trees draped in purple wisteria blooms, is where generations of children have played. Shallotte alderman (and former mayor) Alan Lewis was one of those boys. In the 1960s these woods were his favorite playground.
This fall, a new generation of children have that same opportunity as the first phase of the town’s new Mulberry Street Park opens.
Located on 10 acres behind what generations of locals know as Kirby’s Department Store (now Wings & Fish), running from Mulberry Street almost to Shallotte Avenue, the park will contain a children’s playground, community garden, amphitheater and much more.
At a ground-breaking ceremony in February, Shallotte Mayor Walt Eccard stressed the park’s role in the revitalization of downtown.
“I look forward to the days when this will be the recreational center of Shallotte, when festivals will return to Shallotte and when all of us will enjoy the farmers’ market, the movie and concert series and the natural beauty of this area,” Eccard said.
Plans include construction of a new road that connects the downtown area and provides more accessibility to Mulberry Street Park. Shallotte businessman Robbie White donated land for a piece of that road.
Most of the park land was purchased in foreclosure for $200,000, a very good deal according to Lewis and Eccard. Funding has been made possible in part by grants, including $85,000 toward amphitheater construction from the Shallotte Tourism Committee, which collects room occupancy tax. A USDA grant of $75,000 is slated for constructing the parking and entrance.
Community support has been overwhelming, Eccard says. Civic organizations such as the Shallotte Lions and the Shallotte Rotary Club are in discussions with the town about building and maintaining garden spaces.
“There’s a lot of excitement about the parks,” Lewis says.
Beginning about four years ago, Lewis introduced the idea of a town park to elected officials. The town already had a popular concert and movie series as well as a farmers market, but the locations were not ideal. The centralized location of Mulberry Street Park allows for several activities to occur at once in a safe location.
The plan got a boost when landscape architect Dan Weeks saw sketches in Lewis’s office more than a year ago. They drove to the property, which had been mowed revealing the roll and flow of the natural land. “It lent itself to a natural amphitheater,” Lewis says.
Weeks, who works for Paramounte Engineering, asked if he could become involved and over time provided many hours of pro bono work before town officials decided they should hire him. He also brought in Allison Engebretson, whose expertise in grant writing has been a big plus.
The effort has benefited, Lewis says, from the committee’s multidisciplinary expertise. In addition to town staff, committee members include Lewis, who is an engineer by trade, and Alderman Larry Harrelson, who owns a landscaping business. “Larry has been instrumental in the landscaping plan and the preservation of some of the pecan trees on the property,” Lewis says. The trees are the remnants of an expansive grove that ran along Mulberry Street many years ago, he says.
Residents also got involved. At public hearings, “we had overwhelming support,” Eccard says. “There was strong support for relocating the farmers market and moving the concert series, very strong support for walking trails and the playground and for event space so we can attract festivals and major events.”
Eccard also met with local organizations, soliciting input. Town Economic Development Coordinator Rachel Johnson noted that the playground was moved from a later phase to Phase I after public requests.
A community garden will be built in the first phase and expanded in the second. The town and community garden committee are working with the county’s cooperative extension agency to plan the project, which will include more than a dozen rental plots and two beds of produce that will be donated to local food pantries, according to Johnson.
Phase I construction is expected to be $1.3 to $1.4 million, which includes the land cost, Eccard says. It includes preparation of the entire facility, event lawns, a temporary amphitheater and a community garden. A soft opening is planned for October.
Phase II will include trails additional amenities, although the plans depend upon receiving a $300,000 PARTF (N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund) grant.
“I think we can do most of Phase II at a cost of about $900,000,” Eccard says, “but I caution only that if we don’t get the grant, we may have to scale back and stretch out the project a little longer.”
The entire project is expected to take three or four years to complete, with a permanent community building being part of the long-range plan.
Along one edge of the park is an historic cemetery where Shallotte’s first mayor, George Leonard, is buried. Several years ago, then-mayor Lewis discovered that a small trust fund had been set up with Security Savings & Loan for maintenance of the cemetery. An agreement was reached for the town to take over the fund and maintenance of the property.
Lewis and others have become increasingly interested in the town’s history and are trying to re-establish the Shallotte Historical Preservation Society, Lewis says. They hope to hold meetings in the renovated Sunny Side School.
The park is one piece of a larger revitalization effort by the town to create a downtown recreation destination that will help to support the central business district. Currently defined as Mulberry Street to Al Street, that district is expected to evolve as the park and planned riverfront development present opportunities for low-impact commercial use, according to Town Planner Robert Lewis.
Ambitious plans for the riverfront include multi-use development and public space, including a riverwalk and direct public access to the river.
The town has assembled more than 20 acres along Cheers and Wall streets at a cost of about $5 million thus far, says Eccard. “We were very fortunate to receive, through BEMC, a loan for $2 million for ten years and zero percent interest that made the acquisition of the largest portion possible,” he says. “The other land was acquired over several years.”
In contrast to the Mulberry Park project, the town will not actually build any of the Riverfront Park. Committee members and engineers are working, with public input, to develop a concept that will be used for an RFP process with potential developers. After reviewing multiple concept plans, the committee settled on a final plan that is being used in the RFP process with developers. Even that plan may change as developers determine what works best in the market, Lewis explains. “Whoever we select, there’ll be a negotiation process because they will have their own ideas about what they can develop successfully,” Eccard adds.
Committee members (Jimmy Bellamy, Gene Casile, Eccard, Steve DeRose and town staff) are also in conversations with property owners to the south of the town’s property about eventual extension of the riverfront walkway along the river to the bridge over Highway 17 (Main Street) at Camp United Methodist Church.
“That area is a historic area known as White’s Landing where schooners used to tie up back in the 1800s and early part of the 1900s,” Lewis says. His research and conversations with the town’s unofficial historians, Bobby Williamson and Elwood Cheers, indicate there were several wharves in the area.
The types of businesses being considered for the area are based in large part upon public input, the mayor says. They include a mix of retail on the bottom, office on the next floor and residential on the top. There’s also been discussion of a boutique hotel and several restaurants as well as a parking deck.
“We’ve had and will have public hearings,” Eccard says. “We came in with preliminary designs and took back public comments. We incorporated features people liked.” After a hearing in May, a consolidated concept plan was drawn. The bid process opened in June and will conclude in October.
“Whoever we select, there’ll be a negotiation process because they will have their own ideas about what they can develop successfully,” Eccard says.
The key to it all, according to Eccard, is the riverwalk.
“I think we all believe it will be a catalyst for additional growth,” he says. “Our goal has been to open up the waterfront and start creating a new town center. If that works, we would expect it to grow out from what we start.”
The town currently owns about 2,700 feet of waterfront. “We’d like to extend [the riverwalk] up to Camp Methodist and then across to the [Mulberry] Park,” he says. “There’s no written agreement at this point, but everyone is supporting [the idea]. It could be a good thing for the town and the property owners.”
Support is strong for kayak and canoe launches as well as the public event space and walkability of the project, he adds.
Throughout the development process, the town has received assistance from the Development Finance Initiative (DFI) of the UNC Chapel Hill School of Government, a group that helps North Carolina towns with economic development projects. The initiative is tasked with locating developers, Eccard says, noting that the group believes there will be substantial interest in the project.
When proposals are received, the committee, DFI and staff will review them. The board of aldermen will make the final decision. Part of the review will be to determine how well the plans meet six guiding principles developed by the committee.
“One of the six guiding principles was doing this in a way that protects the integrity of the Shallotte River and mitigates any adverse environmental impact,” he says.
This project has been seven years in the making, coming out of a town Vision Plan in 2008. Town leaders are hopeful the revitalization project will return focus to the river around which the town grew, bring private investment to downtown and provide a platform for local citizens to re-engage with downtown and the natural beauty of the Shallotte River.