In front of maps of the Black River, Dave Head spent time pointing at different sections and discussing the possibility of a new state park.
During an open house event at Union Elementary School, Head and the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation (NCDPR) wanted to know how local residents feel about it — the reactions are mixed. The idea for the project began after North Carolina legislators approved House Bill 353, which authorizes park officials to conduct a feasibility study. Previous meetings were also held in Bladen and Pender counties.
“We heard a lot of positive things such as getting people better access to the river,”said Head, planning program manager for NCDPR.
Through the study, the goal is to create a vision for what the park could be, with input from interested people. The river is being considered for its historical and geological significance. According to officials, the Black River is a good place for recreation and tourism with simple low impact recreational facilities. The Black River is home to 1,600-year-old cypress trees, which are among the oldest in the world.
Some of the other thoughts from open house attendees included adding restroom facilities and garbage collecting devices. A major wish was having access to ancient trees known as the “Three Sisters.”
“People want to get into the Three Sisters where those cypress trees are, learn about it and see the great resource that’s there,” he said.
One of the concerns was more people in the area and traffic. Park officials stressed that many think that’s it’s a done deal, but that’s not the case. Some of the other listed concerns in the questionnaire involved too much construction, danger for inexperienced visitors and competition with private business. After the study, Head said NCDPR will present their report to legislators in March 2018.
During the meeting, he also cleared up misunderstandings such as people losing their land. If finalized Head stressed that eminent domain, which is the power to take private property for public use, will not be used. The process will involve looking at public land or willing sellers.
Chris Barnhill, a Bladen County resident, had several concerns about the river, an area he feels people already have access to.
“I’d like to know who those people are and I‘d like to talk to them,” he said. “Everybody I know that wants to be there are there.”
Another concern he brought up involved cleaning the river and providing better navigation through areas such as The Narrows. He remembers a time when his relative would get into a speed boat, leave Henry’s Landing in Ivanhoe and travel to the Battleship in Wilmington.
“You can’t do that anymore,” he said. “You can’t even do that with a canoe. That needs to be addressed.”
Barnhill said there was also an issue with local residents not being notified about the idea, which worried a lot of people.
“The way this thing was presented, it was kind of thrown in people’s faces,” he said. “Anytime that happens, it puts you on the offensive and once you become on the offensive, it’s hard to get off of it.”
With people living within the area, Barnhill said there are worries about their home being close to a potential park and whether there would be any financial cost to taxpayers.
Rep. William Brisson, a sponsor for the bill, alluded to how the idea is not to build a large building or a gigantic park. One of the options could be a camping area for families and the public. If that doesn’t work out and there’s no suitable place for it, another alternative could be cleaning the river for water access.
Like Head, Brisson wanted to clear up confusion about the state taking over people’s land. Another misconception was 60,000 people invading the area during the year.
“People went home thinking 60,000 people were going to show up all at one time,” Brisson said. “It might be three years for 60,000 people to come through year. They don’t know.”
Harold Corbett owns 3 miles on the river and said he was not notified about the bill. Like some the others, he was also concerned about traffic.
“People come up and down the river now, with no problem,” Corbett said. “The more people you get in there, the more trash you’re going to have and the more trouble you’re going to have.”
Ivanhoe residents Mellie Bradley and Shirley DeVane supports the idea of having a park and having more visitors. She feels a park is needed. Sampson County does not have a state park.
“It’s a good way to exercise in a safe environment,” she said while alluding to a walking trail.
She also believes that it’ll bring more businesses and job opportunities such as park rangers and maintenance workers.
“Anytime there’s more progress and growth, that’s good,” Bradley said.
Some worry that it’ll increase traffic in the area, but Bradley said that’s a good thing. With more people visiting the area, she mentioned the idea of officials making road improvements.
“Anytime something is growing, that’s positive,” she said. “There’s nothing negative, especially for something like a park.”
Russell DeVane, a retired U.S. Army veteran, was another resident in favor of the park. He left Ivanhoe about 30 years ago and came back to the area.
“Ivanhoe is still the same,” he said. “No growth whatsoever. Whenever I see growth, I see job opportunities. If there’s job opportunities it’s going to benefit a lot of people.”
DeVane said there’s educational opportunities with state parks too, especially with the historical trees of the Black River.
“A lot of people haven’t seen that and I think it would be good for a lot of people to know and see that these cypress trees exist,” he said. “It’s great history for all of us.”
Resident Harvey Robinson remembers days when he used to fish in the area, but opportunities diminished over the years. He added that the river needs to be cleaned as well.
“I don’t know how often they come through and dredge it out, but there’s a lot of trash that needs to be taken out,” he said.
In the last decade, Robinson said he’s seen the river flood more than it has in the past. But he think there are positive aspects as well.
“But I’m thinking in my heart that this may be a good opportunity for that neck of the woods to get some exposure,” he said.
Head said meetings are slated to be held in November and December for people to learn about the river. Additional information about the Black River study is available at www.ncparks.gov/black-river. The website has a section for people to leave comments and receive updates on the study.
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.