While a state budget battle wages, there are a few reasons for optimism in Sampson County as local projects are poised for significant funding — at least in iterations of a $24 billion budget bill considered by lawmakers in recent weeks.
Whether that funding comes to fruition remains to be seen as a state budget has not yet been approved.
However, House Bill 966, the $24 billion plan, does call for $3.5 million in grant funds for a new Sampson County Emergency Management Center and $230,000 in grant monies for a multipurpose building at the Tarheel ChalleNGe Academy’s Salemburg campus. It also includes a $15,000 grant for exterior building and landscape improvements at the Sampson County History Museum.
While there is assuredly other local projects that will benefit, those particular ones were named in a joint conference committee report on HB 966, dated June 25.
Just three days later, however, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the General Fund budget. HB 966 was put on the calendar Monday, but the House adjourned without voting. Cooper offered his compromise budget proposal Tuesday to counter HB 966.
The House Appropriations Committee planned to meet Wednesday to consider a temporary funding bill, which would keep programs running while state budget deliberations trudge along.
Sampson EMS building
The $3.5 million would be half the estimated cost of a $7 million Emergency Management endeavor, which was discussed in broad terms at a Sampson Board of Commissioners planning session earlier this year.
A preliminary design for a larger Emergency Management Services building to replace the aging and outgrown facility on Underwood Street was unveiled by The Wooten Company at that session. It came with a couple caveats: the design is “a very rough” work in progress and there were no immediate plans to fund the estimated $7 million price tag.
The proposed 25,000-square-foot facility would be situated in the bend on Commerce Street off of U.S. 701 Business in Clinton, between Sampson-Bladen Oil Company and the Sampson County Law Enforcement Center. The county owns 22 acres on both sides of Commerce Street that has not yet been developed.
The new building would replace the EMS building on Underwood Street, which is roughly half the size. The current building was constructed in 1956 and served as a North Carolina National Guard Armory until it was released to the county in 1995.
The Wooten Company was hired with $8,500 in grant funds. County manager Ed Causey said any opportunity to obtain sufficient grants or non‐loan monies for a new facility would be dependent on having a realistic cost estimate and preliminary schematics in hand. He pointed to The Wooten Company study as laying that groundwork.
“The conditions were to move forward with the schematics and there was going to be no pressure then, or now, for the board to put any other kind of money other than grant money that we can solicit into this project,” Causey said earlier this year. “I don’t think we can necessarily afford (that), nor is that the expectation.”
The $3.5 million grant would be a sizable chunk that can go toward that project.
While the idea for a new facility has been tossed around for years, Emergency Management director Ronald Bass said the EMS building has simply become too small and is susceptible to flooding during even moderate rains. Bass has on multiple occasions shared concerns about the lack of space for staff, equipment and storage, as well as ventilation issues, remarking that the EMS building on Underwood Street is “in dire need of replacement.”
Under the new EMS building proposal, a vehicle bay would be close to where emergency personnel are located, including bunks and offices. There is a lobby with a large training room located right off of it. The 911 Center and the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) each have their own wings, where the EOC in the current facility consists of a 32-by-19 foot space where emergency officials and others gather during natural disasters to hear updates and coordinate response.
Tarheel ChalleNGe facility
The $230,000 grant proposed for Tarheel ChalleNGe Academy would add to the total funds received by the state, toward an overall goal of building a multipurpose facility that academy leaders say is crucial to operations.
The academy had been without a multipurpose facility for years.
“There is no facility for alternate training. Having an alternate facility to conduct training is paramount,” Col. (Ret.) Edward Timmons, state director for Tarheel ChalleNGe, has said.
The National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program was established nationally in 1993 and came to North Carolina the very next year — right in the heart of Sampson. The academy was first housed at the old Halls-Piney Grove School in Keener in 1994.
“Keener had a gymnasium and Salemburg does not,” Timmons noted. “We have been providing an unjust service for the cadets. Most schools in America have a multipurpose facility or some recreational facility for students to use.”
The construction of a 90 foot-by-100 foot steel building is being eyed for the school. Among other benefits, the area could be utilized for the cadet activities during inclement weather conditions.
In 2016, the General Assembly appropriated to the National Guard, earmarked for Tarheel ChalleNGe, the sum of $700,000. Since that time, the academy has been unsuccessful in obtaining additional funding for an overall two-phase project that Timmons said would cost $1.4 million.
Timmons approached the Sampson County Board of Commissioners and Salemburg leaders back in 2017.
He said at the time the National Guard had a number of projects “on the books” that were higher priority for construction, so he was seeking alternate methods. He requested the county serve as the recipient of funding on behalf of Tarheel ChalleNGe, with local government managing the construction.
Construction costs would funnel through Sampson’s budget, and the project managed by county staff in conjunction with the National Guard, Timmons explained then.
While county leaders spoke glowingly of the benefits of the academy — a quasi-military facility sponsored by the North Carolina National Guard and designed to help at-risk youth ages 16 to 18 — Causey shared “tremendous concerns” at that time with the work involved on the county’s end.
He said finding time with other projects already being shouldered by county employees would be an issue.
Timmons’ request was ultimately denied by commissioners in a split vote in September 2017.
Ivanhoe evacuation route
During a recent Board of Commissioners, Ivanhoe leader Russell Devane, who has been a champion for the town’s plight since Hurricane Florence and regularly given recovery updates, said he was informed that Sampson would be receiving money in the budget to fund the establishment of an evacuation route in the Ivanhoe area.
He cited a figure of $2 million, while board chairman Clark Wooten distanced county leaders from providing any such local assurances amid ever-developing state budgetary matters.
In the wake of Florence, Devane said Ivanhoe residents met with Sheriff Jimmy Thornton, Bass and N.C. Rep. William Brisson at the end of October to discuss evacuation routes for those who live in the Ivanhoe area. There has also been talk with engineers on how best to tackle the problem.
During the July 1 meeting, Devane informed commissioners that Brisson told Ivanhoe resident Frankie Imes that the $2 million was “a done deal.” While there are various line items where those funds could be distributed in HB 966, an evacuation route or recovery funds for Ivanhoe and Sampson were not specifically named.
Wooten expressed cautious optimism.
“We all pray that it comes to fruition,” he told Devane.
Editor Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 2587.