While the city's planning board is pursuing designation of the Yacht Basin as an urban waterfront district, Southport aldermen are looking at how to better define the waterfront, as a whole, as an attraction and destination.
At a meeting last week, aldermen heard from representatives of Resource Institute, a nonprofit group that assists governments and the nonprofits with projects that combine environmentalism and economic development, through a network of consultants and other resources.
Board chairman Michael Smith and Charles Anderson, project development coordinator, spent more than an hour presenting the group and explaining to aldermen and residents in attendance how Southport could partner with Resource Institute to determine what the city wants for its waterfront, and then how to achieve it.
"We look to be an avenue that provides assistance for organizations. What we are good at is facilitating projects," Anderson told attendees. "We are an environmental organization that spurs economic development. That's how we like to look at it."
"We can make a project happen where a community oftentimes would not be able to have those resources available to it," added Smith, who noted the group's efforts in helping the town of Mount Airy, in the northwestern part of the state, restore what was an underutilized Ararat River running through the town into a beautified greenway conducive to recreation, public gatherings and educational opportunities.
The project totaled $4.8 million, but with grants and other assistance provided through the group's network, Anderson said the cost to Mount Airy came out to about $1 million, budgeted over five years. If Southport can achieve a similar scenario, mayor Robert Howard said, "It's a tremendous value."
"You get a tremendous bang for your buck, and you develop your community," he said.
Based in Winston-Salem, Resource Institute came to Howard's attention through conversations with Roy Pender, chairman of the recently reestablished beautification committee. A landscape architect, Pender reworked with Resource Institute on the Mount Airy project and told Howard of the group's success with the effort, noting that similar results could be achieved for Southport's waterfront.
"One of the things that our board recognizes is that we are a touring attraction, and our greatest attraction is the Cape Fear River and our waterfront." Howard told attendees at the start of the meeting. "Over the years we have taken advantage of that view and its scenery, but we recognize the opportunity to take advantage of that to bring in more businesses and opportunity."
Noting the project would be a public-private partnership, Howard continued, "There is no feasible way your board of aldermen and city staff can take on a project of this scope without some private involvement. This will be the first meeting on that project."
In addition to Mount Airy, Smith and Anderson presented a list of projects that Resource Institute has assisted with, including three stream restoration projects underway in Maryland, Texas and the mIdwest. Like those projects for other municipalities, Southport's would start with a series of public meetings to determine a shared community vision of the waterfront and its potential.
Citing Beaufort and Georgetown, South Carolina, as examples of communities that have taken advantage of their waterfronts with boardwalks, river walks and economic development projects, Smith noted that Southport's project could be similar, though he stressed that its vision would be unique.
Emphasizing citizens' participation in the process, Smith said, "If they're not on board, it's not going to happen.
"And it's not my vision for what Southport could be; it's your vision," he said. "And what we try to do is help you achieve that vision."
Through those public meetings, Resource Institute would work with the city to develop a master plan that could be used to solicit financial support. Once that plan is conceptualized, the financial commitment needed from the city to get the project started could be determined.
"Our objective with any project is to make it happen," Anderson said. "If it can't happen, we'll tell you that--it's not possible."
Aldermen have been eyeing foreclosed properties at the Yacht Basin as an opportunity for a park or other public amenity that could attract people there year-round and help spur economic development. The properties could also connect the city's currently detached river walk, which stretches from Kingsley Park to the boardwalk and gazebo just beyond the basin.
The properties are for sale, but for millions of dollars, preventing a purchase from being made up to this point. Howard has noted potential for land swaps of other city property, such as the recently closed sewage treatment plant on the opposite side of Southport Marina. Smith and Anderson said the meetings with the city would cover such possibilities.
While they did not volunteer particular recommendations for the waterfront, Smith said afterward that they do have ideas and would share them in the process, but he reiterated the role the public would play in determining and shaping the project. Smith did, however, emphasize the potential those Yacht Basin properties would have on whatever project is pursued.
"That is the cornerstone of this whole thing," he said.
Alderman Vickie Potter asked about the challenge of achieving cooperation from property owners who could be involved. Anderson noted the Mount Airy project required 54 separate property easements. "Some were stubborn," Smith said, "but everybody came on board."
"That's the key." added Howard, "whether we can get our community on board and whether our community feels there is a need to improve the waterfront.
"It's going to cost the city some dollars, but we need to keep our eyes on the end product." he said, "because this is a doable project, and it's a longer-term project."
"You have to remember, the water is in the public trust," Smith said, responding to attendees' questions. "The water belongs to everybody. Somebody may have a deed that goes so far to the water, but the water belongs to everyone."
Smith and Anderson said they consider the waterfront to be Kingsley Park to the marina, though they noted that other desired projects elsewhere in the city, such as the dormant Stevens Park on the west side of town, could be included as part of a project.
Attendees also stressed a desire to keep the project from redefining Southport or making the place look like other towns' waterfronts, asking that the project reflect the city's history as a fishing village. Agreeing, Smith said, "You're called Southport for a reason."
Telling the story of Leland, Michigan, which was once called Fishtown, but had lost that local fisherman's heritage and weaved into its redevelopment, Smith said, "They took that loss of identity and reclaimed it. I think you can do the same thing."