By Colin Campbell, NCInsider.com
Nearly a year after Hurricane Matthew, Princeville’s public housing complex sits deserted behind a chain-link fence. The elementary school is still gutted, with a sign out front listing events in October 2016 before the flood arrived. Even the town hall and fire station haven’t reopened and are using temporary facilities elsewhere.
Recovery has been slow for the historic African-American town in Edgecombe County. But town leaders are optimistic about the future thanks in part to a 53-acre tract of land that the state plans to purchase on higher ground, expanding Princeville’s boundaries and creating a less flood-prone location for town services, businesses and homes. “The flood took away some of our mojo, but we are coming back — bigger, better and bolder than before,” Mayor Bobbie Jones said.The state has an option to purchase 53 acres at the land’s appraised value as a site for the town’s fire department, senior center and other facilities. The property is nearly two miles south of the current center of Princeville. It borders the interchange of the U.S. 64 freeway and Shiloh Farm Road — a location that could help attract retail business aimed at travelers as well as Princeville residents. Officials expect to complete the purchase by November using federal grant funds.
The land is outside the 100-year floodplain and stayed dry during Hurricane Matthew, but it did get some water when Hurricane Floyd devastated Princeville in 1999. Dempsey Benton, Gov. Roy Cooper’s director of hurricane recovery, said the site was the best choice to be close to the original town. Had the state looked for land farther from the Tar River, “it wouldn’t be Princeville anymore, it would be closer to Bethel” — the next town down U.S. 64, he said.
Benton says the state is still working to secure funding to move Princeville services to the new site. “We’re looking at several different sources in trying to put together a package,” he said. “It probably won’t come from one single source.” Government buildings would only require a fraction of the property, so the town is looking at private development options for the rest of the site.
Last month, a group of landscape architecture and city planning experts held a five-day workshop in Princeville to brainstorm ideas for future development and get input from residents. Some were from N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill, while others came from across the country. They were joined by officials from the state’s emergency management agency, FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers. The process looked at possibilities for the 53-acre site as well as the original town core. “If the town moves forward with development (on the new property), it needs to be physically and socially connected to the existing town,” said Gavin Smith, a professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC. “It’s not an either-or.”
Road infrastructure and greenways would be needed to make the connection, although it helps that the property already borders one of Princeville’s newer subdivisions. While town leaders initially planned to move the town hall — built after Hurricane Floyd and now sitting gutted and vacant — residents want it to stay put, so Jones says the plan is now to elevate the building. “We feel this is the central part of the town right here,” he said. “It’s better for us if we stay where we are.” The school district hasn’t decided yet if it will build a new elementary school on the 53 acres, close the school, or restore it with “dry proofing” methods to keep future floods out.Residents are, however, supportive of moving the fire department so its work won’t be hindered by any future floods. Across the street from the town hall, the senior center is in the process of being elevated, but concerns over accessibility could prompt that facility to be moved to the new property. The town could then sell or repurpose the current building, Jones said.
The area along the Tar River could be revamped as a historical attraction to draw tourists. Directly across the bridge from Tarboro is the site of Freedom Hill, where former slaves founded the community shortly after the Civil War. Shiloh Landing, a key site in the history of the slave trade, is a short walk upriver. It’s where slaves were unloaded from steamboats to be sold in Tarboro.
“When you’re in Princeville, it’s really hard to have any idea about that history and that story, because there’s nothing there that would indicate those elements of history,” said Andrew Fox, a landscape architecture professor at N.C. State who was involved with the design workshop. He said one idea is a “heritage walk” connecting the two sites, because greenways and trails are typically a good use of property in floodplains. Signs could help encourage tourists to stop in Princeville.
Because the existing center of Princeville will still have buildings and homes, preventing future floods will continue to be a priority. The N.C. Department of Transportation is currently studying the impact of installing flood gates on drainage pipes that run under U.S. 64. The pipes help rain water drain from Princeville to the Tar River, but when the river level rises, water flows through the pipes into the town. That would cost about $1.5 million, Benton said, but DOT has to determine “would we be able to do it and not flood somebody else?”
The state is also still looking at extending the Tar River levee system — something that was proposed after Hurricane Floyd but never done. This year’s state budget funds a $1.4 million share of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study looking at the option. If the state and federal government decide to move forward, the levee extension could cost more than $20 million. Mayor Jones said that while it’s a big price tag, it’s a “drop in the bucket” for the federal government compared to other disaster relief needs.
Princeville is the only town impacted by Hurricane Matthew where a major relocation effort is under way, although individual government facilities in other flooded areas could be moved. Fair Bluff and Windsor have historic downtowns that residents there don’t want to lose, so Benton said the focus is instead on dry proofing the buildings.
Smith, Fox and others involved with the August planning workshop in Princeville are currently assembling documents and plans to provide to town leaders. From there, the town will likely hire a design firm to draw up formal plans for the 53-acre site. In the meantime, Princeville leaders have organized events to drum up support for the town’s future. From noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, the town is holding a “Day of Hope Rally” with William Barber of the N.C. NAACP, food, music and games. Gov. Roy Cooper is scheduled to visit Princeville on Oct. 7.
Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at [email protected]