TAKE 5: Planning Director acknowledges community’s assets, challenges

Dec. 14, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

This week, we Take 5 with Bob Bridwell, the director of the Sanford/Lee County Planning & Development, on a variety of topics related to growth in Sanford and Lee County. Bridwell, who’s served in the position for almost 12 years, is a graduate of Elon University. He studied city planning at UNC-Chapel Hill and completed the Graduate School of Banking at LSU. He has been a practicing city planner for more than 40 years, but 20 of those years, he worked in banking as a strategic planner, market strategist and commercial banker.

Bridwell and his wife, Karen, have been married nearly 46 years and have three children and two grandchildren. They are members at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church. In addition to his service at St. Stephen’s, Bridwell is the past Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus, a 4th Degree Knight and past Faithful Navigator. He’s currently in formation for the Permanent Diaconate of the Diocese of Raleigh and hopes to be ordained in June when he retires from public service.

Over the last few years, there have been two efforts to develop a vision and strategies for the future of Sanford, Lee County and Broadway. Do we spend too much time and energy trying to change? What’s wrong with our community just the way it is?

Both of those questions are reasonable, and to a large extent were asked, in some fashion, when the Quest for Excellence and the business community’s 2nd Century campaigns were under way. When theologians discuss man in relation to the divine plan, they often refer to man becoming more of his true nature rather than changing into someone else. I think the same could be said of communities trying to define themselves. Perhaps what is needed is to concentrate on the best characteristics that make up the nature of the community rather than the community trying to repackage itself.

When Quest was conducting its sessions, the participants spent considerable time talking about and defining our “sense of place,” or those unique things that differentiate us from other communities. 2nd Century was (and is) about developing a “brand” for our community to market and compete. Both are legitimate points of reference, but I’m not sure we ever quite got around to saying who we are as a place where people come together in community.

I “kinda, sorta” have some ideas of my own that have no more (or no less) value than anyone else, but they’re mine. I think Sanford and Lee County are first defined by families and neighborhoods. We’re pretty diverse and much more than was the case 20 years ago, but we’re still a place focused on families and neighborhoods. We have young families and retired couples. We have a variety of colors, races and religions. We have a solid block of families who have been here for several generations, and we have families from other places that mark their time here in just a few years. We have some rich, a few too many poor and a lot struggling to stay in the middle. This is a community that has a lot of faith — faith in God and faith in each other. We work hard, and we try to do right by each other. You just have to look back to the disaster (April 2011 tornado) for evidence of how much we care.

We’re ambitious, entrepreneurial and a little stubborn. We don’t agree on any number of things, but we’re passionate about how we feel about our children, churches, ball teams and our country. We’re a pretty accepting lot, and we’re not shy about calling each other friend and neighbor. Whether you were raised in Lemon Springs or Boston, we’re awfully glad to share our future, but we also want to honor our past. It’s a rich one.

We want to grow and develop new opportunities. We like our kids to be whatever they want to be, but quite a few of us want opportunities for them to be able to stay in our community. We desperately want more places to shop and restaurants to eat. But we also want to keep our favorite barber/beauty shop, garage and bakery. Don’t even think about taking away Yarborough’s, Mrs. Lacy’s, Bud’s Barbecue, or … plug in your favorite. We want Target, but we’re loyal to our friends.

All of this is to say we have a lot to build upon as our future unfolds, and it will unfold. We simply need to work on those things that help us to grow while keeping what’s important to us. Fortunately for us, several of our most important characteristics play a dual role — representations of our heritage and triggers for growth.

What would be some of those characteristics and how do we capitalize on them?

Fortunately for us, there a number of them, but I’ll begin with the most important: neighborhoods. Again, that’s where our families are housed. Whether we’re talking about Lemon Springs or historic Rosemount/McIver; Carolina Trace or East Sanford; West Lake Valley or St. Andrews; Broadway or McCracken Heights … they all have their own unique needs and issues, and we should be constantly trying to enhance them. That’s the reason why there is so much emphasis on “National Night Out.” It’s the rationale behind former Mayor Cornelia Olive’s East Sanford Housing Task Force. The reason I feel so strongly about sidewalks, greenways and neighborhood parks is more than just walkability and recreation. It’s about things that make neighborhoods more livable and dynamic. The Sanford City Council has been supportive of these issues and others such as community policing. Where people live, raise their families and interact with each other is always the most important asset of any community.

For a number of years, there has been a great deal of attention given to downtown Sanford, with the marvelous work done at Depot Park and the revitalization work on Chatham Street. A lot more remains to be done, and the completion of the Downtown Enhancement Plan for Historic Sanford and Jonesboro that council has adopted produced real projects that are starting right now with both preparation for construction projects and actual improvements.

Pending Sanford City Council’s authorization and available funds, we expect to have an ongoing schedule of projects over several years for both downtown Sanford and Jonesboro. Jonesboro plays a very special role it in the quality of life for Lee County. Our downtowns are more than just places of retail trade and food service. They serve as our welcome centers, living rooms and gathering places for the community at large. More often than we realize, our downtowns are the basis upon which outsiders judge us. If you go to someone’s home to visit and their living room is shabby and in disarray, you assume the rest of the house is the same. If we don’t take care of our downtowns, it may be concluded that we must not care about other aspects of the community.

How does the “village” concept that you talk about play in emphasizing unique characteristics for Sanford and Lee County?

Along with our downtowns, we have other important areas of focus where people come to transact specific kinds of business or acquire specific services. I call them villages because they exist within the community and attract like or complimentary activities and consumers. There are at least three such villages in Sanford and Lee County that come to mind: the Medical Arts Village around Central Carolina Hospital; the Educational Village around Lee Senior High School campus, the Dennis Wicker Civic Center and Central Carolina Community College campus; and the Courthouse Village surrounding the Lee County Courthouse. These are very important centers that have and continue to attract considerable public and private investment. The planning staff believes that these areas should be treated as unique villages requiring specific design considerations much like we treat the downtown areas. We are currently working on design elements such as landscaping and street furniture, street enhancements, sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, wayfinding signage and pedestrian scale lighting to make these areas safer and aesthetically and economically attractive. All of these elements are intended to take an existing characteristic and make it better.

We’ve completed some of the preliminary design features for the Medical Arts Village since it ties into both the upcoming work on downtown Sanford and the planned extension of the Endor Trail Greenway. Preliminary discussions on the Medical Arts Village have already taken place, and we expect to introduce the concept to city council at their retreat. Central Carolina Hospital and surrounding health and medical facilities are a tremendous economic engine for Lee County, with almost $52 million in tax values, and one of our largest employment centers. It makes a lot of sense to pay attention to one of our greatest assets. Creating an attractive and appealing village environment would serve as the catalyst to attract considerably more private investment, businesses and employment. We want outstanding medical and health-related services to be a major attraction for Sanford and Lee County.

Work is also under way on design elements for the Educational Village. A very large part of that work includes the major renovations and enhancements to Lee Senior, the Central Carolina Community College master plan, improvements to O.T. Sloan Park and the planned realignment of Kelly Drive. Possible improvements to the Civic Center may also be included. Street improvements, landscaping, signage, lighting and pedestrian facilities will again be part of the design elements. It is regrettable that sidewalks could not have been included with the renovations to the high school.

The Courthouse Village has not received as much effort but should include the same considerations for the blocks surrounding the Lee County Courthouse, the post office, and extend to 3rd Street where the warehouses were demolished. This would provide Sanford with an area dedicated to ancillary uses traditionally associated with a county seat.

Why are there so many rumors about new stores circulating, and what role does retail play?

I hear them, too. I’ve heard about Target, Home Depot, Olive Garden and several others. I think these rumors reflect public expectations. There is no doubt that we are “retail starved.” All you need to realize this inadequacy is to come to a Chick-fil-A opening with hundreds of people, or the reopening of Lowe’s Hardware where thousands arrived. Sanford does serve as the retail trade center for all the surrounding counties, much like we serve as an employment center. Yet we still have not realized the kinds of retail and restaurant locations that we want and expect. So sometimes people grasp at even the hint of major retailer coming to town.

We will get all of the stores that we expect. The completion of the 421 Bypass will help. Some aggressive marketing by us wouldn’t hurt and I think will happen. A “filling out” of our retail, including some of major retailers, would make us even more attractive as a growth market. We planners tend to think that quality of life issues are related to libraries, museums, theatres, parks and schools. To many people, it’s shopping and restaurants. The reality is it’s both. The 2nd Century “Well Centered” campaign to brand and market Sanford is something we need to rally around and pursue opportunities.

Is growth going to return for Lee County?

This economic downturn has been tough on the nation, N.C. and especially Lee County. Despite the fact that it has lasted so long, growth has never stopped. Before the recession, we were growing about 2.5 percent per annum, and it appears to have slowed to a little over 1 percent. The area hardest hit was new residential construction, and that may last as long as the national housing crisis and/or the home mortgage industry stabilize. Yet commercial growth has remained comparatively strong, and we expect it to accelerate over the next few years. This should be a time for us to take care of the basics.

The answer to the question is yes — growth will be part of our future. How much and how fast remains to be seen. Much of it will be determined by things we do, actions we take and decisions we make. The future is now! Everything we do or don’t do today will affect what kind of future we have tomorrow.

We have an exceptional thoroughfare system that makes Lee County very accessible. Hence, the “Well Centered” tagline seems appropriate. The city of Sanford has embarked on a well-planned and carefully timed wastewater treatment expansion that will serve us well for the foreseeable future. Lee County has been making much-needed enhancements to its school facilities. Lee County has a strong parks and recreation program. There are a number of dedicated people working very hard on the restoration of the Endor Iron Furnace and making the surrounding property on Deep River into a state park. A 28-mile greenway planned for Lee County is off to a start. We have an exceptional airport in the Raleigh Executive Jetport. A great deal of thought and effort is being [invested] to make Lee County competitive in attracting new and expanded industry providing jobs. Lee County is part of one of the nation’s most exciting regions — the Research Triangle. We’re experiencing growth as a consequence of the expansion at Fort Bragg. Within the next 12 months, Lee County will be within minutes of the new 540 serving the Triangle.

You’d have to be very pessimistic to think we wouldn’t benefit from these many circumstances. That doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges. If we are to utilize the many assets we have to our advantage, if we hope to maintain our particular “sense of place” that includes the opening and accepting atmosphere that we enjoy, and if we wish to have a future of our own making, then Sanford, Lee County and Broadway will have to be thoughtful, deliberate and cooperative in their decisions.