[Photo: Shovels of dirt flew at the construction site Thursday, February 18 to celebrate the start of work on the county’s new recreation center.]
By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • The shifting landscape of U.S. 401 is changing again as one of the county’s longest-planned projects finally gets underway, bringing with it the hope of new growth and development and more opportunities for Hoke County’s children.
Hoke officials broke ground last week on the $20 million James A. Leach Aquatics and Recreation Center, which will feature the county’s first public swimming pool – and, speakers said, could factor in to future development in the county.
Cold, wet weather last Thursday didn’t dissuade attendees from gathering under a tent to hear comments from the Hoke County Board of Commissioners, and the leaders of the design and construction teams, about the new project.
The building is named for Commissioner James Leach, who thanked his fellow commissioners, the county staff and its partners that have had a hand in the project. Several of his family members attended the ceremony for the building named for him. The special day was “an honor,” he said.
“Thank you so much all of my friends and guests…Hoke County has been good to me,” Leach said.
Several of the commissioners, including Commission Chairman Harry Southerland, remarked on the significance of the occasion. The aquatics and recreation center is the first of its kind in the county, he said.
“This is going to be the first one in history. Hoke County was established back in February 17, 1911, so yesterday we had our birthday, 110 years old…throughout our entire 110 year history, there wasn’t a parks and rec center. So we’re so glad for the vision of our prior board members, as well as our current board members,” Southerland said.
Vice Chairman Allen Thomas spoke of his own experiences growing up in Hoke, and what building the aquatics and recreation center means for the youth of today and tomorrow.
“This is a very exciting time for Hoke County. When I was born, which was not far from when Commissioner James Leach became a county commissioner…Hoke County was very different. What we slowly began to realize is we were different from other counties like Cumberland and Wake County and Moore County,” Thomas said. “We began to realize that we didn’t have some of the same opportunities. We began to hear things like per capita income and poverty levels. So no matter how much our parents and grandparents prayed us through, we began to realize that we maybe didn’t start off at the same starting line as other children who just so happened to be born a few miles away.”
The aquatics center is one way of trying to offer more opportunities for children that their parents didn’t have, the vice chairman said.
“This board of commissioners, we have worked diligently to make sure that children who are born in this county will get closer and closer to that starting point, whether it’s through the Board of Education, or making sure we’re supporting our law enforcement to be able to be safe at night. We’re doing all that we can, and this is a new step in that direction,” Thomas said. “Our children deserve to be able to go somewhere within our county lines where they can learn to swim, something that I didn’t learn to do.”
Commissioner Lonnie Baldwin said that the center will be only one of two in the state of its kind, and will allow the Hoke High swim team to hold practices and competitions without leaving home.
“This is a very historic day here in Hoke County and I’m more than happy to be a part of it. It’s a vision, it’s a dream, and dreams do come true,” he said.
The commissioner also spoke of his concern for children in Hoke County with special needs.
“There are children who have special needs, children with learning disabilities, children with handicaps. We must address it and we must address it today,” he said.
“This is a day that our children can look forward, that they can meet some of their potential and go out and be some of the best that they can be in this world.”
Commissioner Tony Hunt spoke about the new opportunities that extending utilities to the center will offer for further expansion in the future.
“A couple of years ago we did not have the sewer here to do what we’re doing today. We did not have the electricity as far as the substation and things that we need to run a facility like this out here in Hoke County,” Hunt said.
Shawn Hunt, CEO of Lumbee River Electric, attended the groundbreaking and offered comments on the project. Not only is the center a boon for the county, it’s a part of a larger trend that predicts Hoke will grow even more over the next decade, Hunt said.
“I know infrastructure is one of the key elements for economic development, that’s always the first question…is there sewer, is there water, what’s your electrical load, can you deliver it. Over the next 10 years Hoke County is projected to be one of the fastest, if not the fastest-growing counties throughout North Carolina. That means we are going to have to make considerable investments in electric infrastructure,” Hunt said. “You’ll be happy to know, Lumbee River is prepared for that.”
Commissioner Hunt thanked EMC for their support through finances and resources the organization has dedicated to the county. The commissioner also reflected on how things have changed in Hoke during his 18 years of service on the board.
“When I first came on the board, Hoke County was always referred to…we were told this is just a bed and breakfast place, folks just live here, they sleep here, and they go everywhere else to go shopping, get their nails done, their hair done, anything else they need done. They go to Fayetteville or go to Pinehurst.
“Well, we set out over 18 years ago to change that, and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve changed the mindset of our county, that we could be more than just a place for people to build houses. That we could have economic growth, and that we could put in the infrastructure that could make that happen.”
The longtime commissioner also had words of praise for Leach.
“My dear friend, his name is going to be up on the side of the building, and if we aren’t careful he’ll put a billboard out there in flashing lights with his name on it too,” Hunt joked. “All jokes aside…he’s spent almost half of his life serving this county and serving the people of this county. Matter of fact, if you never put his name on that building, I think the works that he’s done in this county would speak for him.”
The ceremony recognized former Commissioner Bobby Wright, who was unable to attend the event due to illness. Wright’s son, Hoke Economic Development Director Will Wright, offered comments in his place.
“He certainly does appreciate y’all’s continued prayers for his recovery, and I know if he was here he would really like to thank the existing board especially James Leach. I think this is a great honor for you and it is well deserved,” Wright said. “I also believe this new center is going to be a great thing for Hoke County. It’s going to be awesome for the development along 401. We hope to see good things follow. We hope to see restaurants, hotels, all kinds of development from the center. And this is one of things that makes Hoke County a great place to live and work in, the dedication of our leaders.”
Dr. Sad’a Ray, Director of Hoke County Parks and Recreation, presented Leach with an engraved glass memento of the occasion.
“We really appreciate you so much. He is an amazing leader, and this is going to be an immaculate start to a beautiful journey,” Ray said. She and her team of staff also presented gifts to the other board members to mark the groundbreaking on the new center.
Guest speakers included state Rep. Garland Pierce, J&K General Contractors President Jamal Shabain and sfL+a Architects President and CEO Robert Ferris; Hoke Board of Education Chairwoman Rosa McAllister-McRae and Hoke County Sheriff Hubert Peterkin. County Manager Letitia Edens offered remarks, and Rev. Bruce Hurst and Deacon Peter Dockery offered prayers for the ceremony.