[Photo: Commission Vice Chairman James Leach speaks on stage above a bust of himself, gifted by the companies that built the new recreation center. (Catharin Shepard photo)]
By Catharin Shepard • Editor • A shrouded object sat just below the stage set up in the gymnasium at the James A. Leach Aquatic and Recreation Center, waiting for the big moment.
When Commission Vice Chairman James Leach and Jamal Shahbain and Steve Phillips of J&K General Contractors were ready, the drape came off to reveal a bust of Leach gifted by the companies that built the facility.
“It’s going to sit out in the lobby of the aquatic center,” Phillips said as the crowd applauded. “Congratulations, James.”
“Thank you, all of you. You know, this guy looks like me,” Leach joked. “This is my twin from the cut.”
Less dramatic was the presentation of a toy car, a prank gift to Leach from county staff.
“You keep saying a car,” County Manager Letitia Edens said, handing it over, “So we decided to get you a car.”
The county commissioners gathered Friday night with over 300 invited guests to unveil not only the new bust of Leach, but also the James A. Leach Aquatics and Recreation Center where it will be installed. Officials have taken to calling the new center JALARC, pronounced “jay-lark,” for short.
Leach thanked his fellow commissioners and all those who helped the evening come together.
“I don’t think that I deserve it, but you did it, and I say thank you for that,” he said.
The weekend also featured an open house Saturday, open to all members of the public to come in and tour the facility. Some membership options were available for sign-ups, though others aren’t ready yet because the system isn’t fully up and running, officials said.
First, the county board and guests celebrated in style with a red carpet walk into the building, selfie station for photos and a catered dinner with entertainment by a live band. The evening featured words of welcome from commissioners and other elected officials, including Rep. Garland Pierce, Raeford Mayor John K. McNeill, City Councilwoman Mary Neill King and Board of Education Chairwoman Angela Southerland.
Commission Chairman Allen Thomas said JALARC is more than just a swimming pool.
“Hoke County, we’re moving on up,” the chairman said. “I say we’re moving on up, because many of us grew up here. Many of us grew up hearing that it was a poor county, many of us grew up without the things we saw other people in other counties have…here in Hoke County we were told over and over again that we were poor. This building named after Commissioner James Leach is more than just a recreation center. This building is a symbol. It’s a symbol that we’re making a turn from our past, and we’re daring someone to say we’re a poor county now.”
Thomas went on to say that construction for JALARC, and the upcoming new county courthouse, county administration building and on-site replacement at Hoke High were all funded without raising taxes.
“That’s unheard-of,” he said.
JALARC, which officials called “the first of its kind for the Sandhills region of North Carolina,” features a competition-sized swimming pool with balcony seating for spectators, a family fun pool with a water slide that goes outside of the building and back indoors, a gymnasium with a second-floor gallery walking track, six multipurpose rooms, six offices for Hoke County Parks and Recreation and a concession stand, plus locker rooms.
Phillips, construction manager with J&K General Contractors, spoke about the groundbreaking, two years ago now, when construction first got underway.
“We talked about the vision. We were in a tent and it was raining and it was cold, and James was trying to get everybody to hurry up. And I said, if you look to your left…you’ll see nothing but a bank of red clay. And if you look to your right, there’s trees. I said, but in a few months, you’re going to see a beautiful facility there. It takes time, it takes patience, and it takes expertise,” Phillips said. He thanked Metcon for their collaboration with J&K General Contractors on the project.
In remarks, Commissioner Harry Southerland addressed the commission’s decision in 2020 to name the center after Leach. Last year during the 2022 elections, some Hoke residents circulated a petition to change the center’s name and prevent any future public buildings from being named after sitting elected officials.
“I want to respond to the elephant in the room. Over the last couple of years, everybody was asking the question, why are we naming this building the James A. Leach building,” Southerland said.
There are two different concepts at work, he continued.
“One is the concept of time and one is the concept of turn. Sometimes it may be your time in life, but at that moment it may not be your turn. And sometimes it may be your turn in life, but sometimes it may not be your time. But sometimes things line up and both of them come together, and it’s your time and your turn,” Southerland said. “When James Leach was growing up in the cut, walking those dirt roads…it was neither his time nor his turn. In 1992 when James Leach came on the board as commissioner, it was his time but not his turn.”
After 30 years serving as a commissioner – and two days after his birthday – “It is his time and his turn,” Southerland said.
The evening paid tribute to Leach. The youngest of 10 children born to the late Huland Sanders and Dora Leach, he is married to the former Valerie Purdie. The couple have two children, Christopher A. Leach and Taylor N. Leach, who joined their parents Friday night at the celebration.
Leach holds a degree in theology and has been a pastor for three decades. He is a district elder in the Southern Pines District Union of the United American Free Will Baptist Denomination. He has served on many committees and boards across the state, including the Lumber River Council of Governments, Hoke County Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, Hoke Senior Services and others. In his time on the commission, he has been “instrumental” in working on multiple projects, officials described; among them two elementary schools, Sandy Grove Middle School, the jail, several parks, the county industrial park, community buildings and the county wastewater treatment plant.
Leach has received many recognitions, including the Order of the Long-leaf Pine and the Long-Time County Service Award from the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners.
The glamorous unveiling night was paid for through sponsorships. Platinum sponsors Metcon General Contractors and SFL+A Architects group gave $15,000, and J&K General Contractors gave $12,000. Shaw Office Supplies, Dial Insurance Agency and MSquare each gave $2,750 as gold sponsors, and Hometown Insurance and Bell Manley Real Estate each gave $2,000.
The Hoke Area Transit Service (HATS) provided shuttle service. Hoke County High School Career and Technical Education culinary arts program students helped serve the meal.
The last necessary equipment has gone into the facility and the final inspections are pending, County Manager Letitia Edens said Monday. JALARC is set for a tentative opening day of May 1.
Asked why the center will not be free to the public, Commission Chairman Allen Thomas said the money brought in from memberships and rental fees at JALARC will go to pay for the cost of running it without raising taxes. County finance staff have crunched the numbers and the county has an idea of how many memberships are needed to cover the expenses. Leach had previously said he wanted the center to be free to use, and this week still maintained that he does not want children turned away from an inability to pay.
Memberships for Hoke residents will work out to about $30 a month, roughly, which is lower than at other facilities, the chairman said. Prices will be higher for people coming from out of the county who want to join the center. Full membership and rental information should be coming soon.
Edens and commissioners thanked the county staff who worked to make the unveiling and open house possible.