04/18/17 — Seven Springs seeks options to stay afloat

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Seven Springs seeks options to stay afloat

By Steve Herring
Published in News on April 18, 2017 8:36 AM

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Stephen Potter talks about the future of Seven Springs on Friday. One of the options the town is looking at is turning FEMA buyout properties into lots that can be rented out for recreational campers.

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Chris and Ashley Mooney back their boat into the Neuse River at the boat ramp in Seven Springs on Friday. The town is looking at ways to become a destination for outdoor recreation, including trying to find funding to make improvements to the ramp.

SEVEN SPRINGS -- Floodwaters from the Neuse River have nearly washed away this historic riverside village twice in just the past 17 years.

Now residents here in the county's oldest town say that the river that unleashed historic flooding following Hurricane Matthew last October could be the town's salvation as well.

The idea is to create a town-owned RV park where flood-ravaged houses now stand -- houses that will be demolished if the properties are approved for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's buyout program.

Once FEMA buys out the land it no longer generates any tax revenues for the town and no permanent structures can be built on the lots.

If it comes to fruition, the RV park will not happen in six months or even a year or two because of the plodding nature of the buyout process, Mayor Stephen Potter said.

The town already has several lots from buyouts in 1996 and 1999, so the town could get started, he said.

But breathing life back into the town is going to require hard work and innovative thinking like the RV park, Potter said.

"This is our resource," Potter said Friday afternoon as he stood just feet away from the river. "We have the boat landing here and all of the activities on the river. We have Neuse River Traders that rent kayaks and canoes. So you have got the water activities already here that they are doing.

"They are going to do regular camping, tent camping. The town may do a few of those spaces, but we don't want to compete with what they are doing. If we could have anything available if they have overflow, then that would be great."

Part of the plan talks of improvements to the boat landing, he said.

All of this is in the very early planning stages, and it is all contingent on state funds coming through that are set aside for six targeted communities and everybody else who was impacted by the flood, Potter said.

Seven Springs is one of those communities.

"I think the (town) board was pretty unanimous that we did not want to go away, and that we wanted to try anything that we could to keep the town alive," he said. "It is has been a group effort. They have been unanimous in their support of moving forward with this."

The village's pre-flood population was between 110 and 115.

Potter is guessing that only half will remain once the buyouts are complete, something that could take several years.

"I am sure that half our tax base will be gone, and if we are going to survive financially, we are going to have to find a way to replace that revenue," Potter said.

The "vast majority" of residents are requesting buyouts, while only a "very" few are asking to have their homes elevated, he said.

The RV park is the best idea that has yet to surface, he said.

It will be a checkerboard effect since a few residential lots will be interspersed among the vacant buyout properties, he said.

"What we have done is look at that open space, what these FEMA buyout properties can be used for -- very limited," Potter said. "But one of the things they do allow are like camping and those kinds of activities, recreational activities. The only enclosed structures you can have on those is like a bathroom or a bathhouse.

"What we are looking at, what we envision is our town has a certain essence, and we don't want to stray away from that. I have gone out exploring and seen some other RV campgrounds. Some of them have great amenities, but one of the things I don't like is some of them are packed in these little spaces."

What is envisioned for Seven Springs  is something that is going to be larger and have room for a fire pit on a concrete base, picnic table, concrete pad to park the RV on, water and electric hook-ups and maybe a dump station here in town to handle the sewer, he said.

"What we would hope is to have space, like one residential lot have two sites so that they can put their chairs out, sit in the evening and relax," he said. "Then as far as amenities we can do things like volleyball, corn hole.

"My father has a barrel train that he takes out and around so he could bring that in the evenings. We could put up a screen like they have at the Cliffs (of the Neuse State Park) and do a movie night during the warmer months, maybe every other Saturday night. We need a pavilion. A small one would be fine for our needs -- have something so there will be activities going on."

Potter said he is not sure of the number of RV lots, but that he is hoping for 20 to 24 spaces.

Another idea is to offer long-term site rental such as for people in the area who are working away from their home and living in a camper for several months, he said.

Along with the river, as the county's oldest town, Seven Springs has history that could be promoted as well, he said.

The area around the town was the site of the Civil War Battle of White Hall (the town's prior name) and the wooden hull of the ironclad ram Neuse a Confederate blockade runner was laid down in the town.

Most of the town's historic homes were destroyed by a 1921 fire that burned down half the town. Flooding has claimed even more, he said.

Potter said that he is not sure how many of the historic houses will survive.

"But I am afraid we are going to lose those this time," he said. "Right now, we are trying to look to see if there is any way one or two could be saved, but you know that depends on money from other resources. And you are going to have to relocate the structure. That is going to be difficult, but it would be nice if we could save at least one."

An aide with Gov. Roy Cooper's office was in Seven Springs last week to tour the town and look at the RV park plan, Potter said.

They have been very helpful, he said.

Last Thursday, Potter participated in a meeting in Kinston attended by U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis.

Tillis was there to see what his office could do to move FEMA forward with local governments that were having trouble getting reimbursed for their expenses because of the storm, Potter said.

"I am optimistic," Potter said. "There are certainly entities and people out there who want to see us recover. It is like that meeting yesterday. I did not seek them out. They called me to come.

"We are on the map, and their eyes are on us so maybe that helps."