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Despite state stumbles, Garland takes ‘step’ forward

Chris Berendt Staff Writer

August 15, 2013

GARLAND — Even as a N.C. Small Towns Economic Prosperity (STEP) grant initiative in Garland is up in the air following a shakeup at the state level, the local committee continues to work to make a positive impact on the community. That included a Back to School Celebration that saw 200 bookbags and numerous other supplies purchased for local children.


The event, held this past weekend, was actually the culmination of weeks of collections. Sylvia Carter, who served as a co-chair for event, along with Joyce Miles, Charles Powell and Brenda Cromartie, credited the committee and a tremendous community outpouring in making a difference for a number of youngsters.


“We put organization into this, and that organization paid off,” said Carter. “They didn’t have to give and they opened their hearts and their pocketbooks and there were supplies aplenty. It’s just an abundance of stuff.”


Among that abundance was hundreds of packs of notebook paper, 190 bookbags, more than 50 composition books, and numerous pencil bags, pencils, ballpoint pens, boxes of markers and colored pencils, along with a variety of other items. The N.C. STEP Back to School committee collected supplies and donations outside the Family Dollar in Garland on four different days, including both Saturday and Sunday on the two weekends prior to the Aug. 10 event.


“All this stuff came from asking people right here,” Carter said. “You would not believe the people who have given. It was just overwhelming how they gave for this project.”


Additionally, local merchant sponsors included Southern Bank, Piggly Wiggly and Summerville-Boykin. The National Guard also “gave tremendously,” Carter said.


“We thank everybody who gave, those who did not have to give and those who chose not to give — we still thank you for your participation,” said Miles. “Everything went very well. The children had a great time receiving those bookbags and a lot of hearts were open. We were thankful for everything we received. The children had a great time.”


Miles also thanked commissioners. Carter expressed her gratitude to Commissioner Ralph Smith for cooking the hot dogs served at the event and Commissioner Haywood Johnson for manning the concession stand with Smith.


“We gave away 190 bookbags to the children. We fed them 300 hot dogs. (Commissioner) Ralph cooked every one of them and cut the onions, too,” Carter said. “We partnered with the Sampson County Sheriff’s Department, which was the grandest idea of all.”


She said Sheriff’s Capt. Julian Carr coordinated all the Sheriff’s Department activities for the event, with the New Hanover Sheriff’s Department pitching in. There were activities offered by the agencies, as well as facepainting and other games and activities.


“The children had a great day,” said Carter. “I think they were one of the most well-behaved groups of children I have seen in a long time, and I simply think it was the presence of someone with authority there. They were all well behaved and we were so proud that it was considered very successful.”


There was also $4-6 worth of supplies in each of the nearly 200 bookbags distributed, a good haul for a small community — and it came at no cost to the town.


“We collected $345 in donations,” said Carter. “And we spent $345.41, so we have no funds left. We did not ask the town of Garland to help us financially this time for this project. And I hope you appreciated that we were busy collecting instead of asking.”


Rural Center fallout


Brenda Cromartie said that due to issues with the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, funding to the N.C. STEP initiative has been put in jeopardy.


“Art Jackson, (director of the Rural Center’s Small Towns Initiative), asked me to tell the town board and the property owners that the luncheon that we talked about last month will be scheduled at a later date,” said Cromartie.


Originally scheduled for this coming Monday, Aug. 19, a regular N.C. STEP meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on that date instead.


“We’re still very hopeful that once the transition occurs between Rural Center and the Department of Commerce that we will still get that funding,” said Garland Mayor Winifred Murphy, “but we’re going to proceed on with developing our plan to spend $100,000 and we’re optimistic that things will move forward.”


However, the prospect of receiving those grants is in doubt.


“We sure don’t know what’s going to take place,” Jackson said earlier this month. “I’m assuming the state will honor these grants that have already been awarded to these towns, but I just don’t know. We’re still working with the towns and putting plans together — and we’re going to hope they get funding from whatever entity ends up with the funds.”


Garland and Roseboro were two of 11 towns selected to join the N.C. STEP program last year. The towns are halfway through a two-year revitalization process with the Rural Center, which provides guidance and support in building inclusive, community-wide leadership teams to develop plans and carry out projects.


The $125,000 N.C. STEP grant incorporates community coaching, leadership training, planning assistance and grants, with $25,000 going toward training and the other $100,000 toward implementing various projects.


The bulk of that money is up in the air amid the fallout from a state audit released last month. In the wake of the audit, Gov. Pat McCrory called for the Rural Center to be cut off completely. Amid mounting pressure, Rural Center leaders resigned their posts.


In Garland, of the $25,000 awarded, which is on a reimbursable basis, the town had been reimbursed all funds spent aside from $60. Of the $25,000, the town still has close to $11,000, Murphy noted.


“We’ve been very conservative in terms of what we were spending on planning. There has been some concern that money was spent in ways it shouldn’t have been spent, but everything was approved,” said Murphy, noting the purchase of a laptop, a projector and the One Call Now emergency notification system, along with some travel expenses.


Events hosted by the town, including book signings and others, were paid personally by Murphy, she said.


“I have not spent any STEP funds. In fact, everything I did came out of my pocket and not N.C. STEP,” the mayor remarked. “I just wanted to clear that up, because there have been some rumors in town that the mayor has been spending N.C. STEP money. That has not happened.”


Carter similarly said that was the case with the Back to School celebration.


Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at cberendt@civitasmedia.com.