On the brink of permanent closure last year, a local swell of support saved the U.S. 421 rest area in southern Sampson County. Closed for months for necessary renovations, the revamped rest area now stands as a sign that positive things can happen when a community comes together, local officials said.
The area, closed by the N.C. Department of Transportation June 8 with the anticipation that necessary work could take up to six months, was reopened in August. DOT said the recent work has ensured the site will stay open another five years.
“It makes it a lot nicer for the public coming in,” said Joe Chance, roadside environmental engineer for DOT’s Division 3, which encompasses Sampson and several others. “As far as right now, everyone seems to like it.”
About $50,000 in construction costs included the demolition of the rest area building, a new roof and new interior finishes (paint, partitions, drywall), as well as all new plumbing encompassing toilet fixtures, sinks and faucets. There was also a HVAC and lighting upgrade, along with exterior paint and repair. Even landscaping was revitalized in an effort to bring a more modern and sleeker look.
“It was a total remake basically,” said DOT district engineer Lin Reynolds. “I have talked to some people down there and they’re excited about it being open again.”
He said that it is not limited to people simply in the area, but those who pass through on a regular basis or travel to the southern end of the county to farm. “Farmers, even in the northern end of the county where I live, farm down there and said they use it a lot, stopping there with their equipment,” said Reynolds. “It is just used by a lot of different people.”
Proponents to save the rest area expressed satisfaction in the results.
“I’m very pleased with the outcome of the renovation project,” said county commissioner Jefferson Strickland. “It has a very neat, clean and welcoming appearance to it. It had a little bit of a worn look to it (before) and didn’t have that sharp appearance.”
Strickland said that outcome was a symbol of the success that can be achieved when a joint effort is made by a community. He credited Sen. Brent Jackson, DOT and government officials on every level, the Clinton-Sampson Chamber of Commerce, staff members, citizens and others for their diligence.
“What I feel best about is that all the community came together for the common good of the county,” said Strickland. “They all played their part. This is what can happen when we all work together.”
Before the significant support to save the rest area in Six Runs, it appeared destined for oblivion.
The state expressed its intention to immediately close the facility over a year ago, Labor Day 2011, an announcement met with local opposition and the unanimous adoption of a resolution by the Sampson County Board of Commissioners against the impending action. The action prompted state officials to push back the closure date twice to November 2011, before the move was suspended altogether so further talks could be had between DOT and the county.
Those talks resulted in a revised schedule and cost estimate for operating and maintaining the rest area, including staff hours and the “bare minimum” in renovation expenses to keep the area open. A proposal outlining the scaled-down plan, for which DOT would foot the bill, was accepted by the Sampson County Board of Commissioners in March.
According to that proposal, custodial operations and maintenance would be reduced to $16,600 to staff the area with one attendant for 42 hours per week during the summer (May 1 through Labor Day) and 21 hours per week during the winter (after Labor Day through April 30). Minor repairs and materials such as tissue, paper towels and cleaners, would cost an additional $28,000. That includes contingency and miscellaneous expenses, as well as limited lawn and grounds maintenance.
That was a far cry from the $250,000 in facility renovations — demolition of the current facility and the construction of a brand new one was said to cost just a little more than that — and additional $117,000 in annual expenditures originally estimated by state officials. DOT district engineer Lin Reynolds called the scaled-down proposal “the bare minimum” to bring the rest area up to standard.
“This is not the perfect fix,” Reynolds said at the time, “but this is good for right now.”
Upon last year’s announcement to close the rest area, DOT secretary Eugene Conti Jr. said it would be a “fiscally responsible”move in light of current budget shortfalls. He pointed to high maintenance costs and traffic shifts from U.S. 421 to I-40 that produced diminished visitor numbers that no longer justified the Six Runs rest area. He said the I-40 rest area in Warsaw caters to far more people than the one on U.S. 421 — and costs less per user.
However, many locally, including county commissioners and Jackson, lobbied on behalf of the rest area. They said it was more about visitor numbers.
Jackson detailed the merits of the 40-year-old facility, established in 1972, and an importance that extended “not only to those who live in the area, but also to travelers from near and far who look forward to a few minutes of rest and tranquility as they pass through Sampson County.”
“I can’t say enough about the good work he did. He was our biggest cheerleader and he worked hard on it,” Strickland said of Jackson.
The senator said it was a collective effort.
“It was a joint effort on the citizens of Sampson County, our county commissioners and our N.C. DOT in saving our little rest area from closure and I thank everyone for their involvement,” said Jackson. “I was delighted to be able to assist in this project and I, along with many more in this county, are very proud of our rest area.”
He said he was “extremely pleased” with the updates that have been made to the facility.
“I have received many comments since it reopened as to how nice the rest area is and the comments most always have been followed by ‘I am so glad we were able to save our little rest area,’” Jackson said.
Going forward, Reynolds said the plan would be to keep monitoring the maintenance costs and ensure they were low enough to be in line with the number of visitors. “What we look at is the cost per user,” he said. “We’re trying to keep the costs down and get the cost per user low enough so that it won’t be targeted to be closed again.”
That will not even be considered for at least five years, said Chance.
“From where we stand now, we’re not looking at doing anything (to that site) for at least five years,” he said. “We’ll revisit it in five years and make any decisions then, but as far as right now, everyone seems to be happy with it.”
Strickland said the rest area, with renewed life, is a prime example of the possibilities that exist when people are driven toward a cause.
“I encourage everyone to go by and use the picnic tables and utilize the facility,” said Strickland, “and know that this is what can happen when everyone works together.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.