Strawberries and sewer pipes top town talking points in Ellerbe

By: By Christine S. Carroll - Staff Writer

ELLERBE — Residents have a host of issues to keep track of these days, from sweet to smelly. And most of them came up at this week’s Town Council meeting.

A recap:

Celebrating strawberries. The Downtown Merchants Association plans to debut a strawberry festival the Saturday of Mothers’ Day weekend, May 12. That’s about peak time for the strawberry harvest and — says mayor and expert on all things strawberry, Lee Berry — it’s usually a peak time for sales of the sweet fruit.

Festival organizers say they have a potential sponsor on the hook — no details about who that might be. And they’ve set prices for vendors’ booths at $50 for food and $25 for those selling other products.

The council gave its blessing Monday to closing streets and using public land.

“I don’t see any problem getting streets closed and bringing people to Ellerbe,” Berry told Susan Kelly of the Richmond County Extension, who represented the merchants at the council meeting.

“Maybe we can get a couple thousand people to show up that day.”

But Berry did voice reservations about the date, hoping it didn’t come too soon after the Mineral Springs Improvement Council’s sixth annual Mayfest celebration earlier in the month. That festival raises money for a summer youth program and food pantry.

“My concern is Mayfest,” Berry said Monday. “I just hope those two dates (aren’t) too close.”

A smelly problem. Ever since Ellerbe abandoned its lagoon system a few years back and hooked up with Rockingham for sewage processing, it has been paying to process rainwater and groundwater that seeps into sewage pipes.

The problem has perplexed the city for some time. It couldn’t keep paying to treat water that wasn’t sewage, but there didn’t seem to be a way to separate the two kinds of liquid in the pipes.

Now, Ellerbe officials are working with the Lumber River Council of Governments, which assists 36 local governments in five counties with administrative issues, to spot and halt ground- and rainwater intrusion. The effort is in the “ducks in a row” stage, Berry said Tuesday, but promised the city would be “chasing this sewer leak down.”

“I don’t know if we can afford to fix it when we find it,” Berry told council members — but it will be found. The “chase” will begin within 60 days, he said.

Watching the books. The town has bought an abandoned redbrick structure that formerly housed Fidelity Bank, to turn it into a much more commodious library than the current Kemp-Sugg edition affixed to the Rankin Museum of American Heritage.

When he toured the building recently, dollar signs lit up in Berry’s eyes — he said it was his “self-employed, … small-town business mentality kicking in.”

The old bank boasts a drive-through window in which a local pharmacy has expressed interest. Berry also said the town might be able to sell the bank’s safe — he has seen used safes fetching thousands online.

Since “anybody’s plans are greater than our budget” for the library, the salesman in Berry could save the town a chunk of change. Contractors were scheduled to tour the building Tuesday to see what is feasible.

Berry said he hoped to know where the project stood next month.

A spot to develop. Late last year, the Town of Ellerbe paid $37,000 — $17,000 above budget — for a rest stop on U.S. 220 near Ellerbe Springs Bed and Breakfast that the state sold off years ago. Within 30 to 45 days, it plans to begin improvements such as bathroom renovation and painting, Berry said Tuesday.

The General Assembly set aside $100,000 last session for Ellerbe to bring back the rest stop, with hopes of sparking an economic boon for the town by diverting beach-going traffic into its restaurants and antique shops. Ellerbe lost tens of thousands of potential visitors with money in their pockets when the stop closed.

Ellerbe has 1,200 people, “four restaurants, two gas stations and several antique shops” that could use a boost in revenue, Berry said after the legislature took action. “We need all we can get to come through town. It’s hard to support (town businesses) off of locals.”

The merchants association has printed a brochure that maps all of the businesses in town, and Ellerbe hopes that volunteers will staff the rest stop on weekends to sell the charms of the town.

“The merchants have the most to gain from this,” Berry said Monday, hinting that he hoped merchants would make up many of the volunteers.

Whether the rest stop actually will lure anyone off the 73/74 Bypass is anyone’s guess, but “you don’t know till you try,” Berry said.

Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond County, secured the financing.

Mark and Donna Buckeridge of Ellerbe Springs Bed and Breakfast had owned the rest stop before Ellerbe bought it from them.

By Christine S. Carroll

Staff Writer

Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]

Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]