The sting from the school board’s decision on disposition of the former Southern Pines Primary School won’t pass anytime soon. But neither the town nor the Southern Pines Land and Housing Trust can afford to let that shortsighted act prevent what could yet be.
No, the school board will not sell the entire 17-acre campus to the Trust. Instead, it is offering a 5-acre parcel that includes much of the school and is historically significant to the Black residents of Southern Pines.
In Sunday’s story in The Pilot, Trust Chairman Vincent Gordon told reporter Mary Kate Murphy his organization would likely proceed with that purchase. But it need not end there.
Indeed, there is a longer game to be played here, one that could allow the Trust and Southern Pines to realize more of their vision than they might see now. It will take time, partnership and a much larger community connection than exists now, but there is no reason to look at the school board’s vote as anything other than a misguided and condescending attempt at “compromise.”
Add the Park
A good part of the hurt felt by West Southern Pines residents was the school district’s relative disregard of the school’s Blanchie Carter Discovery Park. Named for a longtime principal and community leader, the park once was a thorny, overgrown playground with a couple of pieces of rickety playsets. School children at recess “were confined to a little square of asphalt, and the rest was just sandspur and cactus,” one former teacher once said of it.
Townspeople raised more than $200,000 and recruited top design talent to build an interactive park, garden and learning center that gave the community a showpiece that garnered national attention with a write-up in The New York Times in 1999. Seeing that now as little more than a piece of real estate is dismissive and demeaning.
Which is where the Southern Pines Town Council comes in. The council should request a negotiation with the school board to buy that park for the community and join it to the Trust’s project. There’s indication that is in the works.
Some in town might sputter a bit about money, but it had already informally indicated it would make a $160,000 contribution toward the Trust’s $685,000 bid for the entire 17-acre campus. Less than a year ago, Southern Pines spent 10 times that amount for a 157-acre tract beside its already established Reservoir Park across town. The whole point of that purchase was to preserve undeveloped land and keep it as passive enjoyment for the town. The council can’t in good conscience look askance at an investment on this project.
A New Call
With the school property and the park land carved out of the overall 17-acre tract, the value of the remaining acreage suddenly begins to look a lot lower than the wildly overinflated prices school board member David Hensley threw around earlier this month.
While it’s possible a developer might want to come in and buy up 8 or 10 acres, that might be a little less likely, given the acreage carved away and the cost of building the necessary infrastructure. And if interest from other parties wanes, that then opens the door for the Trust to buy the remaining land. Still, the three sales combined could add up to more dollars for the schools than the original appraisal for selling the property as a whole.
In the meantime, though, a better case must be made for why the entire town — not just a few blocks — must pull together. The development of Blanchie Carter Discovery Park was never just about West Southern Pines. It was a broad coalition of neighbors helping neighbors, a signal that all town residents — white and Black, east side and west side — believed that Southern Pines would be better off by what they built.
That’s still possible on Carlisle Street. So while the horizon might be longer and the path to purchase a bit less direct, there is room for the town of Southern Pines to realize its plan for the old Southern Pines Primary campus.