LUMBERTON — Thousands of local residents have gotten in line to do their part in trying to improve the health of Robeson County, which always ranks low in North Carolina in terms of overall health measures, including obesity.

Planet Fitness, one of the country’s fastest-growing chains of fitness centers, opened Thursday at 2770 Roberts Ave., and company officials say it already has 3,000 members.



The address is that of the former 95,000-square-foot Kmart retail store that closed in the spring of 2016, idling a key piece of real estate in Lumberton, at Roberts Avenue and Interstate 95. Two more tenants will be opening in the building soon, Big Lots and Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, according to Robert Britt, vice president of K.M. Biggs Inc., which owns the building.

According to information provided by Planet Fitness, monthly memberships begin for as little as $10. The center, which will occupy 24,000 square feet of the building, has more than 200 pieces of brand new cardio and strength pieces, and features two separate areas of equipment that company officials say many gyms don’t offer. The center will offer a “a 30-minute workout space that consists of stations where members can take the guesswork out of their routine and follow a pre-set workout to exercise the whole body in a short period of time.”

The company’s says its mission is to “enhance people’s lives by providing a high-quality fitness experience in a welcoming, non-intimidating environment,” which it bills as a “judgment free zone.”

The center will be open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It will employ 18 to 20 people, including certified trainers who can help members with their fitness programs.

“Lumberton has been one of the best pre-sales in our portfolio of more than 70 locations, and we are overjoyed to be part of a community that is so passionate about Planet Fitness and healthy living,” said Amanda Pleiter, local marketing manager for Planet Fitness. “Often those who work afternoon into evening shifts, such as those in the food service, medical, or law enforcement professions, find it difficult to find the place or time to work out. Our 24/7 availability, along with tons of equipment and free fitness training allows anyone to fit a visit to Planet Fitness into their day.”

The center also will offer a PF360 unit that features cross-training resources, including battle ropes, kettle balls and TRX.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2018 County Health Rankings & Roadmaps report from spring 2018 ranked Robeson County last in health of North Carolina’s 100 counties. The rankings measure the health of county populations in all 50 states based on more than 30 factors, including obesity, tobacco use, premature death, physical inactivity and access to clinical care.

Founded in 1992 in Dover, New Hampshire, Planet Fitness has more than 12.5 million members and 1,742 stores in 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Mexico.

Lumberton shoppers are familiar with Big Lots, which already is located in Lumberton at 1731 N. Roberts Ave., but is looking for more room, and will occupy 38,000 square feet of the building.

Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, with the slogan, “Get Good Stuff Cheap,” specializes in closeouts, overstocked items and books, too. Founded in 1982 and headquartered in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Ollie’s has more than 300 stores in 23 states along the East Coast.

ST. PAULS — St. Pauls Police Chief Steve Dollinger walked along West Broad Street recently and introduced himself to business owners with a smile and handshake.

Dollinger is spending time getting to know the town and its people as part of the process of settling in to the job he assumed on Jan. 1, replacing Thomas Hagens, a 45-year police veteran. Hagens served 31 of those years as police chief.

Dollinger spent nearly two weeks shadowing Hagens before taking on the role that will see him manage 11 full-time police officers, two auxiliary officers, an Animal Control officer and five dispatchers.

He has appointed Officer Brynn Hinson as the department’s public information officer and created the positions of grant researcher and evidence manager. He also has the department working to enhance its internet presence and will soon begin using social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

“I’m going to try to improve technology a little bit here and increase our training with officers,” Dollinger said.

The department worked with the Robeson County Sheriff’s last weekend to conduct DWI checkpoints across the county. The collaboration was the result St. Pauls entering a countywide mutual aid agreement that allows law enforcement agencies across the county to work together and share officers, equipment and supplies as needed.

The new police chief said St. Pauls residents deserve an organization that will strive to keep them safe and help improve their quality of life.

Dollinger said the quality of service he and his team provided to more than 65,000 residents in Middletown, New Jersey, when he was deputy chief of police there will not be changed as he shifts to St. Pauls, a town with about 2,330 residents.

Dollinger brings with him more than 30 years of law enforcement experience. He previously has served as a canine officer, detective, detective sergeant, detective bureau commander and deputy chief of Middletown Police Department in Middletown, from which he retired in March. He has had as many as 115 sworn personnel and 90 civilians under his command. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from Monmouth College, and a master’s degree in Public Administration from Fairleigh Dickinson University.

“He brings a lot of personality and personal touch to it,” Gibson said. “I’m looking for great things. I think we’re going to see a great turnaround here.”

Johnson said his education, background in law enforcement and personality made Dollinger stand out during the interview process.

“I think he’s going to be a great asset to our town and community,” she said. “He’s ready to make changes for the better.”

“The chief was very gracious,” Dollinger said. “He has a wealth of knowledge. He’s been here for years. Nobody knows St. Pauls like he does.”

LUMBERTON — Lumberton will get another infusion of funds to buy out homes in flood prone areas of South and West Lumberton and Mayfair Subdivision, this time from a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Maggie Gurule, of the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resilience, told the Lumberton City Council on Wednesday it expects to get as much as $150 million to buy and demolish homes in flood prone residential zones in Lumberton and four other counties hit by hurricanes Matthew and Florence.

Most of the homes will be privately owned by low- and moderate-income families, and there will be incentives to relocate out of flood prone areas in the county and state. The buyout program has targeted homes off National Avenue in West Lumberton, east of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in South Lumberton and off Hampstead Street in Mayfair.

The plan drew questions from council members John Cantey and Chris Howard, who represent South Lumberton.

“Buyout, buyouts, buyouts are killing our community,” Cantey said. “We’re looking to rebuild and re-establish.”

Cantey’s hope is that the city’s efforts to close the Jacob Swamp Dike will solve flooding problems in South and West Lumberton. Howard’s concerns were for homeowners with homes not valued at market prices high enough to find other suitable accommodations.

“A person in a home valued at $35,000 will not be able to buy a home for that,” Howard said. “There are no homes here priced like that.”

“The buyouts are for the most at-risk,” she said. “This is flood mitigation is for the most vulnerable.”

With FEMA funding totaling $13.5 million tied to Hurricane Matthew, the city has purchased and demolished six homes, and three more demolitions were approved Wednesday. The city expects to purchase 47 homes in flood prone areas, elevate 23 and renovate 36 more.

In other business, council members emerged from a short executive session to report the city will renew efforts to establish an industrial and commercial park near Interstate 95 and U.S. 74. The 200-acre park could become home to as many as five industrial buildings and a commercial sector with up to eight hotels, restaurants and other services. Grants would be needed to purchase land from several landowners and provide infrastructure.

The council members also selected Councilman John Carroll to serve on the board of directors of the North Carolina Eastern Power Agency. The advisory board deals with financing for North Carolina ElectriCities, which purchases electric power from Duke Energy for several cities in eastern North Carolina, including Lumberton and Red Springs.

Council members approved a revised policy to stem an increase in “avoidable accidents” involving city employees. In accidents that city employees are responsible for, the employee would be charged $500 or the cost of repairs if below $500. Employees involved in accidents will be tested for drug use and enrolled in defensive driving classes.

The city has had difficulty finding liability insurance, according to Safety and Accountability Director David Carroll.

Finally, the council approved buying a line truck for the Electric Utilities Department at a cost of $217,817 and a $64,000 utility truck for Public Works.

Sheila Bullard embroiders a napkin box cover Wednesday at the Pine Street Senior Center in Lumberton. She and a group of ladies meet from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays of each week at the center to create craft. Next on the agenda will be something for Valentine’s Day.

LUMBERTON — The Public Schools of Robeson County Early College High School is inviting eighth grade students and their parents to an informational meeting on Jan. 27 at 6 p.m. in the A.D. Lewis Auditorium on the campus of Robeson Community College.

Information will be provided about the school and the application process to attend Early College High School during the upcoming school year. Applications are due March 6.

The Transportation Planning Division of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, in cooperation with Robeson County and the Lumber River Rural Planning Organization, is developing a Comprehensive Transportation Plan for the county.​ A Comprehensive Transportation Plan is a long-range planning document that will assist local governments in making transportation decisions for the next 25 to 30 years.

Information collected in the survey is essential in identifying Robeson County’s transportation needs.

Residents who want to complete the survey on paper can do so at Lumberton City Hall; the town halls in Maxton, Fairmont, Pembroke, Red Springs, St Pauls or Rowland; or at Proctorville Post Office.

DELCO — The driver of the tractor-trailer involved in the crash Tuesday in Columbus that involved a Head Start bus and left 10 people injured has been charged, and more charges are possible.

According to information from the N.C. State Highway Patrol office in Whiteville, Daniel Scott Musick, of Statesville, has been charged with failure to reduce speed. The investigation of the crash that also involved a FedEx truck driven by Wilmington resident Melissa Joy Hutsell-Tigert is ongoing. More charges could be filed depending on what the investigation reveals.

The 10 people on the bus driven by Levette Karee Hansley, of Riegelwood, suffered minor injuries, Highway Patrol 1st Sgt. E.C. Harris said Wednesday. The adults, the driver and a monitor, and children, 4- and 5-year-olds, who were injured in a bus crash have all been released from the hospital.

A preliminary investigation shows a tractor-trailer rig struck the back of the bus, Harris said. A FedEx truck also struck the bus owned by Southeastern Community and Family Services, a nonprofit that operates Ransom Head Start Center in Riegelwood.

All three vehicles were traveling west on U.S. 74, according to the Highway Patrol. The bus had stopped in the right lane to pick up a student. The tractor-trailer’s driver failed to reduce speed as he approached the bus. The driver tried to swerve to the left to avoid hitting the bus directly and struck the left rear of the bus and caused it to overturn.

The FedEx truck driver swerved to the right to avoid the collision. The driver not see that the bus had overturned until it was too late to avoid hitting the bus.

All of the people injured were on the bus. Two of the injured were airlifted, and the others were taken to New Hanover Regional by ambulance.

Ambulances from numerous departments, including Cerro Gordo, Whiteville, Lake Waccamaw, Buckhead, and Acme-Delco Riegelwood, responded. Also on the scene were personnel from the Highway Patrol, Columbus County Emergency Management, the state Department of Transportation, and a Hazmat Emergency Response and Remediation team.

LUMBERTON — The Lumberton Police Department is warning people about a scam in which a person impersonating a law enforcement officer is calling city residents in an effort to bilk them out of their money.

According to police Capt. Terry Parker, the caller often knows the name of the person being called and even spoofs the telephone numbers of law enforcement agencies, giving the phone call more credibility. The caller then attempts to convince the resident that his or her bank account or Social Security number has been linked to criminal activity, and that the person should withdraw all of their money and place it on gift cards or other cards. The caller then asks for numbers to the cards.

“Please do not do this. Please know that law enforcement will not ask you to do this. Do not give your banking information to anyone and be suspicious of persons who ask you to get gift cards and give them the numbers on the cards,” Park said in a statement.

Parker asks anyone to report suspicious activity to law enforcement. The Lumberton Police Department’s telephone number is 910-671-3845.

RED SPRINGS — The Board of Commissioners punted on Tuesday taking action on two budgetary items, including a request from the police chief for more money.

The commissioners voted to table discussion of a contract with attorney Mark Bardill of Zacchaeus Legal Services to help collect the $900,000 owed the town in delinquent property taxes. The town will hear from Bardill at the next commissioners meeting, which is Feb. 4.

The commissioners also tabled discussion of a request for more money from Chief Ronnie Patterson for the Red Springs Police Department. Patterson said the department’s budget is suffering because it is paying overtime to its 12 officers, who are covering multiple shifts.

In the past six months, the department has paid $42,000 in overtime, according to Finance Director Sharon McFarland.

The commissioners did approve on Tuesday the addition of two speed tables on Phillips Avenue in the town.

Speed tables, which are larger than speed bumps ,are used to slow drivers down to the appropriate speed limit instead of bringing the vehicle to a complete stop, Town Manager David Ashburn said. The town placed six speed tables, with two each, on East Eighth Avenue, Richardson and Buie Streets.

In other business, the commissioners voted to surplus a 2004 Ford pick-up truck used by the water treatment plant. Ashburn said he would search for a replacement vehicle to buy.

The commissioners also voted to buy a 2008 bucket utility truck from Laurinburg. The truck, which has 36,000 miles, was presented to Ashburn at the cost of $5,500. The town will receive the truck once its sale is approved by Laurinburg’s town board.

Also on Tuesday, the commissioners were presented a photo of Listen2Me youth group members by founder Renet McQueen and children from the youth group. The youth group thanked the commissioners for their support.

Another issue tabled until the Feb. 4 meeting is consideration of a request from James Freeman, owner of Emerging Technology Institute, on changing the name of Red Springs Industrial Park on Industrial Drive to Red Springs Technical Park.

Freeman, whose business is located inside the park, said changing the name of the park will allow the town to apply for infrastructure grants from the North Carolina Department of Commerce, and attract investors by providing them with tax credits.

LUMBERTON — Two Lumberton men have been charged with a series of break-ins and, as part of that investigation, two other people are facing drugs charges.

According to the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office, Roosevelt Jr. Jones, 38, and Jimmy Cook, 44, both of Lumberton, were charged Monday with several breaking-and-enterings in the Red Springs and Lumberton areas by the Criminal Investigations Division.

Jones is charged with four counts of breaking and entering, breaking and entering a place of worship, five counts of larceny after breaking and entering, four counts of conspiracy, possession of firearm by a felon, and misdemeanor larceny. He was placed into the custody of Robeson County Detention Center under a $101,000 secured bond.

Cook is charged with two counts of breaking and entering, two counts of larceny after breaking and entering, and two counts of conspiracy. Cook was jailed under a $10,000 secured bond.

Mary Beth Cleveland, 38, and David Earl Carter Jr., 29, both of Rowland, were arrested Monday by Sheriff’s Office investigators and Community Impact Team personnel.

They are each charged with maintaining a drug dwelling, possession of cocaine, possession with intent to sell and deliver marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia. Carter also is charged with possession of a firearm by a felon.

Anyone with information about other breaking-and-entering cases is asked to call the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office at 910-671-3100.

DELCO — Eight children and two adults were injured Tuesday morning when a Head Start bus, a tractor trailer and a FedEx delivery van collided in Columbus County.

The bus belongs to Southeastern Community and Family Services, a nonprofit that operates Ransom Head Start Center in Riegelwood, emergency officials said. All of the people injured were on the bus. Two of the injured were airlifted, and the others were taken to New Hanover Regional by ambulance.

The bus rolled at least three times after it was struck in the left rear by the tractor trailer, firefighters said.

The wreck occurred in front of Grahamland, a well-known attraction on U.S. 74-76 that features fiberglass statues and a small train.

Ambulances from numerous departments, including Cerro Gordo, Whiteville, Lake Waccamaw, Buckhead, and Acme-Delco Riegelwood, responded to the scene of the crash. Also on the scene were personnel from the N.C. Highway Patrol, Columbus County Emergency Management, the state Department of Transportation, and a Hazmat Emergency Response and Remediation team.

Hubert Graham told the Whiteville News Reporter that he was getting fuel for his tractor when he “heard the chaos.”

“I knew what it was and ran around there quick as I could,” Graham said. “All I could see was people running around, and smoke and steam from the vehicles.”

Graham said this was the second time a Head Start bus has been struck in front of Grahamland in the past month.

“People are speeding through here all the time,” he said. “When they come out of Delco, they start speeding up. Even though it’s a 55-mph zone here, they think it’s 70. A lot off them are driving faster than that as they pass by.”

LUMBERTON — The Public Schools of Robeson County has received about $700,000 in grant money to enhance safety at local schools.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction Center for Safer Schools has approved the school district’s application for NC School Safety Grant Program money, according to Gordon Burnette, the PSRC’s Public Information officer. The program provides $166,665 for the remainder of the current academic year for more school resource officers.

“The Public Schools of Robeson County partnered with local law enforcement agencies and established agreements with the City of Lumberton, Town of St. Pauls, Town of Pembroke, and the Robeson County Sheriff’s Department to provide a 2:1 match for the employment of six School Resource Officers,” a news release from Burnette reads in part.

“We are supposedly getting two resource officers so we will have one in every school in the city limits,” McNeill said.

Resource officers help provide an environment in which students can feel more secure, he said. Students who feel secure are better able to learn.

The grant program also will provide $175,000 for school safety equipment, $215,000 for Students in Crisis Services and $141,129 for school safety training, according to the release from Burnette. As with the SRO money, this initial funding is for the remainder of the current school year. The grant is to provide full funding for the 2020-21 academic year.

“The grant will cover PSRC’s portion of the match along with Crisis Intervention Training and tuition for the School Resource Officer Certification coursework at Robeson Community College,” the release reads in part.

The funding for safety equipment is to ensure that PSRC schools have updated and functioning access control systems and visitor identification systems to document and cross-reference all visitors, according to the release. Funding will also allow county schools to implement Ident-A-Kid Identification Systems to ensure students’ safety.

“Grant funding will be used towards crisis services training efforts to hire educational and behavioral staff members, as well as two licensed mental health therapists and transportation as needed,” the release reads in part. “Grant funding will also be used to implement the Public Schools of Robeson County Day Treatment Program.”

The district will provide Child and Adolescent Day Treatment Services to students within the district that are identified as meeting the criteria for services, according to the release. This service is to be offered in partnership with Advantage Behavioral Healthcare.

An N.C. Department of Health and Human Services document published April 1, 2017, reads in part, “Day Treatment is a structured treatment service in a licensed facility for children or adolescents and their families that builds on strengths and addresses identified needs. This medically necessary service directly addresses the individual’s diagnostic and clinical needs, which are evidenced by the presence of a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disturbance …”

The document also reads in part, “This service is designed to serve children who, as a result of their mental health or substance use disorder treatment needs, are unable to benefit from participation in academic or vocational services at a developmentally appropriate level in a traditional school or work setting.”

According to the PSRC release, the NC School Safety Grant Program money also allow the school district to establish a partnership with Kognito Health Simulation Program to provide the Supporting Mental Health Program to all staff through Kognito’s online training program.

The training programs will cover at-risk students in elementary, middle, and high school. Further, the training programs will educate PSRC staff on Trauma-Informed Practices for K-12, Step In, Speak Out (LGBTQ), Building Respect: Bullying Prevention, and Resilient Together,” the news release reads.

According to the company’s web site, Kognito is a “health simulation company” whose simulations with “virtual humans prepare people to lead real-life conversations that change lives.”

LUMBERTON — With construction halted for a year, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline has a date with the U.S. Supreme Court in February that may unlock the project to bring natural gas from the shale belt of West Virginia and Pennsylvania to North Carolina.

“Yes, we are optimistic for a favorable Supreme Court ruling,” Bruce McKay, senior policy director for Dominion Energy told Lumberton Rotarians on Tuesday. “The pipeline is going 750 feet under the Appalachian Trail and will join the 56 pipelines that already cross the trail.”

Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Southern Company Gas partnered to build the pipeline beginning in 2014. The $8 billion project originally was projected to cost $6 billion and was slated to be completed and terminate near Pembroke by 2018.

The snag came when the U.S. Forest Service issued a permit and a lower court said the environmental study was incomplete and permitting was the jurisdiction of the Park Service, which requires congressional approval.

McKay, who is the Washington lobbyist for the ACP, was in friendly company at the Rotary luncheon. He thanked supporters, including the Robeson County Board of Commissioners; former county economic development Director Greg Cummings; James Gore, past president of the Committee of 100; and local businessman Bo Biggs.

“It’s important that people stand up and be heard,” McKay said of the local support. “This county has been very supportive.”

McKay recited facts about the pipeline and its benefits. It covers 600 miles and runs largely along Interstate 95. Its 42-inch pipe would carry 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day, with the capacity to carry 2 billion.

North Carolina would receive 70% of the gas and 80% of the total supply would be used for the generation of electricity as former coal-fired plants convert to natural gas. The remainder would heat homes and be used by industry.

“The impact on the U.S. economy of natural gas is phenomenal,” McKay said. “North Carolina depends on one pipeline today, Transco. You don’t want to be dependent on one pipeline.”

Much of the resistance to the pipeline comes from environmental groups that oppose fossil fuels. It is a national debate, and the ACP is the biggest pending case, McKay said.

Dominion, Duke and Southern are investing in renewable energy. Dominion is investing $250 million into a project to turn methane from hog waste into natural gas.

In partnership with Smithfield Foods on the $500 million project, several of the test farms are in North Carolina.

“We’ve looked at the long-term energy needs of the future, and our goal is to keep the light on,” McKay said.

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DELCO — The driver of the tractor-trailer involved in the crash Tuesday in Columbus that involved a Head Start bus and left 10 people injured has been charged, and more charges are possible. According to […]

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