Residents of the rural New Hill community in southwestern Wake County were supposed to get a community center in return for agreeing to drop their legal fight against a planned wastewater treatment plant. Three years after the plant opened, the community center is a shell of a building, and residents don’t have enough money to finish the project that they hope will help bring together the town’s black and white communities.
The 2,100-square-foot building on New Hill Holleman Road looks complete from the outside – so much so that community members who built it have had to turn away requests to rent the space. But inside, the wood framing and concrete floor are bare, and there are no air ducts, finishings or furniture.
New Hill Community Center, a nonprofit, needs to raise at least $50,000 to finish the interior, said Bob Kelly, a member of the center’s board of directors.
Western Wake Partners, made up of Cary, Apex and Morrisville, paid $500,000 toward the community center in 2011 after mediation about the Western Wake Reclamation Facility. The plant opened in 2014 to accommodate expected growth in Apex and Cary, but New Hill residents worried about environmental impacts and effects on their way of life.
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Much of the money from Western Wake Partners was used to buy the property for the community center and to pay attorney fees, residents say. A yard sale in 2015 helped some, but the community center is still short.
“We wanted to have raffles, but the churches will not have a raffle of any type,” Kelly said. “And it’s totally their prerogative to do that, but a raffle of a barbecue grill or something like we’ve done in the past has brought in some good money.”
Residents hope the center will make New Hill, a community of about 2,000 people, more self-sufficient and provide a concrete sense of identity. They want it to be used as a polling place for elections, a bingo hall, a storm shelter and a satellite campus for Wake Tech Community College so the area’s aging population can learn how to use computers.
Right now there’s nowhere for us all to gather, but this would do it.
Deborah Judd, a member of the community center’s board of directors
Leaders anticipate the gathering of New Hill’s black and white residents, who typically attend different churches – blacks at New Hill First Baptist Church and whites around the corner at New Hill Baptist Church.
“If we can get this building completed, we will be amazed at the mixture of the blacks and the whites and coming together,” said Deborah Judd, a member of the community center’s board of directors. “Right now there’s nowhere for us all to gather, but this would do it.”
For years, residents have said their rural way of life has been threatened by the approaching boundaries of Apex and Holly Springs. Now they say those fears have invigorated their community.
“We’d go back and forth between the two churches,” said Paul Barth, president of the community center’s board, recalling how New Hill came together in response to news of the wastewater plant. “We’d have the white people going to the black church and the black people going to the white church. We all mixed and became very friendly with each other, I think, more so than before.”
New Hill’s roots date back to the mid-19th century, when it got its first post office. After the Civil War, the Chatham Railroad built a train depot in the area.
By the 1880s, New Hill had a turpentine distillery, several general stores and a cider mill. The community was incorporated in 1907, according to records filed with the National Register of Historic Places, but the town lost its charter in 1917 after an economic downturn.
The paving of Old U.S. 1 in 1928 brought some development, and U.S. 64 came through the area in 1964.
In 2001, New Hill’s Historic District was established for about 282 acres around Old U.S. 1, covering about 62 buildings, homes and other structures.
Many residents say they moved to the area or have stayed because it feels remote and uncluttered. But the wastewater treatment plant wasn’t the first time New Hill’s land has served the needs of urbanizing areas.
Jordan Lake was built nearby in the early 1980s, as was Harris Lake, whose waters cool the nuclear reactor on its shores.
“That’s where property was taken from folks,” Barth said of Harris Lake. “They weren’t given very much money for their land. They were told, ‘If you don’t sell, you’re just going to be underwater.’ We’re a target for utility companies because the land is still so open out here.”
The land for the community center, fittingly, was bought back from an energy utility.
Though residents chafe against trees being cleared and houses going up around them, new subdivisions have given Apex leaders reason to take an interest in New Hill and the fortunes of its people.
“Now they ask our opinion on things,” Barth said. “There’s one council member who always asks either me or Bob (Kelly) what we think about things. He’ll ask, ‘Would you guys be OK with that?’ There’s a back-and-forth relationship now. It used to be, ‘We’re doing this, and you’re just in our way.’ ”
Apex Fire Station No. 2 is now the next building down the road from the community center. Across the street stands the historic New Hill First Baptist Church, moved there in 1910 but established decades earlier.
The community center completes a triangle of structures that tell New Hill’s story in three acts – a cherished past, a worrisome intrusion and a community strengthened by its response.
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan