When Paul Barth attended a 2004 community meeting in New Hill, it was the first of its kind he could recall since buying a house there in 1984. He and his neighbors gathered in the historic New Hill Baptist Church, built in the 1870s.
The meeting had been called to discuss rumors of plans for a sewer plant to be built in the community. It was among the first signs of the wave of development that now laps at the borders of the historic farming community, but it was also the beginning of a community effort that has arisen to protect New Hill’s rural character from that existential threat.
“A lot of these smaller communities are getting sucked up into towns,” Barth said. “We want to maintain our identity.”
Leaders of that effort have since identified the need for a space – one built in this millennium – for the community to gather as it is confronted by the Triangle’s westward expansion. On Saturday, April 9, work will begin on the New Hill Community Center at an 11 a.m. groundbreaking ceremony. Town leaders from Apex and state legislators representing the area are expected to attend.
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Barth said he hopes the center, to be built at 2900 New Hill Holleman Rd., will help crystallize the area’s identity in the face of development. But its construction will be funded primarily by money awarded to New Hill as part of a compromise that allowed the rumored sewer plant, itself a harbinger of development, to finally be built.
“We wanted it to be a focal point for the community,” Barth said. “To get something good out of something we perceived as being bad, by hosting a sewer plant we can’t use.”
Because New Hill is unincorporated, most of its homes still rely on septic tanks and well water, despite being so close to the new sewer plant. But Barth and the nonprofit New Hill Community Center, an outgrowth of the association Barth organized in 2005, requested that the property they purchased for the building be annexed by Apex, which will link the completed building to water and sewer lines.
The $500,000 the association received in a 2011 settlement, combined with other relatively small sums acquired through fundraising, will only pay for a 2,100-square-foot building, at least at first. That’s half the space his group had hoped for, Barth said, although the building’s design allows for future expansion if New Hill can afford it. The land for the center was purchased from Duke Energy and ended up costing New Hill $125,000 altogether.
The decision to build the sewer plant so close to the area’s concentration of rural, black residents raised concerns of environmental racism – concerns New Hill addressed in its legal battle to block the plant. Friendship resident Cathel Brown says the community has since “resigned itself to the fact that it’s here.”
Friendship is a predominantly black farming community near New Hill that will also be served by the community center. Brown is on the board responsible for the project.
“Friendship is basically family,” she said. “If you come into this community, everybody’s practically related. New Hill is a little more mixed.”
A primary purpose for the new building would be as a senior center for the area, she said.
“This is an aging community,” said Brown, who also grew up in Friendship. She went on to work in New York and California as a manager with the U.S. Postal Service before returning to her hometown. “Many of us who grew up here went away and came back, and now we’re retired. We need places to go and do things during the course of the day,” Brown said.
The building, expected to be completed by year’s end, will ideally produce revenue for its own expansion and improvement as it is rented out for family reunions, weddings and other private events. Brown said she sees New Hill becoming a destination for folks who want to escape city life for the countryside, but she also said she hopes that distinction doesn’t lead to the destruction of the countryside itself.
“I grew up here, and I enjoyed it as a child; I have all kinds of memories of running around in the back yard and playing outside,” Brown said. “I loved growing up in that type of environment, and it was so nice to move back and have that peace and quiet. I love the trees. We’re hoping so much that we can keep some semblance of a rural area.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan