Johnston County

Selma prepares for civic center work

An interior view of the former gym that Selma hopes to turn into a civic center.
An interior view of the former gym that Selma hopes to turn into a civic center. FILE PHOTO

You can still see the lines from basketball games played long ago on the floor of the old Selma High School gym. Though a ball might never bounce on that hardwood again, the lines are there to stay, prepared to live on as an 80-year-old wink in the building’s next life.

That next life is a downtown civic center for Selma – a party house, a meeting room, a hall of celebrations. The town council bought the building last year from the American Legion, which had owned the former gym for most of its life. The town will learn next month whether has received a $225,000 federal grant. If the news is good, renovations could be underway soon.

Buoyed perhaps by the home-renovation shows flooding television, more people today seem to be embracing buildings of the past. Ann Williams, chairwoman of Selma’s Civic Center Committee, said the town hopes to take a piece of its history and give it new life. The old building, used mostly for storage in recent years, was built in the 1930s as a Works Progress Administration project, the floors lacquered with the sweat of desperate Selma brows, but a community grateful for the jobs and the money. Williams said the history of the building is why people seem to care.

“This is what’s driving me and really driving the whole community,” Williams said. “(President Franklin) Roosevelt tried to keep people from starving. Three of the projects in North Carolina came here and gave people some work when they couldn’t get any work They built this gym when they were starving. It’s become a really big issue for us. It was built for the people by the people.”

Selma paid $60,000 for the building and Williams said renovations are expected to cost around $300,000. Already, Selma has $80,000 in private donations, $10,000 in brick sales and $30,000 from the Johnston County Board of Commissioners.

The work, Williams said, is essentially bringing an 80-year-old building into the modern era. The electrical system and lighting will be redone, a new heating and cooling system will be installed, the floors will be refinished, and new bathrooms will be built. The charm of the building, the large windows and the ceiling of heavy beams, will be left intact.

When it’s updated, Williams said, the civic center will have space for about 350 people, and she expects it to be used for corporate meetings, banquets and wedding receptions. With an attached kitchen, she said, it’s set up well for catered events. Most of all, though, Williams said she hopes the space becomes a tool for downtown Selma, a place for the antique stores to host sidewalk sales when the weather turns bad or for couples to learn ballroom dancing on the old oak floors.

“It could be anything, any kind of party,” Williams said.

This week, the town is taking care of a living, breathing obstacle: bats. Williams said it was well known that a colony of bats was living in the rafters of the building, evidenced by their droppings on the floor, but during a recent committee meeting, the issue became urgent. One of the members mentioned that in North Carolina, bats have rights, and one of those rights is their mating season, from April 1 to Aug. 1, can’t be interrupted. That meant if the grant money came Selma’s way next month, the town couldn’t start renovations until nearly fall.

Selma hired a company that specializes in bat removal for $5,000. The work started this week, with the company installing one-way doors from the spot in the building from where the bats are thought to come and go. It essentially changes the locks on the building for the bats when they leave, allowing them to fly out of the building, but it won’t let them back in.

“They told us it could take anywhere from three or four days to two or three weeks for the bats to leave the building,” Williams said. “Once they’re satisfied they’re gone, they’ll seal the areas. They guarantee their work.”

Selma expects to find out about its grant application by the middle of next month.