Ceremony set for 3:30 p.m. Thursday

When the ribbon is cut today formally opening Slocum Creek Waterfront Park, it will be the culmination of years of collaboration between the city and state.

Since 1999, the city of Havelock has made real estate purchases totaling $309,500 and acquired 42.5 acres along Slocum Creek. The most important piece, a 2.59-acre tract at 120 Church Road, was purchased for $185,000 in 2013 with the help of the Coastal Area Management Act, or CAMA.

It is on that piece, said to be the highest point in Havelock, a bluff overlooking the winding Slocum Creek, that city officials will receive the public at 3:30 p.m. today to celebrate the opening of the Slocum Creek Waterfront Park.

Slocum Creek winds its way through the heart of Havelock and has been the focus of a multi-year effort to make the waterway accessible for all residents of the community.

“It’s been a lot of work,” said Havelock Mayor Will Lewis. “We have had minor setbacks and challenges. We have overcome them all and it’s turned into an awesome park. … People don’t end up in that creek unless you give them an opportunity and having that kayak launch and having those picnic tables where people can enjoy a little bit of time there will be awesome.”

The topography of the site presented city planners with certain challenges.

“It’s the highest point in Havelock at 22 feet above sea level,” said Lewis. “We’re used to dealing with everything flat, so making sure that we made it accessible for anyone who wanted to be able to get to that kayak launch required a little bit of a different plan than we thought, working with that sheer cliff face and making sure we not only preserved it but also protected the people that would be using the park, that took some extra time and some extra thought.”

Up to now, the cost of the park project is $407,726. For that price, the city has purchased the property, installed a set of kayak launches, bought and installed picnic tables and grills, paved a driveway and parking places and most recently, concreted a walkway leading to the launches to guarantee accessibility for those with special needs.

CAMA’s contributions total $283,093, about $20,000 has come from the Bate Foundation, and $25,000 from an Attorney General Environmental Enhancement Grant.

The city has contributed $76,633 in taxpayer funds.

“It made the project take a little longer, but at the same time, our citizens have very, very little of their own dollars, of their own city tax dollars, invested in what is an amazing project, and any time we can do that it is the highest value for our citizens I think,” said Lewis. “I think we’ve got the highest bang for our buck right now that we could possible get.”

The park was initially expected to open last year, and then was delayed until the summer of this year. Stabilization of the ground in the area as well as paving the walkway after gravel washed out further delayed the project.

Earlier this month the city’s application for a Public Beach and Coastal Waterfront Access Fund grant for $130,000 was accepted, and the city will soon be erecting bathrooms on the site.

Havelock Commissioner Danny Walsh said the plan to create a recreation area by the creek dates back to the 1970s. Key to the whole project was replacing the old Church Road Bridge, which was torn down in 2012 and replaced with a service road bring next to U.S. 70 in 2013.

“We spent 40 years just getting that bridge done,” Walsh said. “We dream the dream. We start to put a plan together and we lay the foundation for future boards to come and finish it.”

Former mayor Jimmy Sanders agreed that the replacement of the bridge was a big part of the project, as was the idea to find a way for the public to appreciate the site of the old Civil War-era blockhouse that was on the creek’s edge nearby.

The Civil War site is within one of the tracts that the city now owns on the creek.

“The tourist center moving in down there and the availability of the land and the historical site for the Civil War, all of those began to play together,” said Sanders. “It takes a long time to see things begin to actually materialize to where you can go out there and see them. And 20 years ago it was just several old men that had some ideas. I am glad to see that it is finally beginning to come together, and hopefully as more areas open up down there and more people use it, they will see what a jewel it is and hopefully they will support the speedup of uniting that whole area into a real destination.”

Future plans include expanding the parking lot, building an amphitheater, picnic shelters and a second walkway to the kayak launch. Part of the delay in opening the park was tree removal at the site, which left bare ground that needed to be seeded and stabilized with grass.

Long-range plans include construction of a foot bridge across the creek that would link the new park with the old grist mill dam walkway that leads to the Havelock Tourist and Event Center and would allow walking access to the location from the nearby Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn hotels.

At one point the city planned to relocate the old Trader Store and the World War II-era train depot, currently on Miller Boulevard, to the site, but those plans have been abandoned for logistical and cost reasons.

When the park opens, access to the creek will be much easier for local residents, many of whom may not have known there was a creek there.

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” Lewis said. “Most people don’t realize that two square miles of our city limits is actually water, and when you go into Slocum Creek there, it’s an amazing change not just in the water but of all the flora and fauna that you will see as you cruise through.”

Walsh, who fishes along the creek, reminds kayakers to keep a heads up for the creek’s regular inhabitants.

“You have to remember that for those that want to go out there in a kayak, it is still a dangerous area. There are snakes and there are alligators,” said Walsh. “It is a swamp and you just can’t go out there and splash around in the water. You need to be aware of all the things that are there. It is what it is, but we’ve opened it up so that the public can get in it and see those creatures.”