Requiem for a small town: Belhaven

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By Joe Salotti | Guest Commentary

The town of Belhaven has two primary assets. Without them, Belhaven cannot survive. These are: 1) The good, honest, caring, and taxpaying citizens; 2) The view and relationship with the waters around the town, which have given the community its purpose for existence.

These very elements of survival, as a town, have been challenged by their loss for many years. Unfortunately, the loss of industry and resources has had a big impact on the economy of the area. It is not this loss that is paramount to the heart of Belhaven. It is the loss of the spirit of purpose that our forefathers, and foremothers, had in building this town — born of need and caring for humanity. The spirit of Belhaven has been replaced by the inbreeding of the old money and good-ole-boy syndrome. The economy of the Belhaven area has been feeding off itself for too long, fueled for the most part by some distant jobs, Social Security, Welfare, and Small Businesses.

An economy is not perpetual; it goes up, down, or simply grinds to a halt. Belhaven’s economy is dying, and the town is in decay. You just have to look around to see it. It does not have to be this way.

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We are not going to have to wait for the economy to die because the factions that created and prolonged the issues of the old hospital in Belhaven are killing it – and the spirit of the town with it. The one main element that is missing from the efforts of these folks is the interest and consideration for the health and welfare of the populace of the Region.

The Mayor — with his chest pounding, political posturing, and adolescent behavior — has demoralized the town. He has embarrassed the town among the populace, throughout the region and state. With his questionable tactics, such as the ‘Good-ole-boy Utilities Give Away,’ he has stretched the moral fiber of the Townspeople. He has done nothing for the betterment of the town or its citizens and needs to turn in his resignation, post haste.

The Pantego Creek LLC and its managers formed a special interest group. Though well intended, this group compromised a key element of Belhaven’s future: The town’s view and relationship with the waters that surround it. The LLC has bolstered the old hospital for nostalgia, not for the health interest of this region.

Those of you who comprise the LLC have had your 15 minutes in the spotlight; now it is time to help save the Town of Belhaven. All the property of the old hospital should be signed over to the Town for the use of its citizens — never to be sold. If not, the Town of Belhaven should take the property under eminent domain and pay each member of the LLC, one dollar, for its consideration.

The LLC should build a pencil factory (or something using local products) that would put revenue back into the town and put some citizens to work. The waterfront should be developed for the use of its people. If a Developer should get this property and builds a structure like the Day Beacon, it will seal the fate of Belhaven to a few well to do people and provide little overall value to the town.

On this site could be built the Belhaven Regional Civic Mall. It would be built 12 feet off the ground to preserve the view of the harbor from Pamlico Street and the surrounding area. The people could see and enjoy Haven’s Walk. The boardwalk would go from the Wildlife Access to the Charlie Smith Community House and beyond — but that is another story.

You know that in its heyday of 1923, Belhaven had a boardwalk with a Pavilion. There was music, dancing, movies, fishing, and people. The Civic Mall would include a 200 stadium-seat Cultural Arts Theatre — to be used for events, all types of shows, and the likes of the Tuesday night jam sessions. There would be a true regional history museum that would be established and run by the NC Department of History. There would be a small gift shop, public space for meetings and events and maybe a coffee shop of sorts, operated by locals for all the Townspeople and a tourist or two, if they come, and they will. There would be a covered deck all around so that the people could sit and watch the sunsets. The building would be atop concrete pillars; the building would be of materials and designed to withstand the worst of hurricanes. You see, this Mall would also be a refuge, equipped for the people, if need be.

On Sept. 2, 1913, there was a great hurricane that pretty well wiped out the Town of Belhaven. At that time, the 100-year flood elevation was set at 7.4 feet above mean sea level. There was five feet or more of water and debris that stood in the downtown businesses. What does that tell you, folks?

In 1948, the Belhaven Hospital was built flat on the ground. Later, new additions were built on slightly raised areas. It was built like a sponge, of cinder block and brick veneer; with a lot of gapes and hidden air pockets. Then came high water events: Hurricane Hazel, Diane, Bertha, and Fran. Hurricane Fran was especially bad with eight feet of water filling the streets of downtown Belhaven. The torrents of rain and damaging winds tore at the old sentinel of health.

There was tropical storm Josephine; and then came Hurricane Bonnie and others that soaked the base of the hospital even with the levee walls. Along with the leaky roofs the structure became a culture tray for germs, bacteria, mold, and mildew; with the potential for unhealthy levels of airborne contamination and respiratory illnesses. You know the adage, “that a boat is a hole in the water where you throw money!” Well, the old hospital could no longer float.  There has to be a whole lot of credit given to the good people who built the hospital, the doctors, the nurses, and the staff, that endured the hardships of a hospital under siege and provide a good level of care. They had to care about the people, and it is sad that today’s healthcare can’t be the same. It is the almighty buck that is the plague of our time.

Now; what of Vidant and a new hospital? It is well established, at this time, that Vidant is dedicated to the many clauses of your insurance policy and if you don’t have one they are not dedicated at all. The new facility in Belhaven is hardly more than a half-staffed doctor’s office. Some of the doctors may have a heart but the business does not. If Vidant is not going to provide the services that the people — all the people — need and want,  then their charter in the Town of Belhaven and the county of Beaufort must be revoked and they should get out.

If we are forced to drive 30 to 50 miles for decent healthcare, we don’t need them to tell us which direction to go. The terms of healthcare are humanity, not a corporate bottom line. Our Town, County, State, and Federal leaders will have to see that it is built and it will have a fully functional Emergency Room; if the people come together and demand it so.

The people of the region of Pantego, Pungo, and the Pamlico, the County of Beaufort, the State of North Carolina, and the government of the USA should build a proper hospital in Belhaven to serve up to 20,000 people. It would be central to the town. The building will be high and dry and of the materials and design to withstand a tidal surge, winds of 300 mph, and maintain function in any kind of weather. A hospital in this region is not just healthcare — it is a refuge for the people; when Mother Nature gets angry with how we treat her land and resources; but that, is another story.

Since its beginning, Belhaven has had many tragedies: natural, commercial, and industrial. Many times the Townspeople reinvented or rebuilt the town. Today there are a few young entrepreneurs who are trying to swim against the tide of adversity but it does not bring the people and the industry that is needed. The old guard and old money is diluted and dying; their children’s children have left or are leaving. The grand old houses are too expensive to fix or even to tear down and few taxes are paid. They go to rot with the shame that the town will not see that justice is done and leave them to memory. The houses that are renovated are done so beyond their value. These houses can be sold to the unsuspecting buyer; who soon finds that Belhaven is not what it seems.

It sounds pretty bad, does it not? It is true that this is not Mayberry and there is no joke here. Have you noticed that there has been a lot of turnover in personnel in the Town Hall over these last few months? Of course, it is not just the fault of the Mayor and his handy clan. It is the cartel of good-ole-boys who run the town from the local diners instead of the Town Hall meetings. They don’t want the town to change as long as they have the influence. The problem is that we, THE  PEOPLE, do not make the effort to elect good leaders and go to the meetings to ensure that the town is being served now and for the future. Do you realize that for every family that accepted the Good-Ole-Boy Utilities Give Away, there is a person who has stolen from his neighbor; trying to get something for nothing; and sell their vote without care for the Town and its people? There are, or should be, programs to help the less fortunate.

Belhaven’s issues at hand need to be resolved. Our citizens need to be united under a competent leadership with some common sense to redefine a purpose such as our forebears had in building the town.

If there is to be a serious change to save the Town of Belhaven, then it will take the voices and support of every citizen of the Town and those in the Region. The book “Town of Belhaven Centennial” gives witness to the fact that, it can be done. In 1914, the 7th grade of the Belhaven graded school was given the challenge to organize their class for a special event. They accepted the challenge and penned the motto “Find a Way or Make a Way.”

What could be more fitting for our challenge of today?

The Town of Belhaven is dying of neglect and decay. Of course, if this is what the people of Belhaven wants of its heritage; then Amen is the only thing left to say. It does not have to be this way.

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