North Carolina Association of Educators’ RV tour at Biggs Park Mall on Tuesday

Business community takes pandemic hit, but learns how to survive

LUMBERTON — It was a year ago when businesses that were not considered essential closed their doors for weeks or even months on end because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effects can still be felt today.

On March 17, 2020, Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order forbidding in-door dining, closing many restaurants in the state, and days later closed business that were not considered essential. Of those businesses, the ones associated with the tourism industry in Lumberton felt the biggest effect early on, in part because a large portion of the city’s economy relies on traffic coming off Interstate 95.

“Spring and fall are when lots of travelers utilize the I-95 corridor,” said Angela Sumner, executive director of Lumberton’s Visitors Bureau. “Much of this traffic stopped or slowed down drastically.”

The 22 hotels and more than 100 restaurants in Lumberton employ more than 1,200 people in the area, Sumner said. The full effects of the pandemic came in April when the hotel occupancy dropped by almost 65% because of stay-at-home orders.

“All 22 hotels and 100-plus restaurants saw demand plummet, and they all had to follow the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines to operate, which has been very costly,” Sumner said. “When the shutdowns and restrictions began, many of these people were furloughed, had their hours cut, or were laid off, causing many to be without employment.”

Sumner said the months after April have gradually continued to get better, but tourism is still 10% below the previous year, causing even more of an effect to the industry hit hard by hurricanes Matthew and Florence.

“[T]his was a continued blow to our industry,” Sumner said.

The retail industry in Lumberton also saw a major economic hit.

“One of the most major impacts the pandemic had on Biggs Park Mall was when we had to shut our doors for the whole month of April 2020,” said Chelsea Biggs, mall manager. “All of our stores had an impact from having zero sales that month.”

The negative effects to major retail chains hit home when the JCPenny went bankrupt and announced the closing of 145 stores nationwide, five in North Carolina. One of those stores was the JCPenny that had anchored Biggs Park Mall for nearly 60 years.

“GNC also ended up filing for bankruptcy, but luckily decided to stay here at the Lumberton location,” Biggs said.

When the mall finally did open it was under a new set of guidelines, including stricter sanitation schedules.

“We were sanitizing door handles, bathrooms, etc. every hour before the pandemic, while now we are making sure they are clean and sanitized every 30 minutes,” Biggs said.

Retail stores also were required to limit capacity, meaning fewer customers at one time.

A positive that has come from the pandemic is that it has forced business owners to become resourceful and creative.

Arnold West, the owner of two Lumberton restaurants on Roberts Avenue, said the pandemic has tested many business owners, including himself, in a way that no one could prepare for, but the industry has boomeranged.

“2021 is showing us greater opportunity, greater growth, and under pressure is how we forge into the future,” West said. “This pandemic has helped us become creative in foregoing the progress of tourism in Lumberton and we embrace this opportunity to represent our city to display our community on the East Coast.”

During the pandemic, the Lumberton Visitors Bureau updated their website, written grants through the office of Visit NC and the NC Tourism Industry Association, which have given the Bureau a marketing credit to more positively promote Lumberton in various media, such as Southern Living, Our State magazine, the NC 2021 Travel Guide, I-Heart Radio spots in the Northeast, and a variety of digital advertising.

“The Lumberton Visitors Bureau is currently working on nine video clips that will encourage travelers to ‘Linger Longer In Lumberton, NC!,’” Sumner said.

Some of them debuted during the recent virtual Book ‘Em 2021 event, Sumner said.

“These clips will be placed on our website, our YouTube Channel, and used in a variety of advertising opportunities,” Sumner said. “The clips showcase areas of Lumberton such as Historic Downtown Lumberton; outdoor adventure including canoeing the Lumber River; accommodations and dining; shopping; meeting in Lumberton featuring RCC (Robeson Community College), Southeastern Agricultural Center, and Pennington Sports Complex; and other sports events.”

The Lumberton Visitors Bureau list all of the restaurants in the Lumberton area on its website. During COVID, the Lumberton Visitors Bureau developed a special landing page on the website to identify which restaurants were open, providing carryout, and/or offered delivery service.

“Over the past month, many restaurants are moving back toward normal but still have some capacity restrictions,” Sumner said. “We have also seen the start-up of several small businesses in Lumberton, some being new restaurants.”

Biggs Park Mall also has new businesses.

“We have opened two new businesses within the year, Top That Donut Bar and Gold Star Event Center, and we are awaiting the completion of the Jersey Mike’s location,” Biggs said. “We hope that we will be able to announce soon a new tenant for the JCPenney’s location, very soon.”

The stores housed there have been “satisfied with business,” the mall manager said.

“Business here at Biggs Park Mall is going well after a few slow months last year due to shutdowns, etc.,” Biggs said. “We are so grateful for all of our loyal customers that come to shop with us.”

Issues remain. Among them are the Canadian border and the two I-95 welcome centers remaining closed and/or limited in services offered, starving Lumberton of that segment of the market and the opportunity to share with travelers information about the community.

The Bureau stays in close contact with Visit NC, which has provided research for the three segments of the state: the mountains, Piedmont, and coastal regions,” Sumner said.

“Lumberton is considered in the Coastal Plains and our region and the mountains have maintained better travel occupancy. The Piedmont region depends highly on sporting events, conventions, and conferences, and all of those segments have taken a huge blow,” she said.

But the vaccines being readily available has given business leaders hope.

“Since the vaccines are readily available, especially to the tourism employees, confidence in travel seems to be going up,” Sumner said.

“If businesses will continue to take advantage of the resources made available to them through our city, county, state and nation, Robeson Community College, Small Business Center, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, then other opportunities in Lumberton and Robeson County will continue to grow and thrive,” she added.

Lumberton Chamber of Commerce Board Chairperson Maureen Metzger also sees a light at the end of the tunnel for business with the vaccine.

“This past year has been hard for so many businesses in Robeson County. But now, hopefully, with the hospital doing an outstanding job getting the vaccines distributed, people will begin to feel more confidant to go out shopping and eating at local restaurants” Metzger said.

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