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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Hughes

Oak Ridge strikes balance between celebrating heritage, moving toward the future with help from ARP funds

Written by Stephanie Hughes (NCLM), in collaboration with Jessie Holmes (NCPRO)

Oak Ridge is a young town in comparison to most municipalities in North Carolina. Incorporated in 1998, the town located just outside of Greensboro in Guilford County has historically consisted mostly of rural farmland; yet, since its incorporation, the town has seen tremendous population growth. Bill Bruce, Oak Ridge’s town manager, has been involved in town governance since 2006 and has seen the town begin to take on its own identity over the years.

“It has been a learning and growing process for the town, and we are right now at the cusp of really maturing as a town,” Bruce said.

In tandem with this growth, the town curated a list of projects they hoped to accomplish, and then put in the work needed to create a strategic plan for the town. This plan included the building of Heritage Farm Park, which sits on 60 acres behind the town hall that was purchased from a local resident who wanted the land to remain undeveloped. Oak Ridge was awarded a $490,000 grant from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund (PARTF) Authority to begin the project, leading the town to invest resources in planning and outreach to the community. In doing so, they established that this project had strong community support, but despite the PARTF grant, the town did not yet have the resources to fully fund the project. This is where dollars distributed as a part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) made a major difference for Oak Ridge. The town received $1.65 million in ARP money, which it put toward revenue replacement, effectively freeing up other funds to be invested in the Heritage Farm Park project. Due to the town’s advanced planning, they were in a good position to quickly move forward on projects they already had as a part of their strategic plan.

“We were very excited because as any small town, we have limited funds, so having this additional funding source, we were able to put in place several shovel-ready projects,” Oak Ridge Mayor Jim Kinneman said. “We have been very fortunate that we have done a lot advanced planning on projects.”

“The ARP money launched a lot of projects that we already had going so that ... was a huge thing. I am not sure where we would be without that money,” Ashley Royal, Oak Ridge’s deputy town clerk and public information officer, said.

The park plans include two phases, the first being an inclusive playground, two multi-purpose fields, restrooms, and a parking lot. This portion of the project opened in June 2024.

“[Heritage Farm Park] has been in planning for about five years now … and we were able to make this playground an inclusive playground for children of all capabilities in large part because of the ARP money, so that is why we are extremely grateful for the ARP money,” Mayor Kinneman said.

The second phase will include pickleball, tennis, and basketball courts. While the town is excited to offer these recreational opportunities, another important aspect of this project is protecting the history of the property.

“We knew that we wanted to grow, and we wanted that additional space. But the name says it: Heritage Farm Park. We are keeping a portion of that undeveloped, so it is going to still be farmed, which … adds to the heritage of what we do in Oak Ridge,” Royal said. “We know our residents want these additional features, but we also know that they want to protect portions of that property.”

Oak Ridge is home to a rich historic district that is spread throughout the town and includes over 50 historic sites. And while the town has been making space for growth, it has also been intentional to preserve this unique charm and character of the town to carry on into the future.

“The town has been able to preserve … 140 acres of open space right in the heart of the town,” Bruce said. “It is permanently protected … for future generations, so that was a big score for the town.”

In addition to the direct ARP funds received, Oak Ridge was also awarded additional ARP funds from Guilford County’s allotment. In this allocation, the town received $3.265 million to go toward a new water system, plus another $305,000 to go toward the town’s Farmhouse Community Center project.

The Farmhouse Community Center project entails the renovation of a historic house on the town parks' property into an indoor meeting and event space. This project has been in the works for several years and is planned to be finished in the fall of 2024.

Finally, Oak Ridge is making moves on a long-needed improvement in water access. The town is not presently connected to a water system and has relied on private and community wells, but recently it approved an interlocal agreement with Winston-Salem to provide water for the town. The plan is for Oak Ridge to connect into Winston-Salem’s water line and purchase water from the city. Currently, the town has completed the engineering plans for a new water tower and is in the process of creating the plans for a water main that will bring water to that tower. Bruce shared that this project has been in the works for a long time, but ARP funds are what gave their town the ability to officially get started.

“Over the past 25 years, various efforts have started and stalled, mostly because the funding component of it was so big. ... This infusion from the county, the ARP [funds], is what was needed to actually get a significant effort underway,” Bruce said. “We could not have done this without the funding that we're getting through ARP, so that is a big deal.”

The town is in a unique situation due to the income of its residents and the fact that they do not have any current water system in need of repairs, which has made federal funding and other grants more difficult to receive. But without direct access to a water line, fire safety becomes a major concern.

In Oak Ridge, the fire department that serves the town is a separate entity and has had challenges in accessing water points, such as ponds, to fight fires. Fire trucks may have to run back and forth between fires and a water source, impairing the ability to effectively control fires. The fire department has helped educate the town about the need for more reliable access to water.

“There is universal support from citizens recognizing that it is an important part of safety and security for them, but also the predictability of having a municipal water source that does not depend on groundwater that can be unpredictable in terms of drought and climate change. So, this is setting our long-term future in the hands of a more reliable source for drinking water,” Bruce said.

“It is a huge infrastructure [project] that we have been wanting forever and water is a necessity that we cannot put a price on,” Royal said.

Through engagement with residents and intentional planning, Oak Ridge has found a delicate balance between honoring the town’s heritage and taking the steps necessary to prepare for the future.

Special thanks to the Town of Oak Ridge and NCPRO (North Carolina Pandemic Recovery Office) for their collaboration on this project.


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