Rhodes Pond to be resurrected with new dam project

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The story of Rhodes Pond began many years ago.

Jerry Silas Honeycutt owned the property for decades. Under his stewardship, Rhodes Pond flourished as a recreational and educational hub of outdoor activity: Fishermen held tournaments there and schools and institutions used its vast ecological system as a teaching tool for science.

When control of the property passed to the North Carolina Department of Transportation in 2004 for mitigation purposes, Rhodes Pond, a 461-acre blackwater impoundment of Black River, started slipping into a dark chapter of its history.

Needed as part of an Interstate 95 project, the property fell under government control, eventually landing under the umbrella of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission a couple years later.

Nothing good happened at the pond in the years to follow, as residents expressed concern over the direction this once community beacon was taking.

“People loved going there,” Honeycutt’s daughter Myra Baker said. “The family was promised it would be took care of just like it was and left open for public use like we had it, but it didn’t happen like they said.”

As the pond sat in bureaucratic limbo, a pair of storms delivered devastating blows to the site. Before infrastructure repairs could be made stemming from Tropical Storm Andrea a few years earlier, Hurricane Matthew arrived in 2016. Cataclysmic rain overran the pond’s dam system, causing massive flooding that wiped out sections of I-95 and U.S. Highway 301.

“They spent a lot of money putting in some new gates and they kept malfunctioning,” said Baker. “It was a lot of neglect on their part. The wildlife commission said they always tried to take care of it and do a good job, which maybe they will eventually, but they hadn’t since it’s been in their hands.”

The ensuing traffic nightmare poured into unprepared and ill-equipped communities like Godwin and Falcon, leaving residents to bear the brunt of decisions made by those tasked with finding solutions.

“It’s been a real long journey,” Godwin Mayor Willie Burnette said. “The dam broke and that’s when it all started. They worked on it one time before and it didn’t hold up. When the dam broke, they had to close I-95 for two or three days. Traffic was every which way, coming through Godwin and Falcon, getting lost. It was a mess around here for a long time. It was bad, especially for a small town like Godwin.”

Response to the devastation left by Hurricane Matthew went as work over the previous decade proceeded: slow and erratic. FEMA and the wildlife commission helped secure more than $8 million in funding, but the back and forth to the drawing board continued into a new decade.

“This has been going on about eight years now,” said Dunn resident Tommy Michael, who lives near the pond. “It’s been a slow process. They started working on the dam and they kept pulling off the job. We had two storms come and blow the dams completely out. They couldn’t do nothing with it.”

Rhodes Pond finally received some good news and a new chapter to its tale seems to be on the horizon.

A groundbreaking ceremony scheduled for Friday hopes to usher in a brighter future for Rhodes Pond, one that closer resembles a past once filled with moments that made it special in the first place.

“It’s been a long road,” said Gary Gardner, chief of the Wildlife Commission’s engineering division. “But we are glad to say we have everything in place to get this job completed so that the community and visitors can enjoy this recreational area for many years to come.”

Construction on the New Rhodes Pond Spillway and Impoundment Restoration project is expected to begin in June and finished by late next year. Included in the project is a complete redesign intended to eliminate flooding issues, improve habitat for wildlife and increase recreational opportunities. The pond will be fitted with a new 208-foot labyrinth spillway to handle severe storm events as well as a new floating fishing pier as it returns to historic water levels.

Burnette welcomed the announcement and said he expects Rhodes Pond to yet again become an attraction for the area.

“We’ve been working on this for a long time,” said Burnette. “We plan on having a lot of events going on out there. It’s going to be a lot different and an asset to this community and the surrounding area. Right now, you can’t do nothing with it and it looks terrible. When we’re finished with it, it’s going to look a whole lot better. It’s going to be state-of-the-art, like something you’d see in New York or New Jersey.”

After so many years of expectations leading to disappointment, Michael said he is ready to see more action and less talk.

“They came in and did so much work and then they kept backing out,” said Michael. “It was back and forth. Different crews would come in and it got to where they weren’t working half the time. It kept getting put to the back burner. It’s been a mess and I’m just glad they’re finally coming out here to do something about it. I’ve heard this all before. They were supposed to have a groundbreaking eight years ago.”

Baker also expressed hesitation over the latest announcement concerning Rhodes Pond.

“I hope they will finally follow through,” Baker said. “They’ve been making promises for I don’t know how many years now. They come up with a plan or design for a dam or a new way to take care of it, they say they’re going to fix it, and they never start. As far as I can tell, people around here ain’t going to believe it until they see it. It’s been promised so many times. I’d like to see it back to the way it was, but it will take a long time I imagine.”

Built in the 1700s by a dam crossing the Black River, Rhodes Pond, one of the largest of its kind in North Carolina, endured a tumultuous ride over the last two decades. Friday’s groundbreaking ceremony marks the latest chapter in its centuries-long story.

Fans of Rhodes Pond hope it’s a fairy tale come true.

Eliot Duke can be reached at 910-230-2038 or eduke@mydailyrecord.com.

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