Ronnie Thompson speaking at AARP 2018 photo

Morganton Mayor Ronnie Thompson speaks to members of the Burke County AARP Chapter No. 3262.

Morganton Mayor Ronnie Thompson recently shared how the city is moving forward and attracting visitors from around the country and the world as city leaders strive to make “Nature’s Playground” a destination place.

Thompson presented his annual “State of the City” address to members of the Burke County AARP Chapter No. 3262.

CoMMA

Thompson reminded attendees of one of the major events that happened in Morganton last year: the dedication of the Etta Baker statue at CoMMA, along with the accompanying museum. Baker was a famous blues guitarist and singer from Morganton.

“People from all over North Carolina and the south have come to see that little museum we’ve got in CoMMA about Etta Baker,” Thompson said. “She touched so many people.”

He said Dr. Jim Smith is doing well in bringing quality performers to the auditorium, which hosted 47 events in 2017, as opposed to 16 in 2016.

Morganton Community House

Thompson said the Morganton Community House is getting a lot of use since renovations were completed. The city still has plans to install a portico on the rear of the building so people in wheelchairs can pull up, get out under the portico, ride a ramp down to the basement and take the elevator upstairs.

Morganton Skate Park

He praised the installation of the skateboard park in Morganton, which a lot of local young people use. The city was awarded a $15,000 grant from famed skateboarder Tony Hawk to help build it, and they plan to invite Hawk to grand opening, which the city will hold once landscaping is installed in the park. “We have some professional skaters, people who get paid to skateboard, and they come down and really enjoy this park,” Thompson said. “It is really used quite a bit by the kids in all kinds of weather.”

New hotels, apartments

Thompson shared updates on renovations and new construction coming to Morganton in 2018. He said the Drexel Heritage Morganton Plant No. 7 across the street from Roses on Fleming Drive will house 52-62 apartments by the end of the year. A Marriott Hotel plans to break ground this summer in the lot across the street from the Fonta Flora Brewery on N orth Green St reet . He estimated the hotel would have about 85 rooms.

“We have several large companies in Morganton that wanted a hotel downtown,” Thompson said. “They want to (have visitors) be able to go across the street and have a drink, or walk to Root and Vine and have a meal, and they don’t want to get back in their car and drive to the interstate to get back to their hotel.”

A second hotel will be located on the lot of the previous locations of Abele’s and Zeko’s Village restaurants. They are in the process of installing access road to tie in to W est Parker Road.

North Carolina School of Science and Math

Thompson also spoke about the North Carolina School of Science and Math in Morganton, which should have about 150 students attend the first year it opens, which they hope will increase to about 300 the second year. The school will be located on the East Ridge of property belonging to the North Carolina School for the Deaf. Workers must renovate two dilapidated buildings and a barn on the property to get the school ready. Thompson said the school may need another access road installed off Burkemont Ave, near the entrance to Western Piedmont Community College.

Morganton Parks and Recreation Department

He announced the Morganton Parks and Recreation Department has received a $150,000 grant to expand the soccer complex near Judge’s restaurant.

“We have a lot of youth in our community that travel to other areas to play soccer, especially youth soccer,” Thompson said. “To get a youth soccer tournament, you have to have six soccer fields. We’ve got four, so we’re going to build two more.” The department will have to move the community garden to Catawba Meadows Park next year to make room for the soccer fields, but will expand the dog park near the soccer fields.

Other projects the department is working on include:

» Installing a quarter-mile roundabout walking trail and a splash pad at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park

» Replacing boards and installing safety rails on the Silver Creek Bridge on the Morganton Greenway

» Making some activities at Beanstalk Ziplines at Catawba Meadows Park handicapped-accessible.

He praised the installation of the city’s petanque courts last year. Petanque is a French game, similar to the Italian game of bocce, growing in popularity around the world. City officials hope the courts will eventually attract international tournaments.

“We have more petanque courts than anybody in the south,” Thompson said. “It’s an amazing sport, mainly practiced in Europe, but making progress here. They have a tournament in Florida with 192 teams from 12 countries. We’ve had people from Ohio, California and Africa already visit our courts.”

Morganton Department of Public Safety

Thompson said the Morganton C ity C ouncil voted to approve the purchase of body cameras for the officers of the Morganton Department of Public Safety. A $50,000 grant from the state will cover half the cost of the equipment. He said it will be expensive to store all the data the cameras will record.

“It’s costing the city of Hickory about $100,000 a year just to do the video storage,” he said.

The council also voted last year to separate the police officers from the firefighters within MDPS.

“It’s tough for them (the officers) to get all of the required training as an officer, and the required training to be a fire-person,” Thompson said. “They had to take all this training on their days off, so they really couldn’t have a day off. So we decided to go ahead and make some full-time firemen, and they don’t do anything with the police department.

“Fighting fire is a science. You can’t just pick it up on a weekend course. If your house is on fire, you want somebody in there who knows how to get it down and makes sure it’s down quick.”

Road Construction

City council is looking into major projects, such as creating a new traffic pattern at the Exit 103 interchange on Interstate 40, and making the one-way streets in downtown Morganton two-way streets. The objective with both of these projects will be to ease vehicle congestion.

New companies in Morganton

He said Burke Development Inc. is working to attract companies to Morganton, such as Sunrise Global Marketing LLC, manufacturers of Greenworks Tools, who opened a distribution facility in Morganton and created 187 jobs, and VEKA, a vinyl extrusion company from Germany, who plans to open a facility in Morganton soon.

Shuttle Service

He praised First United Methodist Church of Morganton for creating a temporary shuttle service on Tuesdays to serve clients of Burke United Christian Ministries, who would not otherwise be able to get around town. The service is funded in part by a grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.

“They said they wanted to use their money for health services,” Thompson said of the trust. “We think getting people to the doctor and the drugstore is a health service.”

Workers’ Legacy Exhibition

He announced there are some people in the community working on establishing a “Workers’ Legacy Exhibition” museum in one of the former factory buildings that will focus on sharing the stories of local residents who worked in the county’s factories through historic photos and memorabilia. He said Jim Warlick, a presidential memorabilia collector and former Morganton resident, already has recorded some workers’ stories for video presentations.

“They want to make it an exhibition for school kids to go and see how their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents worked and built this community,” Thompson said. “It’s important for our history.”

Staff Writer Tammie Gercken can be reached at tgercken@morganton.com.

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