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City loses millions in funding

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BY LINDELL JOHN KAY
Staff Writer

Thursday, January 24, 2019

An award-winning blogger lamented the decline of Rocky Mount revitalization last year as the city lost millions in federal funding, stalling the much anticipated Monk to Mills Trail.

Stepheny Houghtlin, named a Main Street Champion by the state Commerce Department two years ago, writes about downtown on her blog Main Street Rocky Mount. She grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, exposed to the elegant edifices of the Windy City. Her love of architecture was renewed when she came to Rocky Mount.

Houghtlin helped change the downtown narrative by joining in with folks who inspired her like former downtown development manager John Jesso to promote growth. She admired the work of people like Peter Varney who dedicated his entire career to Rocky Mount. She was in awe of structures like the train station, bus station, Imperial Centre and the Douglas Block.

“For a while people, stopped asking 'where do you live' and started asking 'where do you work?'” Houghtlin said. “Historic buildings weren't just a house George Washington slept in, they were economic drivers. Rocky Mount has an incredible story. A real sense of place. People don't have to live in a fifth-floor high rise in Philadelphia. Cities that are making it, being revitalized, have a story. People remember those stories, like going downtown with grandma.”

Houghtlin, like many people in Rocky Mount, had high hopes.

“But then last year I started wondering 'what happened?'” Houghtlin said. “Rocky Mount had anchors, the train station to the Mills, but everything else seemed to stop. What got in the way? The answer was skulduggery.”

Houghtlin said she started asking herself who benefited from the slowdown.

“John Jesso was courting businesses,” Houghtlin said. “He was bringing people downtown. The paperwork proves it. In business you get rewarded. In politics it's a different story. One day John wasn't here anymore.”

Jesso was pushed out by the new Community and Business Director Landis Faulcon, a friend of City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney who took the reins in July 2017.

“They put a stop to the roll we were on,” Houghtlin said. “Investors were taking a chance on love with Rocky Mount, and I credit John. Then it stopped. I'm not an expert, but I'm not stupid, either. People with power don't want to give it up. If the constituency changes, the City Council changes.”

Houghtlin said she went to see the now embattled Small-Toney early in her Rocky Mount tenure.

“You can't help but like her,” Houghtlin said. “We all know there was a cloud over her head.”

Small-Toney was ousted in 2012 from the top administrator's job in Savannah, Ga., after allegations of financial mismanagement.

“I wanted her to be a hero, save downtown and repair her reputation,” Houghtlin said. “I appealed to her better angels. The perception is maybe she owed some on the council for her job.”

Houghtlin said she likes to quote the old Joni Mitchell song, “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot — You don't know what you've got until it's gone.”

“I don't want to be vindictive,” Houghtlin said. “I don't want to say, you bastards, but why were these two women hired in the first place? The council knows who they took in.”

Houghtlin said it's time for people to speak up.

“There's this Southern sensibility,” Houghtlin said. “My dad dated your mom in high school. We played together at the beach as kids. But no, enough is enough.”

This entire situation isn't just about violating the public trust. It isn't just about getting friends hired for jobs they can't do. It's Rocky Mount that suffers, Houghtlin said.

Real world repercussions: The Nash County Board of Commissioners in September withdrew from the Down East Home Consortium. Tarboro is now considering also pulling out of the Rocky Mount-run federal funding management group, Tarboro Town Manager Troy Lewis said Wednesday. Tarboro officials are concerned because they haven't received the right amount of funds from Rocky Mount.

And last year Rocky Mount lost out on a $12 million federal transportation grant.

The 2017 Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery Grant, commonly known as the TIGER Grant, would have meant the completion of the Monk to Mill Trail, a greenway and urban trail for cyclists and pedestrians between downtown and the Rocky Mount Mills on Falls Road.

Rocky Mount didn't receive the grant, Brad Kerr, the city's engineering director, told the Telegram on Wednesday.

"The only project awarded in North Carolina was in Raleigh," Kerr said. "It was very competitive.”

Kerr confirmed the city didn’t try for the BRIDGE Grant last year. That could have meant the loss of more possible funding.

While the Trump administration’s selections for 2017 leaned heavily toward highways and bridges, 18 percent of the awarded projects went to walking and biking improvements.

City staff refined the project reducing the total project cost from $23.9 million in 2016 to $17.1 million in 2017. The 2016 TIGER Grant request was $15.09 million with a 37.2 percent local match of $8.9 million. The 2017 application requested $11.9 million with a 30 percent local match of $5.2 million.

The feeling around City Hall when submitting the grant application was it was Rocky Mount's turn.

"While very rarely a community is awarded TIGER on the first or second submission, the second submission was highly scored at the federal level and we seemed a shoe-in the third time around," said a city employee familiar with the situation.

Many employees felt the third time would be the charm, but then grant officials looked at Small-Toney's background, the city's recent turnover of key positions and the lack of permanent assistant managers at the time, according to current and former city employees.

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