Downtown business owner fights city
BY LINDELL JOHN KAY
Sunday, January 27, 2019
Tarrick Pittman loves downtown Rocky Mount — for six years he's operated his business on the Douglas Block.
As a younger man, he'd left Rocky Mount to make his way in the world, but when his employer Circuit City folded, Pittman returned home to lick his wounds and discover where he belonged.
By 2012, a reinvigorated Pittman had opened his own computer repair shop, CoolGeeks.
"It's a blessing to carry on the legacy of the Douglas Block," said Pittman, president of the Downtown Merchants Association and a member of the Central City Revitalization Panel.
Pittman hung his shingle on East Main Street in 2012. By December 2016, his customer base had grown so much that he moved his business around the corner to a larger storefront in the Manhattan Building on East Thomas Street, which he rents from the city.
Pittman said 2016 was a magical time for downtown.
“John Jesso was doing things,” Pittman said. “He was drawing in businesses, investors.”
Jesso was the city's downtown development manager in 2016.
Pittman said in 2016, everyone believed in downtown revitalization. He said everyone thought the Ratio Design plans showing a bright future of downtown would soon be a reality.
Then in mid-2017, it all started falling apart when City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney began her tenure, Pittman said.
He has nothing personal against Small-Toney, he said, but she's struggled to form relationships with downtown business owners, which has hurt development.
Pittman said he was disappointed to find out Small-Toney claimed the remodeling of her City Hall office was due to mold — a claim debunked by the Telegram.
Pittman found the claim ironic because while city officials claimed to have mold to cover their tracks, his business actually has mold due to water intrusion, which he said the city has refused to fix.
Pittman sued the city for damages based on breach of rental contract.
The legal action, a countersuit to a city lawsuit seeking $9,000 in back rent, began in small claims court, moved up to Superior Court and was dismissed last week by state Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Quentin Sumner.
Pittman said he isn't just a guy who won't pay his rent. He said he's standing up to City Hall and defending the Douglas Block.
“The rent money is set aside in a bank account,” Pittman said. “It's about taking a stand. I'm an original member of the Douglas Block. They're disrespecting me.”
Pittman showed the Telegram where mold is in closets and on the walls of a second floor loft.
"It's tough," Pittman said. "I was going to open a small business center. I've lost employees — the mold has prevented me from hosting events. I'm too afraid the mold will hurt someone and sometimes the odor runs people out of here."
Pittman pointed to a wall where mold was creeping through a coat of paint.
"Their solution was to paint over it," he said. "You can't."
Since Small-Toney's arrival, Pittman said he's been the target of intense harassment.
"She's had police officers deliver me paperwork as a form of intimidation. She told me I was being evicted when I wasn't. I can't believe I could be treated like that by someone who looks like me," Pittman said.
The black community isn't benefiting under Small-Toney, Pittman said.
"But don't put it all on her," Pittman said. "Look at who hired her. There's no doubt council members are behind it. They're trying to silence my voice because they know I've never had a problem speaking up."
Certain people in power are focusing on themselves instead of the greater good, Pittman said.
"They just care about making money," Pittman said. "Two in particular: Andre (Knight) and Reuben Blackwell."
Councilmen Knight and Blackwell were two of the four yes votes that hired Small-Toney.
"Those of us on the front lines — the downtown business owners — have been waiting for this stuff to come out in the newspaper," Pittman said. "We know about the hires. We know about the fancy furniture for Landis (Faulcon) and Small-Toney."
Faulcon was brought in by Small-Toney to run community and business development.
Faulcon, as previously reported, lives in Virginia. New development has been stifled under Faulcon: Permits have dropped to near zero; federal grants have been lost; state accreditation hasn't been renewed; the city-operated website touting downtown has only been updated once since Febuary 2018; and Faulcon is the only department head not listed with contact information on the Departments & Services page on the city's website.
The future of downtown has gone from bleak to bright down to dismal, Pittman said.
"The Ratio plan has been swept away," Pittman said, making a motion with his hands. "Another $100,000 of taxpayer dollars down the drain."
Pittman said city employees who cared about downtown have been run off.
“They tried to say Jesso was racist,” Pittman said. “He's my friend. He cared about downtown like no one else."
Jesso, the former downtown development director, left city employment last year, receiving a $40,000 settlement.
Pittman said it also was painful for him to see Jonathan Boone, the city's longtime engineering director, resign.
"Jonathan was a customer. He brought his computers here to be fixed," Pittman said. "If you had a problem, Johnathan Boone would be the first one to help."
Boone is leaving the city next week to work for Nash County.
Pittman said investors who were flocking to Rocky Mount have moved on due to the frosty environment fostered by Faulcon, and more importantly the City Council.
In early 2017, prior to Small-Toney's arrival, more than 100 real estate investors met in Rocky Mount to discuss apparent abundant opportunities.
"You couldn't scrape together a handful of investors now," according to a local real estate agent familiar with the matter.
Driving away out-of-town investors who would develop property is nothing new to Knight and Blackwell.
One such investor, Rehab Development, had big plans for the China American building on Pearl Street. Rehab offered the city $300,000 for the property, with plans to convert the old tobacco warehouse into a campus of businesses and apartments similar to what Capital Broadcasting has done with Rocky Mount Mills.
Four days before a 2015 council meeting, the Opportunities Industrialization Center made a bid for half that amount, and the city sold the property to the OIC, with the understanding that OIC would develop it. With the exception of some work to create a first-floor warehouse, the building remains the same.
Blackwell, OIC's president, and Knight, chairman of the nonprofit organization's board, voted for the deal as council members.
Knight and Blackwell didn't return detailed messages seeking comment for this story by presstime Saturday.
Durham investors were interested in the old downtown hospital in 2016. Knight purchased the building at 224 Rose St., transferring the property to a family member in June 2017, according to property records.
While the Durham group wanted to swiftly convert the hospital into apartments, no apparent work on the building has been done.
Pittman said it's important he stays in business so young black people can see that a black man can survive in the tech business.
“I want to be their blueprint for success,” Pittman said. "I've given up a lot to stay downtown. I could be out on Sunset Avenue, but I stay here. I'm going to stay here, because it's an honor to be what Dr. Junius Douglas envisioned in the 1920s."