Downtown hotel plans stir conflict
BY LINDELL JOHN KAY
Friday, February 8, 2019
Top city officials are on the verge of announcing a new hotel near the Rocky Mount Event Center while sitting on a state grant for a competing downtown project.
"Bringing in something new is not going to make people forget about the Carlton House," said Tarrick Pittman during a meeting of the Central City Revitalization Panel on Thursday morning.
Pittman was joined by a chorus of downtown business owners expressing their frustration over City Hall stonewalling developers in favor of a pet project.
"It's either incompetence or deliberate stalling," said Councilwoman Chris Miller who sits on the panel as a representative of Downtown Renaissance, an organization with the goal of stabilization and preservation of the inner city of Rocky Mount.
State Commerce Secretary Anthony Copeland in October announced $6.9 million in grant funding for 21 rural area projects across the state. One of those projects is a $55,000 grant to support the renovation of the 46,400-square-foot Carlton House, a 64-room boutique hotel on Church Street, which is set to include a restaurant.
Copeland said the Carlton is being renamed the Monk Hotel to pay homage to jazz legend Thelonious Monk, who was born in Rocky Mount.
The project, which includes $4 million in private investment, is expected to create 11 jobs and boost business downtown.
As of Thursday, real estate development company LarGerKo hadn't been told by city officials whether the grant had been awarded.
While holding out on LarGerKo, city administrators have been furiously putting together a deal for a hotel at the Event Center.
"Any information relative to this is considered economic development and is not public record," city spokeswoman Tameka Kenan-Norman told the Telegram in response to questions about the deal.
The most likely site for that hotel is St. John A.M.E. Zion Church, which sits at 250 Atlantic Ave. adjacent to a parking lot shared by the Event Center and the Holy Hope Heritage Center owned by the family of Councilman Andre Knight.
St. John Pastor Charles Darden told the Telegram earlier this week that the church is in negotiations to sell its property to hotel developers.
"We're in the early stages," Darden said. "At some point the church will be sold. The congregation will stay together. We will find a new building or start from the ground up."
City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney and Community and Business Development Director Landis Faulcon traveled to Miami in July to attend a conference of the National Association of Black Hotel Owners and Operators. The duo returned with plans for their downtown hotel project. An announcement is possible Monday at the City Council meeting.
Possible in the deal is a public-private partnership for a parking garage in the lot between the Event Center and St. John.
The City Council and department heads have all signed nondisclosure agreements. Such a maneuver isn't unheard of but is unusual in economic development situations outside of industrial projects, according to a source familiar with the process.
Earlier this month, representatives of the developer spent three hours meeting with the City Council in closed session. Also present in that meeting was Dev Pathik, the founder and CEO of Florida-based Sports Facilities Management, which operates the Rocky Mount Event Center.
In order for LarGerKo to recieve the grant money, city officials have to complete certain paperwork, said Melody Adams, director of Rural Grants and Programs for state Commerce.
LarGerKo managing partner Jesse Gerstl couldn't be reached for comment by press time. LarGerKo representatives were unaware of the grant approval when contacted this week by the Telegram.
Following the revitalization panel’s meeting and questions from the Telegram, City Hall announced the council would take up the grant at its Feb. 25 meeting. Fourteen minutes later the matter was moved up to Monday's meeting.
LarGerKo may not have been the only developer snubbed by city administrators in their rush to secure a hotel deal.
Charles Roberson of Gottawin, a limited liability corporation registered in Delaware, wants to sell downtown property he owns to hotel developers.
A YouTube video published late last year by Gottawin features a drone flyover of 336-340 Atlantic Ave. and 334-342 Albemarle Ave. with language to indicate the parcels are ready to be developed as tax incentive opportunity zones.
The locations are perfect for development, Roberson said in an email response to Telegram questions about city administrators' hotel plans.
"That's why me and my partner bought it," Roberson said. "I would love to work with anyone that shares that vision. It would be great for downtown and the city."
At the revitalization panel meeting, Pittman told Faulcon and her subordinate Business Development Manager Kevin Harris that City Hall was purposely slow rolling development. When Pittman pressed Faulcon as to why LarGerKo hadn't recieved the grant money, her answer stunned the panel.
"I'm not in the loop," Faulcon said.
Pittman asked Faulcon how long she's been on the job, and Faulcon said a year.
"One year and it's the same spiel with nothing happening," Pittman said.
Faulcon replied that she's done plenty.
"You've done nothing," Pittman said. "Implement something."
The Downtown Rocky Mount website has only been updated twice in the past year. The city received a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration to develop an online portal meant to streamline permits. While the site's been ready for a year, it sits unused. The test site can be found at https://rockymount.civicserv.com.
City officials told the Telegram that the site hasn't been launched because it's being evaluated to ensure it fits well with other systems.
Revitalization panel Chairman Garland Jones said he's been on the panel for 18 years.
"We don't need a lot of talk," Jones said. "Cut the red tape. We don't need people running from the city, we need people up and running in the city."
City staff excuses about hiring new people and waiting until certain people are in place have grown tiresome, Jones said. He told Harris and Faulcon he didn't need to hear more rhetoric.
"You get paid to make it work," Jones said. "We volunteer to make it fit. The Event Center will cool off if you don't build up around it."
Harris tried to say he was invested in downtown as well, but Jones told him, "you work for the city."
Jones said talking with Harris was like looking into the blank screen of a broken cellphone.
Pittman said the panel wants to be involved in the hiring process of the next business manager.
Miller has previously said certain council members are trying to change the make-up of the revitalization panel.
"(Miller) added that what is happening is individuals have served on the panel for many years who have wanted to see the downtown grow and now that the downtown is growing and property is being purchased some council members feel the board needs to be reorganized," according to the minutes of the Sept. 10 Committee of the Whole meeting.
Small-Toney told the City Council in that meeting that in other municipalities where she's worked she's seen a much tighter process where councils require reporting to ensure boards and commissions are working toward council goals and objectives.