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Council scrutinizes downtown plans

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BY LINDELL JOHN KAY
Staff Writer

Friday, February 22, 2019

CHAPEL HILL — The Rocky Mount City Council is considering resurrecting a grant program to improve downtown storefronts.

In an effort to beautify downtown by eliminating boarded-up windows in vacant buildings, Mayor David Combs suggested bringing back facade grants that would give property owners $5,000 to fix up storefronts. The money wouldn't require a match from recipients or the issuance of a certificate of occupancy

The council on Thursday — in day two of its annual retreat — liked the idea so much that staff was told to fast track a study on implementation and not wait until the new fiscal year to finance it.

Will Deaton, the city's director of development services, suggested a downtown storefront ordinance making owners paint windows and make the front of their buildings more people friendly.

Councilman Reuben Blackwell said he wants to see assistance as well as enforcement.

"There are a lot of low-wealth, low-resource people who own buildings downtown," Blackwell said.

Councilman Tom Rogers said downtown shouldn't have been allowed to deteriorate to the point it is now.

"You can't just sit there and let your building go to hell in a handbasket," Rogers said.

Councilman Andre Knight asked staff about any hold ups on the Carleton House redevelopment project. The city sat on a $55,000 state grant for the project beginning in October until last week.

"A $4 million project isn't held up by $55,000," Knight said. "Is it the city or is it because the developer hadn't done what he needs to do? We're getting accused of holding up major projects downtown. We're getting beat up that we're not doing our jobs. It's been in the newspaper. Someone should have an answer."

None of the staff present at the meeting could provide any information about the project or where it stood in the permitting process.

Blackwell said he'd like an answer at Monday's City Council meeting. Rogers said staff should be able to answer questions Friday, the final day of the retreat. Staff agreed to provide an update on the project today.

The issue of enforcement versus incentives came up again with Blackwell saying nothing had been done about downtown until the current council took over.

"This council saved downtown," Blackwell said. "We're doing more than anyone has done.

Knight blamed the decline of downtown on White Flight.

"It's happened all over America," he said.

Deaton also said the permiting process could be sped up by removing the Planning Board's final approval. Sometimes, due to holidays and other reasons, it could be more than a month between board meetings.

During the first day of the retreat on Wednesday, the City Council recieved a three-hour presentation from James Johnson, professor and director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at UNC-Chapel Hill. His topic was “A road map for inclusive and equitable development in Rocky Mount.”

According to Johnson, this road map cannot be developed without first looking at the demographic reality of Rocky Mount and the Twin Counties. Research shows that between 2010 and 2017, the area was losing population. Rocky Mount lost 29 percent of its white population, gained in the black population by 11.8 percent and experienced growth in the Hispanic population. Similar trends are noted in Nash and Edgecombe counties as the areas experience the browning of America.

“You’re losing everybody but the 65-plus population,” Johnson said. “In Rocky Mount, your 45-64 population is growing, but it is a booming population, and the next wave is 65 plus.”

Johnson also indicated the significant percentage of the working poor population in the region, reasons why strategies should be devised for both the working poor and for those doing well.

The council finishes its retreat today in Chapel Hill. Foremost on the agenda is the appointment of boards and committees that has been pushed off for months.

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