Councilman backs housing over parking


Reuben Blackwell


Staff Writer

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Rocky Mount Councilman Reuben Blackwell said he supports housing development on Tarboro Street and if he misspoke about knowledge of parking plans at the site, he's only human.

Blackwell said in a meeting last week that he was unaware of plans to break a proposed agreement with Edgecombe Community College on downtown parking versus a housing project; but the real issue is the need for such housing.

"I stand by my position, my vote and my constituents on that location as the best site for this affordable, workforce housing development to help build the momentum of a beautiful, vibrant, diverse and economically beneficial downtown Rocky Mount that everyone can enjoy," said Blackwell, who answered Telegram questions on the matter from Thursday on Friday morning after presstime for a report in today's edition.

ECC agreed to buy property on Tarboro Street next to city property because the city said the site would remain a parking lot, Gloria Wiggins-Hicks, a member of the ECC Board of Trustees, said at a recent workshop on the planned Tarboro Street housing project.

Blackwell said Friday that an October email to him from City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney was about present day while at the April 8 meeting he was referring to discussions with a past city administration.

"I asked you to bring any document to my attention that the council has voted on with the college," Blackwell said. "Those are the discussions and vote that I do not remember. If they took place, then I’m more than willing to admit that my memory was not exact. I’m human and I do make mistakes as much as everyone else does."

Blackwell said he meant the original agreement from several months ago, not the proposed agreement from October when City Council candidate Lige Daughtridge held up a document during the April 8 meeting.

"I said if I’m wrong about a discussion or vote at that time, then I did not remember," Blackwell said. "You can check my accuracy of recall on Curmilus’ video. I have not done that because I do not think that my recall is the issue or the crux of what is important. I also told you when you approached me after the council meeting, that maybe my memory was faulty, but my stance is still the same."

Blackwell seems to be mixing up talks from several months ago with the Oct. 4 email in which he explicitly discussed Small-Toney's plan to use the Tarboro Street site as parking until the funding came through for housing at which time the city would terminate its agreement with ECC. The agreement was never voted on by council because Small-Toney tabled it at the eleventh hour since there was no clear exit clause for the city, according to city emails obtained by the Telegram via public records requests.

Blackwell said it’s important to recognize several factors regarding the City Council’s vote about parking at the Tarboro Street location and the relationship with ECC:

■ "The city of Rocky Mount and Edgecombe Community College have always, at least since my service on the council, enjoyed a mutually beneficial and supportive relationship. The city has always looked for ways to support the college’s development and success in downtown Rocky Mount. It was the city of Rocky Mount who enthusiastically embraced (former ECC President Deborah) Lamm’s vision of a vibrant health education center in the heart of our city. It was the city of Rocky Mount who encouraged the college to consider tax credit financing to move the stalled project forward because we also recognized the need for health care infrastructure for the present and future growth and development of eastern North Carolina. And it was the city of Rocky Mount that assisted our friends and partners with Edgecombe County and the college with technical assistance and support all the way from concept to construction of the beautiful Lamm facility that our students and region are enjoying right now. In fact, I personally served on the commission that the county appointed to build that very successful center."

■ "As an elected representative of the Rocky Mount City Council, my primary responsibility, loyalty and duty of care belongs to the people who reside in my ward and the overall health of my city. I will support, advocate and vote for the best interests of the people and community that I serve to the best of my ability and that aligns with the vision that my constituents have and currently articulate."

■ "The discussions that you are referencing took place at a time where the needs of our downtown and surrounding communities were different, as was the approach. Considering practices of equitable development, the city’s approach changed as our city’s needs evolved. All of our discussion today seems to center around an agreement that was created without the benefit of considering present day context of multiple uses. We did not have the Event Center, we were not enjoying robust development downtown, the real estate market throughout the country was in a slump and we were wrestling in Rocky Mount with the lack of engagement about downtown from owners of properties in and around that area. If we had a project then that was bringing millions of dollars of investment to that location and benefited the people that could be students and employees of the college, then I would have definitely and enthusiastically supported that project then as I do now."

■ "Your allegations of 'bait and switch' imply some nefarious context of ill will and misrepresentation of intent. That is your term, not my motivation. Not then and not now. You were present at the City Council Retreat in February when DFI presented their options, that this project would be an affordable, workforce housing development. You heard the statistics presented about need and even attested that this development would have been interesting to you if you had that option when you first moved to Rocky Mount. This development addresses the immediate crisis that hard working and retired citizens have in choosing great, affordable options for living and participating in Downtown. We must all be intentional in deeds as well as words in making space for citizens and visitors in an inclusive economy."

■ "I am still unclear about the protestations from anyone about why, at that location, affordable workforce housing would be a bad idea. Why wouldn’t anyone want to attract working families and individuals or retired citizens or veterans or struggling families who want to better themselves and live in a vibrant downtown community right across the street from an anchor institution that was designed and funded to benefit them? I’m certain that the city would be more than happy and motivated to help the college address their concern about lack of parking at other close and proximate locations."