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ECC chides city over parking

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BY LINDELL JOHN KAY
Staff Writer

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Rocky Mount City Council voted unanimously to enter a parking agreement in February with Edgecombe Community College two weeks before voting to build affordable housing at the same spot on Tarboro Street.

The ECC Board of Trustees feels the maneuver is a betrayal, according to an April 18 letter to the City Council, City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney, state Housing Finance Agency board members and Sarah Odio, project manager for the Development Finance Initiative at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government, which is overseeing the project as hurricane relief.

The council on Feb. 11 approved the Parking Area Development and Shared Use Agreement. Two weeks later, on Feb. 25, the council voted to convey the same shared use parking space for affordable housing development.

"Unfortunately, no one at the college or on the board, including the college's new president Dr. (Greg) McLeod, was involved or engaged in any discussions concerning this development plan. Considering the scale of this plan, its proximity to the college, the imminent elimination of the shared use parking agreement between the city and the college and the negative impact this development will have on our future growth it seems reasonable and appropriate that the college would have been invited to be a fully engaged partner throughout this study," Trustee Chairman Jerry Price and the entire board states in the April 18 letter.

Eliminating the shared use parking space in order to construct affordable housing immediately across the street from the campus will not only negatively impact available and much needed parking but will also stifle the college's future growth, the ECC trustees state in their letter.

"Without viable options and solutions, this plan would significantly hinder our ability to adequately meet the evolving educational and workforce training needs of the residents of this community," the letter states.

In a March public forum held after the council voted on the housing project, state officials said the Tarboro Street location was best because the city owned the property and it was within a mile of a grocery store. In actuality, the one-mile restriction is to obtain new market tax credits not required by DFI.

The City Council has "unclean hands," according to a local lawyer familiar with the matter.

"It doesn't look like the council was acting in good faith to me," the attorney said, but added that as long as the city meets the 90-day termination clause, the college doesn't have much of a choice. Of course, any notice now would come after the council already voted to use the land for something else.

The council was set to vote on the agreement in October, but Small-Toney removed the item from the agenda because the agreement didn't provide an easy way out for the city.

"I tabled the agreement because it was not sufficient enough in accomplishing what was needed to insure that the agreement could be terminated by either party with sufficient notification," Small-Toney said in an email at the time.

City staff moved forward with improvements to the parking lots with an estimated cost of $68,000, according to meeting minutes and city emails.

In an early October email, Councilman Reuben Blackwell asked Small-Toney about the plan for both parking and housing at the same site. Small-Toney explained the city would move forward with parking then terminate the agreement when the funds for housing were approved.

Blackwell denied an agreement existed at the April 8 council meeting.

“First of all, there was never a written agreement with Edgecombe Community College that this council voted on,” Blackwell said during the meeting. “I don't remember one. I don't remember voting on one."

Blackwell seconded the motion by Councilwoman Lois Watkins to approve the Feb. 11 legally-binding parking agreement.

Then on Feb. 25, the same night the council approved the minutes to the Feb. 11 meeting that included the parking plan, the council approved the housing resolution, which was added to the agenda during the meeting. The council was provided a copy of the agreement moments before voting on it.

The motion to approve the housing project was made by Blackwell and seconded by Councilman Andre Knight.

Blackwell said Wednesday that his comments about no agreement and discussion were all centered around previous city staff negotiations with ECC.

"This agreement is recent and yes, we just voted on it," Blackwell said. "However, the opportunity to create a dynamic village of activity based on people who live, work, learn and play downtown is too great to pass up or ignore."

Blackwell said the bottom line is that he supports affordable workforce housing at the Tarboro Street site and throughout Downtown Rocky Mount.

"We're large enough and diverse enough to create a place for everyone in every sector of our thriving and vibrant city," Blackwell said.

Councilman Richard Joyner noted the project is expected to be a reflection of the beautiful Beal Street Square Apartments, and will not be a slum, according to meeting minutes.

The Telegram called restaurants in the Beal Street area last week. The restaurants contacted would not deliver to Beal Street Square Apartments after dark

In 2015 the city and college acquired multiple lots adjacent to Tarboro Street.

"After great discussion, analysis and deliberation among city and college leadership, the acquisition of the lots was mutually agreed upon to specifically and expressly make overflow parking spaces available for the college's students and guests, downtown visitors, as well as the future patrons of the new event center to be constructed a block away. The decision made concerning which particular lots would be purchased by the city and which ones would be purchased by the college were made together and deliberately based on the economic opportunities available at the time. Furthermore, the city agreed to demolish and remove the building formerly used as a car dealership and later as a car wash located on one of the lots acquired by the college as well as the building formerly used as a laundromat and dry cleaners located on one of the lots acquired by the city, which left a large open space for immediate use for parking," according to the ECC letter.

The belief was that the parking would support the overflow parking needs for the college and Event Center.

The trustee letter states that if the shared use parking spaces were no longer needed for Event Center overflow parking, it's premature for the city to assume the location is somehow less valuable to the rest of the city, area businesses and the college.

"Know that ECC employees, students and visitors regularly use these lots to park as on-campus parking is limited, particularly during the day," the letter states. "With 2,900 students attending classes at the Rocky Mount campus, 122 faculty and staff, many library, barbering and cosmetology patrons and the numerous people who attend the various community meetings and events hosted there, finding an available space among the 194 parking spots on campus can be rather challenging depending on the time of day and year."

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