The City Council’s discussions of the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget ended Thursday with an amendment to shift funding from a proposed major renovation project to add $250,000 to proposed spending on the campus of the former Booker T. Washington High School northeast of downtown.
City Budget and Evaluation Manager Kenneth Hunter had outlined a proposed $20,000 in capital improvements for the campus during Monday’s budget work session, but at the start of Thursday’s budget work session, listeners of the discussion via Facebook live streaming video learned the amount had been upped to $50,000.
During Thursday’s budget work session, Councilman Andre Knight successfully proposed scaling back funding to both stabilize the vacant former National Guard armory southwest of downtown and complete a study about future redevelopment there.
Knight successfully called for instead proposing to take $250,000 of $525,000 for the former armory to help pay for work on the former Booker T. Washington High buildings and grounds, which include a community center and a recreation center.
Knight emphasized his belief that the buildings and grounds at the former high school need to be presentable and that the windows look quite bad.
“So it behooves us that we fix up what’s already in our community that’s in use, that people are using, as opposed to going to a building that’s not occupied,” Knight said.
Additionally, Knight pointed out the gymnasium had been the scene of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s November 1962 speech, which was the forerunner of King’s “I Have a Dream” August 1963 speech in Washington, D.C.
Knight said proposed improvements to the campus had been in municipal improvement plans long ago.
City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney, who has been on the job for slightly less than three years, said she received information quite late in the budgeting process about the campus, in terms of what municipal staff identified as needing to be done.
Small-Toney said replacing windows had been mentioned, but she said when replacing windows in a historic structure, one wants to try to maintain that structure’s historic character and that the amount to do so can be quite costly.
Councilman Lige Daughtridge, who took office in December, said that while he has not been to the campus in years, he wanted to know whether lots of grants would be available, given the historic piece and the link to King.
Daughtridge said if the latter is the case, then he wanted to know whether seeking grant funding would be more prudent.
Later in the discussion, Councilman Reuben Blackwell said that while he agreed with Daughtridge about the need to secure grant funding, he believes that is a job for the municipal parks and recreation officials.
Blackwell emphasized that what he and fellow council members are asking is for the municipal staff to assist in the movement of upgrades to the campus.
Blackwell said work on the campus was supposed to be a phased project.
“And what happened was that it never got beyond phase one,” Blackwell said.
A Telegram story published in 2004 quoted Blackwell as saying the municipality was close to the end of an evaluation for a total renovation.
The story reported a Roanoke, Va.-based consulting firm, Brian Wishneff & Associates, had been working to craft a plan.
The story quoted Blackwell as saying that the campus needed central heating and air conditioning, the plumbing needed to be repaired and the physical outlay of the site needed to be modernized.
The story also quoted Blackwell as saying he believes the location represents the heart and soul of Rocky Mount, especially the African-American community.
“It’s a travesty to me not to value this as a city jewel,” Blackwell said at the time.
During Thursday’s discussion, Blackwell said the windows on the two wings on either side of the primary section were never upgraded and that renovations to the gymnasium were never completed.
Blackwell said an upgraded heating and cooling system, while not the best, was installed, and he expressed appreciation for that work.
“But it never continued through,” Blackwell said of additional upgrades.
Blackwell is CEO of the Opportunities Industrialization Center, which is on part of the campus, and Knight is chairman of the OIC’s board.
The OIC seeks to help provide residents with employment training and health care.
The council had a budget work session on Tuesday in addition to Monday and Thursday.
The council’s next step is to allow the public to comment about the amended proposed document at the council’s 7 p.m. regular meeting on Monday.
The proposed budget, as announced by Small-Toney on May 28, is nearly $212.25 million.
That is a nearly $8 million, or 3.6 percent, decrease compared to the adopted current fiscal year 2020 budget due to the effect of the coronavirus, but there are no plans for an increase in property taxes.
The council’s schedule calls for approving the budget at the June 22 regular meeting.