Gentrification was one of many topics brought up at the recent forum of candidates for Rocky Mount municipal offices — and the responses varied.
The gathering was held on Sept. 19 at Edgecombe Community College’s Rocky Mount campus and was led by Democracy North Carolina. Candidates seeking election to four positions on the city council were asked how they see gentrification affecting downtown and the surrounding area.
Gentrification refers to repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area, followed by an influx of middle-class or affluent people and often resulting in displacing earlier, usually poorer residents.
Ward 1 Councilman Andre Knight, who was asked the question first, said gentrification can have pros and cons, depending on what one wants to see in a certain area one is trying to develop.
As for the city of Rocky Mount, Knight said, “We do not want to see gentrification. We know that downtown is for everyone — everyone. We want to see everyone work, live and play in downtown.”
Knight also said the city wants to see programs to help mom-and-pop stores downtown remain in business and does not want to see them and downtown residents driven away when property values increase.
Knight’s opponent, Tarrick Pittman, said the focus should be on growing and developing the communities around downtown to meet growth and development in progress in some of the other communities.
Pittman has long been in the computer repair business downtown, but he said, “We need more ideas and more people to the table so that we can continue to grow and invest in small businesses in this community.”
Pittman also said he supports minority- and women-owned businesses.
Ward 3 Councilman Richard Joyner said he favors a both-ends approach of having wealth coming into communities and training residents to take ownership of their respective communities.
Joyner cited the work of activist Susan Perry Cole, who is a key stakeholder in the proposed master plan for improving the Atlantic Avenue-Arlington Street corridor.
“So I think that when our communities are in control and our community knows who’s coming in, we can determine the growth — and who can grow with us,” Joyner said.
Ward 3 candidate Nellene Richardson said she saw gentrification occur when she lived in Washington, D.C.
Richardson said more affordable housing is needed in Rocky Mount. Richardson at the same time said longtime residents need to be ready for the arrival of higher-income people because such a pattern is occurring nationwide.
“But we as a community have to be prepared to say, ‘We’re not going to let it affect us to that magnitude that has affected a lot of people,’ which has caused homelessness to escalate around this United States,’” Richardson said.
Ward 3 candidate Gwen Wilkins said in the ward, “You have to ask yourselves, ‘How are we going to fix the abandoned, boarded-up housing if we don’t rebuild, if we don’t remodel?’”
Wilkins said she plans to work to ensure home ownership if elected. Wilkins also said there needs to be regulations to protect senior citizens and other residents living in their respective neighborhoods.
“People don’t want to leave their neighborhoods and I will fight to keep them there — but those abandoned, boarded-up houses need to be remodeled,” Wilkins said. “They need to be redone or they need to be torn down.”
Ward 4 candidate T.J. Walker Jr. said he has questions, including, “Who are the developers that are coming in in order to replace these low-income houses? How would that affect those that have been living in communities for years?”
Walker also said he would want to know whether a plan is in place for people who have been living in those communities.
Walker also said questions need to be asked about the economic growth side and the elderly having to relocate.
“So we have to have a heart-to-heart, come-to-our-senses agreement in saying, ‘What is it that’s more important?’” Walker said.
Ward 4 candidate Elaine B. Williams said she favors awarding grants via rehabilitation programs so residents can keep their homes fixed up.
Williams made clear she understands gentrification in a downtown area can beautify a city and bring in more tax revenue.
“But we also need to realize that we do not want gentrification to be part of our community,” Williams said. “We don’t want to force people out of where they’re at.”
Ward 5 candidate Robert Cordell said he does not believe there needs to be in downtown a moving in of upper-income residents and a moving out of lower-income residents.
During the forum, Cordell stuck to his main theme about economic development in calling for giving tax breaks to businesses.
Cordell also said he wants to attract businesses to downtown and to the Crossing at 64 mixed-use development on the Edgecombe County side of the city.
Ward 5 candidate Lige Daughtridge said while he believes the city does need to prepare for the issue of gentrification in the long term, he believes there should have been discussion before the October 2018 opening of the Rocky Mount Event Center.
“We’re doing this after the fact, but one thing that we need downtown for the event center and the downtown to be successful is we do need folks with money coming in,” Daughtridge said.
“But we also need the mixed-use in there — and we could do that by incentivizing builders and people to come in through zoning,” this to allow for perhaps more dense housing, Daughtridge said.