The City Council earlier this week approved funding and technical support to help pinpoint having a “Black Business Matters Zone” in the heart of Rocky Mount.
Councilman Andre Knight, who made the motion for the vote during Monday’s council meeting, requested anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000 to subsidize the planning and pre-development costs to secure corporate investment in this particular area.
Knight made clear he wants City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney to return and tell the council the details about how this will work.
Small-Toney said she would have the specifics by the next regular council meeting in July.
The subject came up during the public input phase of the municipality’s plan of action for fiscal year 2021.
That is when Dr. Lisa Nelson told the council she was representing a group of concerned citizens interested in economic development for all of Rocky Mount.
Nelson told the council she and others in the group reviewed the implementation strategies plan for downtown, which is dated August 2017 and is known locally as the Ratio plan.
The text was prepared by the Ratio architectural planning and design firm, the VHB engineering, consulting and design firm and Joyner Media & Strategies.
Nelson told the council the Ratio plan “is a perfect example of how development has been siphoned to Nash County and traditionally underserved Edgecombe County was left out.”
To support her argument, Nelson cited, as an example, the Monk to Mill Trail.
The Monk to Mill Trail is identified on the City of Rocky Mount’s website as a conceptual greenway and urban trail project for bicyclists and pedestrians between downtown and the Rocky Mount Mills mixed-use development off Falls Road and Peachtree Street.
The Monk part of the name is a reference to the late Rocky Mount native and jazz great Thelonious Monk.
Nelson said that while Rocky Mount Mills looks beautiful, “I guarantee you, most people don’t even know where Thelonious Monk Park is.
“And when you go there, it’s not even properly maintained,” Nelson said.
The park is off Wye Street in the Around the “Y” area in the southern part of the city.
Nelson told the council, “I don’t understand how you could even conceive of utilizing the history of a people to enrich the people that usually oppress those people.”
Nelson said one of the key concepts of the Ratio plan was placemaking, with an arts district, an entertainment district and a historic district. Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces.
Nelson said the key to placemaking is to enhance the quality of life in, achieve larger economic goals in and bring dollars to the area.
Nelson also said another goal of the Ratio plan was to lessen gentrification, but she said the text of the document did not address this.
“They didn’t have any strategies in place to prevent the economic disparities that come with gentrification,” Nelson said.
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.
The Ratio plan did cite two profiles as examples of lessening gentrification, with one being the Golden Belt Historic District in Durham.
Nelson told the council she and her group got together and put together a proposal for the panel to consider.
“We feel that the Black Lives Matter recognition that is currently going on now, right now, the energy around the world, has exposed many of the negatives that have gone along with economic and racial discrimination,” Nelson said.
Nelson said the response is resources flowing from corporations and individual foundations for communities affected by economic disparity to have restorative economics brought into those communities.
Restorative economics involves having communities come together and form relationships that allow them to re-imagine a new way of being grounded in cooperation instead of exclusion.
Nelson told the council, “We’re proposing a geographic area of downtown Rocky Mount to identify a Black Business Matters Zone to capitalize on that energy, which we all know is not going to last.”
Nelson told the council she and her group believe such a zone can provide funding to businesses and real estate development that, in turn, would provide commercial opportunities and bring in more economic power to afford the housing the municipality wants to construct downtown.
Nelson told the council that, “If we revitalize downtown, everybody wins.”
Knight said he views this as another opportunity “to right a wrong, as far as economic justice,” in that major companies have contributed money in connection with the Black Lives Matter movement and empowering African Americans in economic development.
Knight made clear he would like the purposes of the zone to include expanding the historically African-American Douglas Block area of downtown, helping expand businesses already downtown and securing new businesses downtown.
Earlier during the public input phase of Monday’s council meeting, activist Cooper Blackwell, who is a representative of the youth-led Rocky Mount Black Action Committee, said the committee would like to offer its services to the council in assisting with the improvement of racial equity within the city.
A June 8 council work session included extensive discussion about how to redevelop downtown. During that discussion, Councilman Lige Daughtridge, who took office in December, pointed out the municipality never has formally approved the Ratio plan.
Daughtridge at the time said he believed there needs to be a plan so that developers, when they come in, can see what the vision is that the citizens have put into the Ratio plan.