Mayor Sandy Roberson during a recent City Council meeting was sharply criticized by a developer who is constructing future apartments downtown, with the developer citing a remark Roberson made during a council work session earlier in June.

Troy Davis, speaking during the June 22 council regular meeting, told Roberson that although he had been unable to go to City Hall on June 8, he had heard about Roberson during the June 8 work session speaking about recruiting “real developers” to downtown.

“And it kind of touched me,” Davis said. “I’m spending $3 million of my hard-earned dollars in downtown Rocky Mount.

“And if you don’t think that I’m a real developer, I think you need to rethink things,” Davis told Roberson.

Davis, who is black, also told Roberson, who is white, “I don’t know what classifies someone to be a real developer. Maybe my skin tone isn’t light enough, but we need to kind of — I need to know where you stand as far as my development in downtown Rocky Mount.”

Davis is developing 22 apartments in the 100 block of Southeast Main Street.

During the June 22 council meeting, Roberson said, “I appreciate anyone and everyone who is willing to spend dollars in the development of the downtown area — and ask forgiveness for a poor choice of phraseology.”

That was in reference to the work session on June 8 including an extensive presentation by City Business Development Manager Kevin Harris about the status of downtown revitalization.

During the June 8 work session, Harris told the council he and his fellow officials believe the next step is getting people to live downtown.

Harris said there presently is a core of 40 residences in the central part of the city.

Harris noted that upstairs residences in the Douglas Block, located along part of Northeast Main and East Thomas streets, remain full and Harambee Square, in the 100 block of South Washington Street, maintains a high capacity of occupancy.

Harris also noted Andrew Clark, of Raleigh, will have future apartments along Southeast Main in the former Music City location adjacent to Davis’ project.

Harris also noted plans for Ohio-based Woda Cooper Companies to construct 60 units of workforce housing along Tarboro Street across from Edgecombe Community College’s Rocky Mount campus.

Harris said he and his team “threw out” a target of having 500 people living downtown in the future, but Harris said maybe more in the short term the number would be 250.

Councilman Andre Knight wanted to know how the municipality is going to reach the 500 mark and how the municipality could incent more property owners to create housing downtown.

Harris is advocating that the council put in place an incentive program to attract the development of more housing downtown, specifically in the upstairs of buildings.

Harris also said he and his team looked at potential future locations, including what had been Towel Town in the 200 block of Southwest Main Street before the gift business relocated to Englewood Square along Sunset Avenue.

Harris also told of having gone to a Main Street revitalization conference in Salisbury, where he saw that the western North Carolina city emphasizes developing downtown upstairs residences and has a variety of incentive grants to help do so.

Roberson asked Harris about whether he has any idea of what the occupancy percentages are of the residences in downtown Rocky Mount.

Harris said he believes of the 40 units, if there are vacancies, then they would be at Harambee Square, which has 24 units.

Roberson said that when he looks at the heart of Rocky Mount, “I think that it would be much easier to bring real developers into the downtown area if we could acknowledge some sort of downtown development plan, whatever that may be.

“And I don’t know that any other city or any other community provides help with, ‘How do you find the tax credits?’” Roberson said.

Roberson said another real powerful driver here is that virtually all of downtown is in an opportunity zone.

Generally, opportunity zones are in economically distressed communities where new investments, under certain conditions, may be eligible for preferential tax treatment.

Roberson said, “Many of these properties are eligible for historical tax credits, both from a state and federal perspective.”

Historic tax credits provide an incentive to developers to transform old structures into income-producing properties such as office buildings, retail establishments and apartments.

“And I know that our bent has been to try to encourage local development where it’s possible,” Roberson said. “It seems that if we could put together some program or some information system where we could converge all of those things together, that it might have the opportunity to provide the catalyst that you’re looking for, for a little bit of the jump start.”

Roberson noted that although City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney is indicating local funding is limited at the present time, what he is citing are monies also on the table for developers.

Roberson said, “It takes a while. It’s not easy. It doesn’t happen overnight.

“But to the extent that we have a steady plan that we’re back filling into and we’re creating the opportunity and the vision for developers and sending the signal and message that, ‘We want you,’ I think we could get down the road pretty good,” Roberson said.

Harris said he and his fellow officials promote the availability of historic tax credits, but that developers feel like the process of utilizing them slows down their projects and drives up their costs.

At the same time, Harris made clear he is open to bringing in consultants who can show developers the advantages of the tax credits.

Councilman Reuben Blackwell quickly focused on Roberson having used the words “real developers” and told Roberson he was assuming Roberson was referring to somebody who has the resources to move larger-scale projects.

Roberson told Blackwell yes and added, “I will say my word choice is not the best now that I hear it from you.”

Roberson said he should have instead said “better-capitalized.”

Blackwell told Roberson he hears what Roberson’s priorities are and that, “I’m encouraged to hear that because we have a real developer at the table with the hotel.”

Blackwell was referring to Tennessee-based developer David Hunt wanting to build a hotel, parking garage and residential and retail project adjacent to the Rocky Mount Event Center on the northeastern side of downtown.

Blackwell made reference to Hunt proposing to use a blend of tax credits, private capital, incentives and support from the City of Rocky Mount and said “we get in one fell swoop a pretty big project with a lot of people employed — and at the end of that term, 60 more people downtown.

“And I’m assuming you know when you crack the egg, it’s time to make the omelet now,” Blackwell said.

“So I’m sure behind that project other people will see that Rocky Mount is really bully on moving downtown,” Blackwell said. “And it would be exciting to me that we would get all of us enthusiastic in Rocky Mount about this hotel project, which is a big deal — time to move that forward.”

The proposed project has to be approved by the State Local Government Commission, but the LGC is not planning to take the matter up at its July 7 meeting. The LGC will not meet again until Aug. 4.

Later during the June 8 work session, Knight said, “When you say ‘real developers,’” the Woda group is going to bring major housing downtown.

Knight corrected himself to say there are “two real developers” and also noted he sees small- and medium-scale developers at work in other downtowns.

In the meantime, Rocky Mount’s Main Street revitalization program has remained in affiliated status since having lost accreditation status after 2017.

Near the end of his presentation on June 8, Harris told the council there has been much talk about accreditation, “but affiliate and accredited are pretty much synonymous.”

Liz Parham, director of the State Main Street and Rural Planning Center, in June 2019 told the Telegram she believes a Main Street program that is accredited is important because this shows a member has established basic best practices.

Parham also told the Telegram this in turn allows the member to do more advanced downtown economic development initiatives.