Lake Norman Publications

How much of Cornelius’ ARPA funds should go toward Smithville?

The Smithville community encompasses 25 acres and has existed since 1872. /Doug Coats

CORNELIUS – Through recent town budget surveys and now the allocation of COVID-related federal funds, the residents of Cornelius have made it clear that improving transportation is their top priority. But at the April 18 town board meeting, the overwhelming majority of speakers arrived seeking additional funds for the Smithville revitalization plan.

The town will receive $9.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, designed to offset financial losses caused by the pandemic. Following a public survey that ended April 15, Town Manager Andrew Grant reported a draft budget for the various expenditures that would allocate $3 million for Smithville, the historically African-American neighborhood already seeking municipal funds for a gentrification-blocking facelift.

But to the neighbors, that wasn’t enough. Beginning with Ron Potts in the meeting’s public comment section, the call was to more than double the amount to $6.6 million. He noted the community’s blight as other parts of town had thrived. Homes had been boarded up, and investors began to move in to purchase properties at low rates.

“We want Cornelius to be a safe place,” Potts said, “We want our vision tied into what Cornelius is all about. Our task at this time is equity for an area that has been neglected for the last 50 years. So Smithville can be part of the Cornelius dream.”

In January, Willie Jones of the Smithville Community Coalition presented the organization’s narrowed goals that highlighted the importance of changing the town’s land-use code and providing housing that municipal and service workers could afford. The SCC identified $21.3 million in total funding sources, including a potential $6.8 million from the town and $5.2 million from Mecklenburg County.

Beyond the risk of eliminating homes where families lived for generations, Smithville neighbors echoed the wide swath of improvements needed to the roads and sidewalks, plus reports of lead water pipes. Former commissioner Thurman Ross requested members of the current board to come to the neighborhood the next time a heavy rain occurs to witness faulty drainage.

“I asked you to look at South Ferry and North Ferry sidewalks,” Ross said. “Smithville Lane, the town did some improvements, but they still have running water in the streets, going all the way to the house at the end of the cul-de-sac. Evaluate South Hill Street from Vivian Lane toward the center, there is a water problem there.”

Jones spoke with more emotion than when pragmatically laying out the SCC’s vision first in March 2021 then again January. He didn’t think the town boards of the past had put enough effort into such endeavors.

“There were funds available that could have solved some of the problems, but you couldn’t go after them,” he said. “It’s a great thing we have the Cain Center, the town board was instrumental in letting that happen. With Smithville, the town hasn’t really done its job in putting that together. The revitalization plan, the coalition put it together without a penny from the town. … This is an opportunity for this mayor, this board, to do something that hasn’t been done in 50 years. It’s about taking responsibility and making sure there’s a sound plan, sound resources to make sure it gets done. We ask you to do your job. We have been willing to stand side by side with you, but we can’t agree to solutions that end up with plans we know just don’t work.”

The survey’s 280 responses represents less than 1 percent of the town’s population, a few speakers mentioning not knowing about it. Commissioner Colin Furcht voiced his disappointment in the turnout.

“It’s not really a good slice of Cornelius,” he said. “It’s pretty clear, we need your feedback. I don’t know if that necessarily represents the town.”

Which categories got attention?

Out of the 280 surveys returned, transportation garnered the most mentions, as well as positive mentions for fund usage. Another 166 mentioned alternative modes of transportation.

The overarching category saw 72.5 percent support, though Grant said the majority of the “not in support” responses said greater emphasis should be placed on alternative modes or such projects should instead be funded by town budget.

Under “alternative modes” were increasing bike lanes, sidewalks, public transit and connectivity to greenways.

Parks were the second-most mentioned category, with 74 percent in support of using ARPA funds to increase athletic fields and preserve land space.

The combined 305 responses for workforce housing and low-to-moderate income housing falls under the goals of the Smithville revitalization, which Grant acknowledged, creating a “big two” along with transportation. Under the workforce housing, just 62 percent were actually in support of that usage, but the low-to-moderate income got 70 percent.

A third category that would impact Smithville is the portions of society disproportionately affected by COVID. Out of those respondents, just above half supported sending ARPA funds in the direction of home repairs and financial assistance and making health care more accessible.

The town will send out a second, more project-specific ARPA survey in late April or early May, which will be reviewed by town commissioners. In June or July Grant will provide his recommendations on the expenditures. Grant said there are some projects that are under consideration that are more timely and will be approved in the under-construction fiscal year 2023 budget.

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