CORNELIUS – A subject that has dominated Cornelius town board as well as many other community conversations for the past year has been the planned renovation, revival and preservation of the Smithville community, an historic African American neighborhood.
With county American Rescue Plan Act funding and a town financial commitment, approximately $7 million has been earmarked for a comprehensive project to address aging infrastructure and provide an overall enhancement of Smithville – a long-established collection of family homes on the east side of U.S. 21 near the downtown area.
An organization called the Smithville Community Coalition (SCC) has taken a lead role in preparing an outline of things to come in the neighborhood, but recently other voices – while acknowledging and praising SCC actions and accomplishments – have risen in unison to express concerns about how plans are evolving and the roles in the process available to Smithville residents.
Earlier this month, Cornelius native Tonya Rivens shared a summary of those additional perspectives, which the group – with statements and supporting endorsements from residents at 33 different addresses (on South Hill Street, Smithville Lane, Ferry Street, Burton Lane and others) in the Smithville neighborhood – has shared throughout the community, with Smithville native and former Cornelius Town Commissioner Thurman Ross taking a lead role as the spokesperson.
The following is part of the message shared by Rivens:
“Residents of Smithville have organized the Smithville Residents Coalition (SRC) to have their voices heard during the proposed changes to their beloved community. Although the Smithville Community Coalition (SCC) has provided exceptional work in bringing attention to the plight of the neighborhood, the stakeholders feel that their voices are not being heard.
Smithville Was . . .
A limited number of residents are highlighted when speaking about Smithville. Only four families from the neighborhood are represented in the video on the website. The revamped website should include more voices. The work of an entire neighborhood WAS Smithville in the past and IS Smithville today. A community of hard-working homeowners who were proud of their hard work and who knew what it meant to raise future leaders.
Smithville Is …
Smithville is a community with hard working residents with homes that need critical repairs. The SCC is being led by an individual from Davidson, a lady who moved away from Smithville while in the fifth grade and a gentleman who is not even a native of North Carolina.
Residents were made promises that have not been kept – funding for the revitalization plan would be used to upfit homes, beautify the community. The funding was shifted. Residents are now required to use Habitat for Humanity for critical repairs and must sign a five-year deed restriction.
Residents say they can’t get accurate information. For homes sold to SCC, some residents were promised another home in the Cornelius area and monthly rent/mortgage would be paid for one for two years. Residents who have sold are now being told to take a residence, not a house, wherever SCC can locate one.
In addition, SCC was made aware of a white resident who verbally and physically attacked a young black male, even using the n-word in January. No known steps have been taken to address the matter.
Meetings are poorly attended by residents and SCC board members. Residents say they are tired of being lied to, given different stories, or told there will be a follow up which never happens. The SCC says that they don’t know why their board members do not attend neighborhood meetings each month. Monthly meetings scheduled for the fourth Monday are canceled with last minute notice.
During meetings, residents face contempt when asking questions and often, real issues are not addressed.
For example, January’s meeting was about the new office and birthdays. On Jan. 31, neither the town nor SCC advised the residents about an opportunity to provide input on upcoming infrastructure work in the community, Burton Lane and North Ferry Street. The SCC has not included these streets in any of its plans. Smithville is a community that includes North Ferry Street and Burton Lane.
Residents do not understand the basics of real estate, finances and estate planning. SCC promised sessions, however none have been provided.
College graduates and children who have gone on to successful careers have been denied participation in planning the future of Smithville, underscoring the need to expand and add more SRC members.
Accountability doesn’t exist
Town and county leaders have been made aware about concerns by residents, however these concerns have not been addressed. The SCC told the community jobs would be made available because of their plan. There are currently four staff members, none of them live in Smithville. The neighborhood was not given a chance to apply for any of the positions.
Willie Jones assigned himself executive director of the SCC position and assigned his salary. The SCC executive director selected the staff. Three are a part of the Unity in Community North Meck, led by the executive director’s wife. The project manager position does not have to be trained nor certified and none of the salaries will be made public. SCC must be accountable to SRC, the stakeholders.”
Smithville Will be …
In another section of compiled comments, under the subhead “Smithville will be,” residents said the SCC has, in some instances, not followed its own set of guidelines and that residents from the Smithville community were denied the opportunity to serve on the SCC’s board.
Other issues cited include:
- Healthcare disparities – specifically no stated plan to utilize resources to speak with healthcare providers to assist elders in the community;
- Estate planning, with references to efforts by SRC to have sessions to speak with residents about real estate, finances, and estate planning being denied;
- Age in place issues and options for current Smithville residents;
- Plans for preserving the historic Smithville Rosenwald School;
- Traffic and congestion, including plans to use South Hill Street for an alternate local route despite property owner opposition; and
- Tax-relief options for current property owners, especially senior citizens;
In closing, the message shared by Rivens highlighted the goal of more direct community input:
“The stakeholders, SRC, are thankful for the work of the SCC and acknowledge that changes are inevitable. Provide changes that will preserve the neighborhood. The plan would have never reached this point without the hard work and funding from some good people with good
intentions. It’s time for the SCC to stop telling the residents that ‘they don’t know what is best for them.’ Smithville needs revitalization. The current method of doing business, putting profits before people, and using the term ‘revitalization’ is a glorified plan for gentrification.”