by Daniel Schere

The process of bringing life to the south side of Winston- Salem has been a long haul for Southeast Plaza shopping center owner Jose Isasi. Isasi, the owner of North Carolina conglomerate Que Pasa Media Network, has approached the city council four times in requesting additional funds for developing a mini mall in the shopping center and bringing more health services. On Feb. 2, the city council approved an additional $825,000 for the project by a 5-3 vote.

The funds come from the Revitalizing Urban Commercial areas or RUCA program that was started in 2006 as a source of funding for projects aimed at energizing distressed parts of the city. Assistant City Manager Ben Rowe said up until now, RUCA has been funded through a series of business incentives, but that will soon change.

“We have a small amount that’s set aside from the RUCA program every year,” he said. “The business privilege license fees that the city still collects, which will end July 1 under state law.”

Rowe added that RUCA also receives $200,000 from revenuegenerating sweepstakes operations, but that too is likely to diminish if sweepstakes are determined to be illegal in the state.

“What will happen, as far as planning for the next fiscal year is, we’re not budgeting any revenue for that so that so really that $200,000 on an ongoing basis going forward will go away,” Rowe said.

Rowe said eight RUCA projects have occurred since 2006, and that funding in the near future will come from a $2 million chunk that was set aside for that purpose.

At last week’s meeting, council members Robert Clark, Molly Leight and Jeff MacIntosh voted in opposition to the additional RUCA funding for the shopping center. MacIntosh said he felt strongly about the merits of the project but thought community development funds would have been a better option than RUCA.

“What we were told was that the purpose of the RUCA funds was supposed to be like a Kickstarter, and was a small component in revitalizing commercial areas. The size and the scope of this project just seemed to be outside of the intent of the RUCA project,” he said.

MacIntosh has been on the other end of community development projects that use RUCA funding, having participated in the redevelopment of the West Salem shopping center. He said the Southeast Plaza project differs because of its size, and that it may take funding away from smaller projects.

“I guess my biggest problem was that I didn’t think there was a clear understanding … over how that money should be used,” he said.

Southeast Plaza, known originally as Parkview, was anchored first by a Winn Dixie grocery store, a Roses department store and two movie theaters when it opened in the 1970s. Isasi said the surrounding neighborhood began to fall into decline around 1976 just after the first oil crisis. As tenants began to pull out, the shopping center became a destination for homeless people and panhandlers. The property has changed hands several times since then but was purchased by Isasi three years ago, with the hope of turning things around.

“The city really approached me and they said, ‘Jose are you interested in trying to put some life back to this place because again, there was no grocery store. This place was falling apart,” he said.

Que Pasa has operated its headquarters out of the shopping center since 2000, and Isasi said when they first got there it had more than 12 different owners who were part of a vulture fund in Connecticut. There was also a pothole 50 feet wide, 18 inches deep that has since been filled.

Isasi said he has been in communication with two or three dentists that he hopes to bring to Southeast Plaza but said people are often reluctant to venture to a part of town that has been classified as both a food desert and a health desert.

“Really this started as an economic development/community development to see if we could attract services that this community needs and didn’t have,” he said. “We have been reasonably successful. We have the clinic, we have the grocery store, we have the drug store.”

Isasi said the six people who once lived there are now gone, and the shopping center is secured by a fence around the back along with 100 cameras and monitors.

“At night we can protect the shopping center,” he said. “We have the three times the light level we used to have in the shopping center.”

Despite these measures, Isasi says panhandling is still an issue. The shopping center includes two sweepstakes businesses and the Disco Rodeo nightclub. He said the sweepstakes have not been a nuisance but the nightclub concerns him.

“I really want to make this a family oriented shopping center,” he said. “You know the nightclubs don’t really do me any good.”

Isasi said he has met with council members MacIntosh, Dan Besse, Derwin Montgomery and James Taylor Jr. to discuss his ambitions. At a meeting with Montgomery and Taylor, they determined that the project was much more comprehensive than originally anticipated.

“We found out that what this area really needed was something that was nice enough to attract the services,” he said. “So what started as the RUCA program turned into an economic development/community development program.”

Isasi said council members Vivian Burke and Molly Leight have not yet come to the shopping center. He is concerned that council members often do not have the time to investigate projects they are making decisions on due to their schedules.

“I think this concept we have is a fallacy in which the council really makes all the key decisions. But they all have jobs because the city pays them $12,000 a year.”

Originally he had asked for $1.34 million from the city for renovations on a mini mall he is developing within the shopping center. He said right now the shopping center is producing just enough revenue to cover all of the operational expenses.

“So far private investors have put up $7 million and we have not made a single penny on the shopping center,” he said. “As a matter of fact I don’t even draw a salary for the work I do on the shopping center.” !