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Three first-term Winston-Salem council members focus on economic development, public safety

by Keith Barber

Denise D. Adams, Derwin Montgomery and James Taylor are serving their first terms on Winston-Salem City Council. (file photos)

For the past nine months, promoting new ideas in city government and expanding the reach of city services has served as the common thread linking the careers of Winston-Salem City Council members Denise D. Adams, Derwin Montgomery and James Taylor. The three newest members of the nine-member council have also tried to bring economic development to the communities they represent during their first nine months serving on the council.

 

Shortly after being sworn in last December, the “Three Musketeers,” as some have called them, began work on initiatives to help improve the lives of citizens in their respective wards.

Adams, who represents the city’s North Ward, held meetings with City Manager Lee Garrity and city staffers early in her tenure. The purpose of the meetings was to ask pointed questions about the efficiency of city services and ways to improve “customer service.”

A quality engineer for Johnson Controls, Adams said her life experiences have informed her new role as city councilwoman.

“My area of expertise is quality systems,” Adams said. “Quality systems means, ‘How does this work? How do we know it works? If it’s not working, what are we doing to fix it, to correct the problem, the issue or make it better?’ “I say we treat our citizens like customers,” Adams continued. “We have different layers of city government that are supposed to make that happen.”

Adams pointed out two areas that she said hold great potential — City Link and the city’s development office — and also have much room for improvement.

City Link is a service that “centralizes access to city information and services,” according to the city’s website. Citizens can call a number, speak to a customer service representative and request assistance or city services.

Adams praised City Link as a good concept but wondered who follows up on incoming calls, and if there is any analysis of the data that is collected. Adams has advocated the implementation of a system that ranks issues in importance by number of calls received.

“We at least need to have a corrective action plan in place to address the top two or three [issues], and we address them, fix them, or either minimize them and move on to the next three,” Adams said. “If every month we’ve still got the same three or Top 10, it tells me that all we’re doing is operating as a call center and we’re not really correcting the problems of the citizens; that’s what I see.”

Montgomery, who represents the city’s East Ward, has spent much of his time engaging in a dialogue with citizens. In bimonthly community meetings, Montgomery said he has sensed the frustration of residents who feel their concerns have long been ignored by city officials.

Last month, the 22-year-old Montgomery invited residents along with representatives of churches, civic and social organizations to a community meeting on economic development designed to create “a blueprint for a renewed East Ward.” Montgomery said the dialogue was productive, but he was left with the impression that the administration of the city’s small business loan program needs to be overhauled.

Montgomery said the criteria for entrepreneurs to secure business loans from the city should undergo a thorough review and the city council should take a hard look at how many people the city is “closing the door on.”

Ruben Gonzales, director of the city’s development office, said, on average, city staffers speak with 50 to 60 people a year interested in applying for small business loans. Out of that group, the development office qualifies 10 to 12 applications a year and submits them to a loan committee. Out of those 10 to 12 applications, the loan committee approves between three and five applications a year and forwards them to the city council, Gonzales said.

The disparity between the number of applicants and the number of approved loans is one reason Montgomery would like to reform the entire process. Montgomery said he wants each loan application to come before the city council to allow each applicant to make their case in a public forum.

“If it’s the council that is the one doing that,

you have voters that are going to be looking at that… and saying, ‘We elected you, and these are people in our community,’” Montgomery said. “We’ve had some [applications] that have come, we’ve approved and they’re out there starting their businesses. But when we get those, in my mind I’m saying, ‘How many didn’t make it this far for the council to vote on?’” Adams said she and Montgomery are on the same page with regard to reforming how the city loans money to small businesses. Adams proposes that all loan applications go through either the finance committee or community development committee.

“On the community development committee, we ask the questions: How are we determining who is getting this money and maybe we need to rethink how we do business?” Adams said. “Right now, everybody’s credit may be tight or either not substantial but if you have a business in the community that needs some help to grow or to start a business, why would we not look at that? If they have a track record of serving this community, why would we not?” Taylor, who represents the city’s Southeast Ward, has focused his energies on improving public safety. Taylor, Adams and Montgomery all consider public safety to be the foundation of future economic development.

“I think the first thing we had to do was eliminate the perception of crime,” Taylor said. “That was the impetus behind the graffiti ordinance.”

On July 19, the city council amended the graffiti ordinance by making it a misdemeanor to transfer or sell spray paint to anyone under the age of 18 unless they are accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. Taylor was the architect of the ordinance. Also, Taylor has worked closely with police Chief Scott Cunningham and the Crime Reduction Task Force to make the Waughtown Street area safer for residents.

On the economic development front, Taylor said the July 30 announcement that Caterpillar is bringing 500 jobs to the Southeast Ward is tremendous boon to his community’s economy, but there is much work to be done.

The preservation of the Waughtown Street corridor as an historic district is key to the area’s economic survival, Taylor said. The council has approved 10 rezoning applications Waughtown Street in recent years. Five of those rezoning requests have taken residential properties and rezoned them for commercial uses.

“That has destroyed the fabric of that community,” Taylor said. “We have to stop rezoning residential to commercial. If businesses want to come into our community, that’s fine but come into areas zoned for business.”

Taylor touted a recent victory for the Southeast Ward — an agreement between Gantt Oil Company and the city to create a green space at one of the company’s locations on Waughtown Street. Taylor said overall, he feels the city council has done a good job on economic development, and his first nine months have been eventful and productive.

“There’s lots of work to do but I feel like the last nine months, we’ve made a lot of progress,” he said.

 

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