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Winston-Salem Council sets the agenda for the next 3 years

by Jordan Green

Winston-Salem voters ratified the cautious progressivism of the city council in last year’s municipal election, reelecting a cohort of incumbents under the leadership of Mayor Allen Joines, with one newcomer filling a vacancy in the Northwest Ward.

Faced with more limited funding from the state and federal government and a tepid economic recovery, council members are adopting a back-to-basics approach to growth that eschews big, transformative projects proposed by civic groups. Meanwhile, Joines’ big-picture, downtown-centric leadership is facing new challenges from members anxious to secure gains for their respective wards.

The mayor and eight council members gathered around a long table for two hours on Jan. 27 to hash out priorities in a strategic-planning session designed to set the agenda for the next three years. Having ranked various strategies in economic development, public safety, transportation, historic resources and other realms, they lobbied each other for adjustments, sometimes successfully and other times not so much. Members with a particular expertise or passion explained concepts to colleagues who might not have the same background knowledge. They quizzed staff on proposals that are in the works.

The new council begins an abbreviated three-year term to accommodate a revised election schedule imposed by state lawmakers in Raleigh. Previously, city council elections were held every four years in odd years. Starting in 2016, city council elections will be held every four years in even years.

In a city still struggling to transform its economy from legacy industries such as tobacco and textiles and yoked with entrenched poverty and hunger, economic vitality and diversity remains a major focus for Winston-Salem leaders. Public safety is also a paramount concern for elected officials and their constituents, with the fear of crime often undermining commercial vitality in inner-city areas just beyond the city’s bustling core. The city has attempted to shore up struggling neighborhoods and rehabilitate housing with mixed results. Transportation will remain a challenge in a city that is geographically fragmented, with Business 40 closing for repairs, construction of the Northern Beltline plodding forward and a proposed Urban Circulator effectively stalled. And in a city that is proudly identified with both the arts and its history, the allocation of limited taxpayer funds to support cultural assets is source of increasing division among council members.

Economic development

Among the city’s economic development objectives laid out during the planning session are recruiting and retaining employers, promoting downtown revitalization, and encouraging commercial development in economically disadvantaged areas. On the first objective, council members have prioritized strategies to diversify the employment base and pursue large-scale employers such as Caterpillar and Herbalife, which have been induced to expand in Winston-Salem through incentives.

But they’ve demonstrated a lack of consensus on more novel strategies such as exploring options for a Gigabit high-speed fiber optic citywide network and pursuing regional development projects.

Councilman James Taylor Jr., who represents the Southeast Ward, argued for working with the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce on incentives to retain local companies to third place over the high-speed network and the regional development approach, prompting pushback from Mayor Joines.

“See, I would disagree with that because I think we’ve got an opportunity to create a mega-site for a major economic development effort that would be a huge economic impact on our city,” Taylor said. “So, I’d put that way ahead of the Gigabit initiative.”

Regional economic development can be a hard sell in a city that retains a parochial reluctance to collaborate with its larger neighbor to the east, Greensboro. Forsyth County lacks a tract of land large enough to accommodate an auto manufacturer — the Holy Grail of economic development efforts.

“There’s land in Davidson County and there’s a tract over in Randolph County that’s been worked on,” Joines said later. “So an auto manufacturing plan would be a game-changer for the entire region.”

East Ward Councilman Derwin Montgomery advocated for the high-speed fiber optic network. He said high-speed internet has yet to be installed across Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, part of his ward.

“Particularly when you think about the Center for Design Innovation on that bottom end [of the park], with the type of work that they’re going to be doing on that end, that type of infrastructure is a necessity,” he said. “And I think for those type of companies it’s incumbent upon us to have the infrastructure in place so that we can support them.”

City council has, since at least the late 1990s, made downtown revitalization a priority. They ranked support for Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, which received city assistance to finance a new parking deck, as their primary strategy. Considering improvements to off-street parking, assisting in the implementation of a Downtown Business Improvement District, helping the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership with retail and commercial recruitment and developing Merschel Plaza received lesser rankings, in that order.

Southwest Ward Councilman Dan Besse, the strongest voice on council for transitioning out of an auto-based paradigm, found himself outnumbered on the issue of off-street parking. West Ward Councilman Robert Clark wants to add parking spaces, particularly near the Downtown Arts District. Besse argued that the city’s parking decks remain underutilized.

“If you look at the aggregate level of the number of spaces, I think you come to the conclusion that it’s underutilized,” Joines said, “but unfortunately it’s not exactly where you would want them to be.”

Northwest Ward Councilman Jeff MacIntosh argued for deemphasizing parking.

“I was in New York over the holidays driving around for an hour looking for a parking spot,” he said. “People want to be there. It’s more of a demand thing. If we can address the demand side, the parking situation to a degree takes care of itself.”

Public safety

In the city’s efforts to expand community policing, council members gave some of their highest marks to the strategy of enhancing youth and gang prevention outreach. City Manager Lee Garrity said the city has been attempting to address gang activity for about four or five years, but some council members indicated they don’t have a clear picture of what the police are doing.

“I don’t see the inputs and outputs the way that we might think that this is happening,” North Ward Councilwoman Denise D. Adams said. “You know, it looks good on paper.”

She added that she would like to see a detailed analysis of what types of crimes young people are committing and get a sense of how existing programs correlate with outcomes.

To reduce crime and the fear of crime, council members embraced several measures. At the top of their list is the vague measure of enhancing crime reduction strategies, followed by renovating the Public Safety Center for a new crime lab, implementing new technologies, and reviewing staffing and deployment plans.

Taylor, who chairs the public safety committee, pleaded with his colleagues for decentralization, a strategy that received low marks on average and reflected a lack of consensus. He argued that establishing district police stations would help the city achieve the other objectives.

“I believe this is the single most way to reduce crime and fear of crime by having police in the neighborhoods,” he said.

Some council members said they didn’t score certain strategies because they were unfamiliar with the details. Based on the discussion at the Jan. 27 session, they will re-score the strategies and staff will tabulate the new results to see if any priorities have shifted.

Council members gave mid-range scores — ranging from 3 to 4 out of a maximum of 5 — for three strategies for enhancing fire prevention. But Besse suggested they take a new look at the third-ranked strategy of considering a stove-top fire suppressor ordinance. The staff plans to bring forward the proposal for council’s consideration this month.

Fire Chief Antony Farmer described the device as resembling a can of tuna.

“It’s basically a can that you can place under a cook range up under the vent hood,” he said. “It attaches with a magnet and basically it’s filled with a suppressant or a powder. Once it gets hot enough and the heat activates it, it basically disburses or dispenses a product onto whatever’s burning. It also makes a sound so that anyone in the house would be alerted that, ‘Oops, I forgot that I left my food or whatever cooking.’ Typically, when we get to a fire the damage has gone well beyond the cook-top range and that immediate area, so this would keep it there.”

Farmer said unattended cooking fires are the leading cause of residential house fires.

The city could either require stove-top fire suppressors — with sets costing about $60 — retroactively in all residences or limit the requirement to new construction. Garrity said that new construction, which would be the least expensive to regulate, is not where the city has the biggest problem with kitchen fires.

“The chief and I talked about could we come up with some other strategies, get some grant funding for our high-rises and low-income housing where we typically see the unattended cooking fires,” he said.

Transportation

Towards the objective of improving the city’s integrated road network, council members prioritized the strategy of working with the NC Department of Transportation to complete improvements to Business 40, which will close for repairs. The closure of a portion of the expressway near downtown is currently scheduled for early 2017. Some council members questioned whether the city’s input makes any difference in how the state agency handles the project, but Assistant City Manager Greg Turner indicated that the city will have an opportunity to influence the state’s decisions on ramp closures. Curiously, the strategy of increasing the road-surfacing program ranked fifth out of seven.

Clark, who chairs the finance committee, reiterated an earlier commitment to support funding in a bond referendum this year to pay for road resurfacing. Adams and Taylor applauded that sentiment.

“My people send me to City Hall to fight to improve on our roads,” Taylor said.

Council members are also considering strategies to expand bicycle infrastructure, sidewalks and greenways. They weighted each of those categories relatively equally.

“James’ people sent him to do roads,” MacIntosh said, who represents the relatively affluent Northwest Ward. “My people sent me here to do greenways. I knocked on a whole bunch of doors running for office, and it was one of the most consistent things I heard: ‘We want this. We value this. We pay more money for a house because it’s close and has access to [a greenway].’ So when people pay more money for houses our tax income goes up, so it’s an economic impact.”

Comments by council members on prospects for improving conditions for cyclists suggest the city remains stuck in an auto-dependent paradigm. The existing roadway network is so hostile to cyclists that many prospective riders can hardly imagine a different future.

“More people want to ride bikes, but they’re not going to ride bikes in the street,” Adams said. “Even though you got some bikers, they’re gonna do that, but as people become more seasoned…’they’re not going to ride their bikes on the streets.

“The bike lanes in the street are good for the people who do that, but I’m one of those people who don’t do that,” she added. “I’m one of those people who ride on the sidewalk or any area where I feel safe.”

Montgomery, who represents one of the more economically challenged wards, suggested greenways and bike lanes —’a relatively inexpensive enhancement — are a luxury to his constituents.

“I think a neighborhood would want a sidewalk before they get a bike lane or a greenway,” he said. “I think those are secondary even though it’s tied on this list.”

Clark put a damper on the notion that the city might embark on an aggressive program of sidewalk construction. He said about half of the city’s roughly thousand miles of roadway are without sidewalks, estimating that it would cost about $60 million or $70 million to close the gap, while the city currently funds about $1 million in construction per year.

“There’s an economic reality there,” he said.

Rankings by council members on public transit indicate a consensus for improving the city’s bus system rather than embarking on transformative projects such as a proposed Urban Circulator or renovating Union Station, which could serve as a future commuter rail hub.

Besse, the strongest proponent of the Urban Circulator urged his colleagues to update plans so that the city will be ready to take advantage of future funding opportunities.

“If you look at the Urban Circulator and you look at the number in other cities, there is nothing that you could do in the area of transportation that would be more transformative to our economy than the circulator,” he said. “But we’re not going to get the funding from other levels of government at this time. Our big opportunity for that funding in recent times was three to five years ago. When the money was there, if we had a plan in place we could have reached out and grabbed it.”

Historic resources

Council members split over assisting Old Salem, a living history museum that commemorates the city’s Moravian heritage, with road and sidewalk repair, and even with operating capital. South Ward Councilwoman Molly Leight, whose ward includes the museum, made the strongest case, joined by Clark and MacIntosh. She received pushback from Adams and Montgomery.

Montgomery questioned how the city could provide operating assistance to one organization and not to others. Adams argued for assistance in rehabilitating the two African-American cemeteries that are respectively located in her and Montgomery’s wards.

“For years Old Salem has been able to survive and continue to survive, but me, when I look at things like the Odd Fellows Cemetery and Happy Hill Cemetery, where people that lived and helped Winston-Salem become what it is, whether it was Old Salem or Winston, I think we have a responsibility to help those,” Adams said. “That’s an honored, holy ground, something we should never let fall into disrepair.”

Leight made the case that the city should prioritize support for Old Salem.

“I certainly support the rehabilitation of the historic cemeteries, but with the Old Salem infrastructure and operating assistance, we’re talking about the biggest draw to the city —’worth $50 million.”

Clark argued that Old Salem is “our number-one economic development engine in this town.”

MacIntosh similarly argued for support for Old Salem on economic grounds.

“Anytime we can find anything in the city that generates more revenue than we give it, that’s a good business proposition,” he said. “And I do think there are clouds on the horizon. Their business model is being challenged. If we lost Old Salem as an institution the impact to everybody would be significant and horrific.”

Adams fired back.

“If they’re bringing in millions of dollars, that’s good — they should,” she said. “They got money. They can go to private investors, just like the Milton Rhodes gallery, as we talked about with the Stevens Center. I still believe there is disparity in how we spend money on economic projects. There are more projects and communities that need help than Old Salem. If it’s the cobblestone rows and sidewalks they’ve got, they [are] okay. We need sidewalks in other parts of the community that don’t even and never had a sidewalk.”

Environment

Council members appear to be paralyzed between the competing imperatives of curbing urban sprawl and protecting neighborhood character.

“You kind of need to know what the policies are on infill development before you know if you like them or not,” Clark said. “I will tell you: If you look at the zoning changes that we vote on infill, I would say it’s probably less than 50 percent of the time we vote to do it. It sounds great to everybody until you actually see the projects.”

Leight captured the schizophrenia of the council in comments about infill that varied according to the rubric under which it was considered — first under housing, then the environment.

“We do have ordinances, codes, whatever about compatibility,” she said. “Those decisions are good. Yes, infill is good, but if it looks like a sore thumb in an area, then no, it’s bad.”

Later, she said, “To protect farmland, which we do need to do because we’re going to have to feed ourselves, and adopt policies for infill, those are essentially saying the same thing.”

The session gave council members an opportunity to refine their understanding of some concepts they might have previously been a bit rusty on.

Montgomery initially said he wasn’t sure if he could support incentives for green building, indicating he thought they were monetarily based. With the help of staff, Joines informed Montgomery that, rather, incentives for green building projects typically involve relaxing development regulations on requirements such as parking.

Towards the objective of developing comprehensive solid waste strategies, council members ranked the strategy of automating trash collection the highest and exploring options for a regional landfill the lowest. (Take note, Greensboro.) The city of Winston-Salem operates a landfill within its corporate limits, while it’s neighbor to the east ships its solid waste to a private landfill 70 miles away in Montgomery County. The city of Greensboro has pursued a regional solid waste solution, so far without success.

On a different topic, Clark said he was chagrined to discover the city of Greensboro’s leaf-collection trucks parked while the sanitation department in Winston-Salem continues to labor at the job.

“This afternoon, driving home, Greensboro’s leaf trucks are parked; they’re done,” he said. “I still have leaves in my yard. We will not have leaves picked up by the end of January.

“I’d suggest they do some kind of best practices [analysis],” Clark added. “How can they finish weeks ahead of us?”

Neighborhoods

Assistant City Manager Derwick Paige said staff intends to bring a report before council this month on a proposed initiative for strategic neighborhood reinvestment. He characterized the proposed initiative as the residential equivalent of the city’s Revitalizing Urban Commercial Areas program. That effort has achieved some successes, most notably with the Southeast Plaza shopping center owned by Que Pasa publisher Jose Isasi, but has stumbled with the Ogburn Station, in which city staff acknowledged the project stalled in part because a lack of city oversight.

“We’re looking at levels of blight in certain neighborhoods and trying to figure out a way to enhance private investment in those areas, leverage public investment with nonprofits in those areas,” Paige said of the residential counterpart. “We’ll probably start with four pilots.”

Council members also discussed parks, agreeing that neighborhood recreation centers need to update their programming and customize their offerings according to the needs of specific communities.

Council members expressed strong support for a strategy to combat poverty by promoting workforce development, but there was little discussion on that point.

Joines announced plans to launch an anti-poverty initiative shortly after his reelection. After the meeting he said he has held preliminary conversations with staff at United Way of Forsyth County, the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem and Forsyth Futures, but is not ready to launch the initiative. He added that rather than add new programs the effort might focus on coordinating existing ones more effectively.

Adams picked up on the theme in remarks about the dearth of grocery stores serving poor areas of the city.

“We have a problem with trying to help grocery stores locate to the inner city,” she said. “Most of us in the four wards that have most of the urban core that are low-income, I know I have two grocery stores in the North Ward. Most of us might have one or two. And that’s unacceptable when we have to leave our communities and go to other areas of town, drive or catch a bus, to go get food. I think we as a city can do better on this.”

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