Revitalization plan for historically black neighborhood awaits Cornelius City Council | WFAE 90.7

Ron Potts has lived most of his life in the Cornelius neighborhood of Smithville. Except when he was away in college and his early adult years, Smithville has been Potts’ home.

“When I came back to Cornelius, what I noticed was how much Cornelius himself had thrived. But Smithville had deteriorated,” Potts said. “Absolutely deteriorated.”

In the eyes of many of its residents, Smithville — which is largely black — has seen its fair share of neglect.

It took until 1972 for the town of Cornelius to actually annex the area despite years of pressure from Smithville residents. City officials cited the community’s lack of a strong tax base as a reason for not bringing the community within the city limits.

Lisa Mayhew-Jones, chair of the board of the Smithville CommUnity Coalition, thinks it wasn’t the strength of their tax base that kept them away from the city. Instead, Mayhew-Jones says it was racism.

“You know, it happened when segregation was still legal. So, you know, if you go back and look at civil rights legislation, what is it, a year and a half, no more than two years right after it was passed,” Mayhew Jones said. “It’s not a big mystery.

But even after being brought into the city limits, many Smithville residents feel like the city hasn’t really invested in their neighborhood.

“We’ve been so marginalized and held down,” said lifelong Smithville resident Vannessa Ramseur. “The money went all over town except to this community, which is part of the town of Cornelius.”

But, Cornelius Town board members will vote on June 20 to pave the way for a new — potentially brighter — future for Smithville.

With an influx of funds from the US federal bailout, Deputy Chief Executive Wayne
Herron says there is an opportunity to redevelop the community while retaining its historic character.

“They seek to preserve history through the preservation of architecture,” Herron said. “I think there are plans and ways to preserve the history and add workforce housing and change the look of the neighborhood. And you can do it together.

But for some residents, the question is, does the plan for Smithville or does the plan pursue the interests of a city that historically has failed to focus on their interests?

A plan with local roots

The Smithville CommUnity Coalition is an organization that began in 1968. It was originally founded before the annexation of Smithville, at a time when residents could not rely on Cornelius and instead had to rely on each other. others.

At that time, they attempted to offer some of the services the city would not offer, such as opening a community center or installing streetlights.

Pott’s father, Wilson Potts, was an original member of the coalition. In 2011, the Smithville Community Coalition was reformed. Like his father, Ron Potts is now a member of the coalition.

“We brought it back to revitalize and make Smithville a great place to live and to keep it affordable,” Potts said.

A Cornelius community group told city commissioners on Monday it needed financial support from the city and county of Mecklenburg to complete an $11 million redevelopment project in the historically black neighborhood of Smithville.

Smithville is getting old. Many of its residents are in their 60s or older, said Willie Jones – the architect of the revitalization plan. Additionally, some residents died, leaving a hole in the community.

Because of this, Potts wants to see the community live, which requires bringing in new residents.

New life. Young people in the community. Make it appealing,” Potts said. “There is rust in Smithville. What if we could turn the tide with new structures? Absolutely, we want it. We want it to be a place where we can say we’re proud to be a part of it.

The Smithville Coalition designed the Smithville Revitalization Plan to provide a new framework for redevelopment of the neighborhood while seeking to preserve its important history as a black neighborhood.

So we try to create a neighborhood of workers, but also of workers who work in environments where diversity is the norm,” Jones said. “The end plan is to create a neighborhood where newcomers appreciate diversity and respect the history of a place like Smithville.”

On June 20, Cornelius City Council will vote on whether to approve the Smithville Revitalization Redevelopment Plan.

This land use plan offers a vision of how Smithville could be redeveloped while keeping housing affordable and within reach for current and former residents, Jones said.

The land use plan for the Smithville Revitalization Plan will be voted on Monday. Willie Jones, who spearheaded the plan, says the Smithville CommUnity Coalition wants to begin by developing many properties on the right, starting with single-family homes on South Hill Street and condominiums on Nannie Potts Lane.

The land use plan calls for the addition of new residential units in the Smithville area. It would add a mix of new single-family homes, townhouses, apartment buildings, communal green space and new commercial properties. It would also include an expansion of 205 new residential units. In total, the area would have 260 units.

Some of these properties would be developed on unowned or unoccupied land. Others would be previously occupied homes that would be acquired for new development, Jones said.

But the redevelopment plan is completely voluntary, meaning the city won’t evict anyone from their home against their will.

“An individual might say, ‘OK, I’m a certain age, I don’t want to maintain my garden. I would love to move on to something where things are made for me,” Herron said. “Well, they can sell their house to a developer or to the coalition. The coalition will develop it or find someone to develop it.”

The redevelopment plan provides incentives for developers who choose to build in accordance with city goals for an area.

For example, current zoning policies in Cornelius would only allow a developer to build single family homes in Smithville. But now, if a developer builds under Smithville’s revitalization plan, they could potentially build a townhouse or multi-unit apartment building and receive money from the city to help subsidize the cost of development.

But the catch is that this developer would then have to meet specific requirements.

In the Smithville Revitalization Plan, a developer would be mandated to maintain affordable housing and prioritize tenants like current and former Smithville residents and city employees. The redevelopment plan is part of the Mayor of Cornelius’ Workforce Housing Plan.

“One of the problems we have at Cornelius is the fact that 85% of the people who work at Cornelius can’t afford to live here,” Mayor Woody Washam said. “It’s not acceptable to me. This is not acceptable to my council. What we are talking about is not acceptable to this committee.

The city has already earmarked $3 million for the Smithville project in its upcoming budget, Herron said.

To advance

At a June 7 briefing, many Smithville residents took issue with the amount of money the city provided for the project, which was also exacerbated by the city’s historic failure to invest in Smithville.

The Smithville Community Coalition asked for $12 million to start, but the city and county only offered a fraction. And Ramseur thinks that shows them the city still isn’t ready to invest in Smithville’s needs.

“It’s in the air for five, six men and a mayor of the town of Cornelius to say, ‘Oh, Smithfield Community, you’re gonna stay like you’re stagnating. We are not going to allow these funds to provide you with basic needs: infrastructure, water, sewage, basic things that are necessary to live.

Ramseur notes that the Smithville CommuUnity Coalition has been working on this plan for years. The only thing stopping them is money from their government partners.

“If we get those funds that the Smithfield Coalition has asked for, then we’ll start to get to where we are,” Ramseur said. “This money is not Cornelius’ money. It was donated to the city to distribute where needed. And there is definitely a need in the Smithville community.

But Herron said — even if he didn’t meet the full funding level requested by the Smithville Community Coalition — it gave them enough to get things started.

“It’s common to phase in and, you know, ‘Let’s take that first $3 million. Let’s see what we can do with that,” Herron said. “And then once we get that project done, let’s get back to the table and see if we can do another amount.”

The total cost of the project is around $70 million, Jones said. And that $12 million figure represents a lot of things that you can’t get loans or private investment for, like improving roads or removing lead pipes.

But he still thinks the coalition will be able to find a way to find the funding.

We think, you know, we’re going to get to the number we need,” Jones said. “It’s just going to be more circuitous and more time-consuming.”

Additionally, Jones acknowledges that the risk of doing nothing will lead to gentrification, evicting families who have lived in Smithville their entire lives. Because of this, they will try to make the revitalization plan work.

Gentrification and displacement happen quickly if we don’t intervene on behalf of the people,” Jones said.

But there has also been traction within the nonprofit sector, with United Way contributing funding and pending bills in the state legislature that would provide money for the Smithville project.

But ultimately, the results – the preservation of the community – matter to the people who live there.

What concerns me is that once these people die. Their descendants do not live here. They’re going to sell those properties to the highest bidder,” Potts said. “And then what will happen to us who want to stay here? Can we age in place?

Corrected: June 17, 2022 at 2:27 p.m. EDT

– A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the number of units included in the Smithville revitalization plan. It’s 205 units, not 155 units.
– The names of Deputy Director Wayne Herron and Mayor Woody Washam were incorrect in the previous version.
-Cornelius was erroneously mentioned as a city. Cornelius is a city, not a city.

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