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Facade grant program to begin

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BY LINDELL JOHN KAY
Staff Writer

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Downtown Rocky Mount property owners will soon be able to receive $5,000 from the city to spruce up storefronts.

"We don't want to put lipstick on a pig," said Councilwoman Chris Miller, in explaining it's important buildings be structurally sound as well as having an attractive facade.

The dictionary defines a facade as the face of a building, especially the principal front that looks onto a street or open space and an outward appearance that is maintained to conceal a less pleasant reality.

Rocky Mount's new facade grant program concentrates mainly on the front appearance of a building, but there are provisions that recipient buildings be sound structurally.

There's $50,000 in the budget earmarked for the Community and Business Development Department that isn't expected to be spent in the remainder of this fiscal year, said City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney.

The fiscal year ends on June 30. The $50,000 is enough for 10 buildings.

City Business Manager Kevin Harris said he knows they will have more interest than funds, but more money should be available at the start of the next fiscal year.

The City Council, when conceiving of the grant program at its recent retreat, wanted the grants to be available as soon as possible.

The grant roll-out will be on April 1 or sooner, Harris told the council earlier this week during its committee of the whole meeting.

Harris said city staff would make sure any facade changes don't fly in the face of historical preservation.

The grant application is one page long in hopes of expediting the process. Included on that one page is a requirement for a detailed scope of work and permitting involved.

Small-Toney said the grant is the carrot and code enforcement is the stick. She said the council's desire for increased enforcement will put the teeth where it needs to be.

Development Services Director Will Deaton explained the enforcement plan Wednesday to the Telegram.

"We currently have a Demolition by Neglect Ordinance in Article V of the City Code. Under NCGS 160A-400.14, a municipality may adopt an ordinance to 'prevent the demolition by neglect of any designated landmark or any building or structure within an established historic district,'" Deaton said. "Upon further direction from council, we may choose to utilize our current ordinance as defined for buildings in the Central City Local Historic District or make modifications as the original ordinance was established in 2009. The Central City Historic District is currently the only area where procedures and requirements for the repair or elimination of decaying and deteriorating buildings can occur using the demolition by neglect ordinance.”

Chapter 11 is the city's Housing Code, which provides requirements for regulations for the repair or elimination of unfit and unsafe housing conditions, Deaton said.

"Council has asked us to look at ways to expand code enforcement to address commercial properties and structures," Deaton said. "It is our recommendation that we add a section to the code or modify existing language to address the regulation of nonresidential buildings and structures to better define the scope and expand enforcement efforts throughout the city and ETJ."

Mayor Pro Tem Tom Rogers brought up the possibility of conflicts of interest with the facade grant because the topic has been raised in the community about council members who own downtown property.

City Attorney Jep Rose said, according to N.C. General Statute 14.234, city council members or their spouses can't receive any direct financial benefit from a contract with the city, and the grant is pretty close to a contract.

Coincilman Andre Knight said neither he or any family member has ever received a grant for property they owned or to buy property.

Knight said if he or his family members decided to receive a grant, they shouldn't be excluded because they are taxpayers.

Councilman Reuben Blackwell said if a council member is taxed and charged for utilities then it seems like discrimination to say they can't receive such a grant.

Rose said elected officials loose some rights afforded to others, for instance council members can't sell insurance.

Harris asked about properties being leased out by council members and Rose said the same conflict could apply since the owner of a property gets the benefit of the improvements.

"It sounds like a legal issue, but I can tell you we won't be running trying to get $5,000," Blackwell said. "I can vote for it with clear conscience."

Blackwell said he and Knight didn't advocate for the grant program so they could enrich themselves.

"We have a right to have businesses ourselves," Blackwell said. "We're American citizens and we're capitalists."

Conflict of interest is more likely when there are limited funds, but if funds are available to everyone — in this case downtown property owners — then there wouldn't be a conflict, Rose said.

The council was presented with a 200-signature petition circulated by downtown real estate investor Ben Braddock in support of the facade grants and code enforcement.

"We believe that the proposed $5,000 non-matching Facade Grant could provide quick assistance to buildings in need of new windows, doors, fresh painting, roof repairs, etc. This could be extremely beneficial to not only the appearance of downtown Rocky Mount, but the economic growth of the area," the petition reads in part.

The petition contends enforcing commercial codes increases public safety, lifts property values, establishes a positive image and supports long-term vision.

Speaking during public comment at Monday's regular meeting Lige Daughtridge, candidate for Ward 5, said he signed the petition. However, he'd like to see the grants be reimbursements and shouldn't be awarded to any property owner who owes back property taxes.

Knight owed a small amount in back property taxes on two downtown properties. He paid those taxes Wednesday after questions from the Telegram about the situation.

Knight said the unpaid taxes were an oversight. He also said withholding the facade grant based on property taxes is ridiculous.

Knight asked: "If someone owes $40 in taxes and it's stopping them from getting $5,000, what do you think they are going to do?"

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