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Nash official presses downtown renewal

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Shown here is a vacant storefront on Tuesday in downtown Rocky Mount.

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BY WILLIAM F. WEST
Staff Writer

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A longtime Nash County elected official earlier this week wanted to know from Rocky Mount’s top day-to-day official whether the municipal government can speed up revitalization of the city’s once-proud central business district.

During the Rotary Club of Rocky Mount’s luncheon on Monday, county Commissioner Fred Belfield asked City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney about the part of the city along the rail line between the Rocky Mount Event Center and the Helen P. Gay Rocky Mount Historic Train Station. With some exceptions, that part is lined with numerous vacant or abandoned storefronts.

Belfield said while he understands there is a Central City Revitalization Panel focusing on the heart of Rocky Mount, he believes revitalization is quite important to helping improve the city’s image. Belfield, who was first elected a commissioner in 1998, noted he has been speaking about the subject ever since he has been on the board.

Belfield spoke of conductors aboard Amtrak trains telling Maine-to-Florida vacationers of Rocky Mount being the next stop — and of the passengers looking through the windows and seeing that area as their image of the city.

While making clear he knows the situation did not happen overnight, Belfield asked Small-Toney whether there is any kind of way to move improvement of that area along.

And Belfield noted, “Some of those properties are owned by people that don’t even live here.”

Small-Toney moments earlier had given a presentation with harrowing statistics about the state of housing in the city and what is being done to improve the situation.

Belfield raised the downtown revitalization matter near the end of the question-and-answer phase of the Rotary luncheon.

Small-Toney told Belfield there are many ways she could respond to his question, but she said certainly a vibrant downtown has always included housing, particularly on the second floors above first-floor shops.

“You’re absolutely correct,” Small-Toney told Belfield. “It didn’t happen overnight, but I can assure you that the city and all of its development partners are interested in improving the image of the downtown.

“There are a number of projects that are underway, some you have heard about, some that you haven’t.”

She said the municipal government is not trying to be secretive, but she said oftentimes in development, a government is under an order “if you will” not to disclose information.

Then, directing her remarks at a Telegram reporter covering the luncheon, she said she wanted to make clear the municipal government is as transparent as can possibly be.

“Sometimes, it’s the process that restricts what can be said and when it can be said,” Small-Toney told the audience.

Small-Toney also told the audience that the revitalization of downtown, along with housing, are certainly quite important to the viability of Rocky Mount and that whatever happens in the city is going to affect the surrounding communities and the Twin Counties.

She said while things may be working well in one part of the region, fairly soon the other part is going to catch up, too.

“So I think for us, it’s important to look at it as a whole, as opposed to just this neighborhood or this section of this city or this county or whatever,” she said. “So I advocate for a regional approach to this issue, even though I’m here speaking on behalf of the city and the City Council’s policy (on housing) and the staff’s work on that policy.”

As for the matter of transparency, Rocky Mount’s government, with Small-Toney as manager, has a strict protocol about journalists’ access to news-related information.

Specifically, the Telegram’s questions about municipal business — and routine requests for comments from department heads and senior-level staff — have to be submitted in advance to the city’s Communications and Marketing Department.

By contrast, the managers of other key local governments in the Twin Counties — Nash County’s Zee Lamb, Nashville’s Randy Lansing, Edgecombe County’s Eric Evans and Tarboro’s Troy Lewis — are readily reachable and speak freely in person when the Telegram seeks information from them.

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