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SCC responds to Thurman Ross opinion piece

March 29. By Willie Jones. [Opinion] As Executive Director of the Smithville Community Coalition (SCC), I was dismayed at the Opinion piece in Cornelius Today on March 6, 2023, by Thurman Ross. He has a right to his  opinion. But we should distinguish his opinion from facts. A writer can say anything in an  opinion piece without fear of fact-checking. The SCC Board of Directors has reviewed Mr. Ross’  allegations and believes there is no merit to the multiple allegations. This is the last time we  expect to defend the SCC’s work in a forum without accountability.  

Perhaps Mr. Ross is trying to resurrect his political career by grabbing a headline. He first  presented the list of grievances at our February SCC community meeting, claiming that residents  feel their voices are not being heard. So, we ask which residents have yet to be heard and what  those residents would do differently? 

The SCC has been working on this plan since 2017. We had more than 20 community meetings  where we solicited input from community residents. We even did a door-to-door survey of all  homeowners in Smithville, and around 90% of the homeowners supported the plan and the  request to the County and the Town. The Plan is an anti-gentrification, anti-displacement, and  redevelopment plan. We sought resources that would allow residents to continue to age in place  safely. We also wanted resources to end the flooding from stormwater runoff damaging homes.  Last, we want to repopulate the neighborhood by providing housing opportunities to the people  working to improve our families’ lives.  

The bright red line separating Mr. Ross and the SCC is whether a neighborhood, segregated,  capital-starved, and redlined for a century, should seek funds to mitigate the impact of the  disparate treatment. Smithville owners have been taxed for a century but did not receive tax  revenue benefits. Mr. Ross believes disparate treatment is warranted and appropriate.  

Now to the second question. What elements of Mr. Ross’s plan should we listen to or adopt?  Oops! I forgot! He does not have a plan. Since the SCC started this effort to create a program in  2017, no alternative has been proposed. We still do not know what he would do differently. So  far, he has clearly stated two objectives: (1) keep Smithville isolated and unconnected to  Cornelius, and (2) stop purchasing vacant lots and blighted structures in Smithville. The net  effect of those combined objectives is to leave Smithville as it is, a segregated enclave in  Cornelius where the land is undervalued and a target for speculators.  

Since signing our contract with the County in September 2022, the SCC has concentrated  resources on the following.  

  1. Negotiated a contract with the County to purchase blighted land and buildings.  2. We opened a new office on Catawba Ave.  
  2. We have hired three new staff in addition to the Executive Director.  
  3. We received approval from Planning Board and Town Board for the revitalization plan.  5. SCC has selected a development team to implement the first building phase  homeownership component.  
  4. The town of Cornelius agreed to do $3 million in infrastructure repairs and upgrades in  Smithville.  
  5. SCC has the first phase of land under purchase agreements.  
  6. The single-family homes in Phase 1 are designed and priced by our design professional and  builder.  
  7. SCC has identified replacement housing for relocating families whose homes will be  demolished. Once homes are built, these residents will have the first right to return to the  site.  

10.SCC has identified a contractor and will demolish the three vacant homes we purchased by  May.  

11.SCC is partnering with Habitat to do Critical Home Repairs for nine homes in this County  budget cycle.  

12.SCC has restarted our estate planning classes and is recruiting residents.  13.We partnered with Cain Center and the Town of Cornelius to do a Black History month  program.  

14.We organized the upkeep of the Community Garden.  

Mr. Ross argues that the SCC should stop and listen to “the people.” He does not say that by  stopping, about $10 million in resources are at risk. The $10 million includes infrastructure  repairs and upgrades and eliminating lead from the public water lines. The $10 million also  provides funds to repair homes owned by low-income seniors.  

The SCC debated these issues with Mr. Ross for over two years. He was not persuasive and was  unable to win over the majority in Smithville. Since he cannot win support based on the merits of  his arguments, he turns to character assassination. Not only did he lose the debate in the  community, but he was also unable to persuade County or Town elected officials.  

We are on the clock to get all the work under contract by December 2024 and completed by  December 2026. Otherwise, $6 million goes “poof.” The SCC has listened and will continue to  listen to the residents, even the ones who disagree with the plan. If there is a disagreement, make  it concrete and not hide behind “the people.” 

The many faces of Smithville

Now let’s tackle the who. Mr. Ross provided a list with the addresses of the residents who joined  the new organization. We reviewed the list and summarized it below.  

  • There has always been a handful of people opposed to the plan. This list includes several  owners who need to clean up their property or like things the way they are for various  reasons.  
  • The Smithville Revitalization Plan does not impact any of the addresses provided by Mr.  Ross except for water and sewer repairs or replacements.  
  • One person is a renter of a house SCC purchased, and we are relocating her family because  the house is a hazard, and the issue has been resolved.  
  • Three people have been approved for the Critical Repairs Program administered in  partnership with Habitat.  
  • We know at least two residents who signed the petition because they did not want S. Hill  St. opened because of possible noise and traffic. They otherwise support the plan.  Three addresses were vacant buildings.  
  • Five addresses were vacant land.  
  • Several addresses are renters.  
  • They did not list any seniors or others who support the Plan, which is a significant majority  of the residents of Smithville.  

For decades, Mr. Ross was one of Smithville’s leaders and voice of authority. He has been  spectacularly ineffective in finding ways to bring resources to Smithville. Now that there are  some resources and momentum, he re-emerges. He spread negative opinions on support for the  plan and the people working to implement it. Now that we are making progress, he decides to  make noise and position himself as a leader protecting the poor and powerless by continuing to  starve Smithville of badly needed resources.  

Please also note that in Mr. Ross’s diatribe, he never tells the readers what he stands for or his  plan to revitalize the community. He does not propose ways to fix the problems facing his  community. He constantly whines and complains until any substance is lost. We are not listening  to him because he has no plan except to put him in charge and do what he says. Remember, this  is a man with two decades of unmemorable public service.  

Let me respond to some of their concerns:  

  • Mr. Ross advocates that we should stop and “listen to the people.” There is no shortage of  conversations between our staff and residents of Smithville. Over the past three years, we  have worked with residents to crystallize a vision for the future of Smithville and convince  the County and the Town that the image is viable if the resources can be identified.  
  • Mr. Ross criticizes the SCC for having a film on our website with only four families  speaking. The film was produced in partnership between the Cornelius Historical Society  and the SCC. We contacted approximately ten residents, and those who agreed to  participate were included.  
  • He objects to where the SCC staff members live. All three of our full-time staff have ties to  the area; two live in Cornelius, and another grew up in Smithville. Mr. Ross lived in  Smithville for 50 years or more and never found anyone with the skills to execute the  revitalization.  
  • Mr. Ross asserts that “funding was shifted. Residents are now required to use Habitat for  Humanity for critical repairs.” At no point did the SCC say that we would provide  rehabilitation services to occupied homes in Smithville; instead, the County funded Habitat  for the Critical Home Repairs program. The County increased its per-house allowance for  Smithville because of the age of the homes. The first nine homes have been selected for the  program. The SCC has no control over County or Habitat’s policies.
  • The SCC did include a $250,000 Right of First Refusal program, where we purchase that  right for $10,000. We have that program on our fundraising list and will continue to look  for a sponsor.  
  • Today, vacancies are difficult to find, yet Mr. Ross blames SCC for the tight rental market.  We must demolish three homes and will temporarily relocate those households off the site  because there are no vacancies on the site. We are committed to paying relocation expenses  for anyone who must be temporarily relocated. I cannot comment on the personal issues in  relocating a particular family, but the woman he quoted was distraught at moving. Her  house had structural damage from stormwater runoff and significant mold. The SCC  purchased the home, and it became clear that her stay was dangerous to her family;  therefore, she needed to be relocated. Whenever we own a property where residents’ safety  and health are an issue, we will try to find a home that does not compromise residents’  health or safety.  
  • As far back as 2017, there were several discussions on the boundary of the plan. We agreed  the program would focus on vacant land and blighted structures primarily south of  Catawba Ave. Mr. Ross said back then that he did not support the plan and did not want us  to include Burton Lane or North Ferry Street from the SCC plan. His home is on Burton  Lane. However, he now says Burton Lane and North Ferry Street should have been  included in the revitalization plan.  
  • Mr. Ross criticizes the SCC for not organizing classes on real estate, finance, and estate  planning basics for residents. These classes were scheduled and contracted, and the dates  had been established. The pandemic required us to pause because facilities could not be  used for meetings. Since then, we have negotiated a new agreement with the same  consultant, and those meetings are being organized now.  
  • He asserts that “college graduates and children who have gone on to successful careers”  have been denied participation in planning the future of Smithville. When the SCC  reorganized its Board of Directors last fall, the impending change was advertised, and we  called several residents to ask them if they were interested. If they completed the board  questionnaire, they were included in the final pool of candidates—no one meeting the  description Mr. Ross has provided submitted the board questionnaire. Mr. Ross identifies  two people, a business owner, and the former pastor at Union Bethel church, whom we did  not add to the board. Both applicants publicly and consistently opposed the plan. Why  would they want to join the leadership of an effort they disagreed with?  
  • The SCC is not accountable, according to Mr. Ross. We are responsible to the dozens of  residents who helped craft the plan, which is the majority in Smithville. We have worked  hard to strengthen the relationship with the Town. We have come a long way and  developed trust between the Town and SCC. We meet regularly, and Town staff are  available when we contact them. We also respond to their emails or calls within a day. We  also have maintained a good relationship with the County and expect to return to them for  additional funding in a few weeks.  
  • Mr. Ross was a Cornelius Town Commissioner for approximately 20 years. When we  asked several Smithville residents to let us know what resources he has garnered for  Smithville, we heard that he attempted to solve one of the stormwater drainage issues in  

Smithville more than ten years ago. Still, that idea died of loneliness. There was no  appropriation from the Town or County to address the acknowledged stormwater drainage  problem. In his 20 years of service, he appears to have not convinced his fellow Town  Board Members to spend any resources in Smithville. That is a description of an ineffective  leader.  

  • A little over a year ago, in a meeting that included Mr. Ross, the Board of County  Commissioners Chairman, the County Manager, the Mayor, a Town Commissioner, Town  staff, and me, Mr. Ross, was asked several times to share his plan. He refused. He did not  offer another approach for decision-makers to consider. In that meeting, we confirmed that  SCC would only displace residents for infrastructure needs. That meeting opened the door  to $3 million in County funding for Smithville and jumpstarted the discussions with the  Town for new infrastructure and upgrades in Smithville.  

The Planning Board and Town Board supported the Smithville Revitalization Plan. County and  Town resources were pledged to the plan. Our contract with the County, which funds our land  acquisition, was signed in September 2022. All current County funds must be under contract by  December 31, 2024, and entirely spent by December 31, 2026. Those are nonnegotiable statutory  deadlines. We have seen considerable progress since the contract was signed. 

Willie Jones

As for Mr. Ross, expect little from him. He is like a biennial flowering plant. He shows up to tell  a new story every two years, even if the story is the same as the last 20 years. We have heard it  all before. Just do not expect him to make a difference in your life.  

The Board of Directors of the Smithville Community Coalition has reviewed and agreed with the  contents of this statement.  

Willie Jones, executive director 

Smithville CommUnity Coalition 

Board Members:  

Jessica Boye  

Clarence Miller  

Justin Miller  

Ron Potts  

John Quinn  

Lisa Mayhew-Jones  

Ivy Harvell  

Raquel Ramseur  

Sammie Knox  

Miriam Williams