OPINION piece by Celia Stone and NOT a faith column
Here is Town Manager David Hodgkin’s vision statement for Farmville as published in the Daily Reflector on March 29, 2020: “’Only Good Things Happen in Farmville.’” While this may sound overly optimistic to some, Farmville has plenty going for it and we are busting at the seams with good news. In the last several years, Farmville has seen a flood of new business activity, especially in the downtown area. Almost every storefront in the downtown area is filled and business is booming.
In the last several years we have seen new restaurants, retail businesses, and service businesses established, and business is brisk. The newest businesses, an independent pharmacy and a hardware store, are due to open very soon. Downtown has also become an arts, education, and entertainment area boasting the East Carolina Artspace art gallery, the DeVisconti Events Center with indoor and outdoor meeting and entertainment venues, the Farmville Arts Council which is housed in the historic Paramount Theatre, the East Carolina GlasStation, and the Pitt Community College Farmville Center campus.
The new Farmville Public Library under construction will provide 17,000 square feet of traditional library functional space, meeting space, makers space and a genealogy room. The town has invested heavily in the downtown area through direct grants to building owners for façade improvements, renovation of vacant buildings, and restoration of historic building features.
Public investment in these programs has leveraged private investment at a rate of 10 times the original public investment, making this effort a true economic development success story. Along with creating an economically viable downtown area, the town has invested heavily in new facilities. Plans are in the works for the relocation of the Farmville Fire Department to a facility better suited for modern emergency response.
We recently completed a Comprehensive Parks and Recreation Master Plan to address the community’s recreation needs for the next five plus years. Approximately 100 acres of land on the north end of Farmville has been acquired and an 18-hole tournament-ready disc golf course has been constructed. A fishing pond has been established adjacent to the disc golf course and the beginning segment of a greenway trail system has been established in the area as well. Renovations are underway on the existing Farmville Community Center that houses several recreational programs for all ages and a partnership with Pitt County Schools to expand recreational offerings, summer day camps and athletic camps augmenting the traditional year-round athletic program offerings.
One of the best ways to build a community atmosphere is to offer more and varied community events. The Farmville Public Library, in partnership with the May Museum, offers a monthly Coffee and History series. The Parks and Recreation Department, in partnership with the public library and the police department, offers a nighttime family friendly outdoor movie series in the summer and at Christmas. Other programs include the Farmville 5K Road Race in May, and Easter Egg Hunt, community fun days at town parks, a summer Main Street concert, a monthly agricultural and crafts market on the grounds of the May Museum, the annual tree lighting and the Taste of Farmville event sponsored by the Farmville Chamber of Commerce at Christmas. Last but not least is the annual Dogwood Festival which stretches for four days at the end of April. This popular event has been going strong for more than 30 years and brings people to Farmville from far and wide. I hope you can see that truly, good things are really happening in Farmville.”
There is no doubt that good things happen in Farmville. In fact, many great things happen in Farmville. The May Museum, Farmville Community Arts Council and Farmville Public Library staff and volunteers work tirelessly to bring a wonderful variety of events and educational opportunities to the public. The Chamber of Commerce always does a bang-up job with the Taste of Farmville which ends up looking like a scene straight from Currier and Ives. The annual Christmas Parade, Hometown Halloween and Dogwood Festival are carefully planned events drawing large crowds. Main Street and Wilson Street are busier these days, indeed. It is a big plus that Bonnie’s Café has reopened and that a new hardware store has arrived to replace the former one. In small-town USA it is not a given that a closed storefront on Main Street will become occupied once again. It takes a concerted effort to attract new businesses. My hat goes off to the many people who are making such a positive difference in Farmville. There are a significant number of much-improved buildings and new businesses. Many churches work together in this town. Farmville United at the Cross, Farmville Benevolent Ministries, the Community Outreach Soup Kitchen, the Lost Sheep Resource Foundation and the H.B. Sugg Community Childcare Center are just a few of the terrific ministries here.
Of course, in advertising, the positives of any product or place are highlighted or even exaggerated. We get it that as a general rule, in order to sell something, we are not going to bring up its negatives. While we understand using positive spin for PR and marketing, some of us prefer avoiding statements that are demonstrably false. There is one place where only good things happen and that is heaven. Even in the most beautiful and equitable places on earth, where elected officials are determined to be incredibly wise and conscientious with taxpayer money, bad things happen. Such is life.
In 2019 Farmville commissioners voted unanimously to take out a $5M loan to demolish and rebuild a large, modern library while for years the town’s Community Center has been neglected, resulting in many unsightly and possibly dangerous areas. The Senior Center access has no connecting sidewalks or cut-out curbing for seniors with walkers or wheelchairs. The door there for many months, if not years, has been broken and in need of replacement. It is heavy and slams shut on you in a dangerous way. The tiles on parts of the kitchen floor have been coming up since at least 2017 and the kitchen walls have big patches of peeling paint. There seem to be promises of coming repairs almost constantly and a slow trickle of improvements, interspersed as public attention is drawn. With the lack of timely repairs would these seniors say that only good things happen in Farmville?
Our fire department and volunteers have been commenting for years that the newer fire trucks require taller bays than we currently have on Main Street. Their new station was supposed to be a top priority. Somehow, the new library proposal was brought up later, but the library was demolished and construction started earlier. How will the Town pay back the $5M library loan while building the needed fire station? To date grants, donations and fundraisers have raised close to $600K. Is this the wisest expenditure of taxpayer money, given that some of the most popular items at the library are mobile hot spot devices that can be checked out to provide wireless internet access in private homes? Could Farmville have been more frugal with the library improvements and invested in a municipal wireless network, at least in and close to downtown, to provide free internet to those who don’t have it? Especially during this unpredicted pandemic, internet access would have helped with students and the months of remote learning that now will be a reality. If the new fire station project suffers due to lack of financial resources after our $5M library loan, will our fire department say that only good things happen in Farmville?
During the last local election, four candidates were invited and agreed to participate in a candidates’ rally held at a private business on Main Street. The ones on the ballot but not invited to the rally were the only two minority candidates. These same four approved a flyer, paid for by a private individual, that was sent only to the two postal routes north of the railroad tracks. This ad said that these four were the “serious” candidates and insinuated that any other votes would result in steps backwards for our town. Would most residents south of the railroad track say that in this instance only good things happen in Farmville?
I would like to add to Mr. Hodgkins’ statement that one of the best ways to build community atmosphere is for Town Hall to act with as much transparency as possible and to demonstrate clearly that every town resident receives the same consideration regardless of personal connections or wealth. When elected officials change opinions, they should own up to what they said previously, admit that things worked out differently than they originally planned and allow us all to move on. Without this, trust will not be built.
The Town of Farmville is exceedingly fortunate that Don Edwards showed up on the scene virtually out of nowhere with the proposal to buy the former Farmville Hardware building. The building and parking lot (three parcels) had been purchased by Saferod LLC (Leonard Safrit) for $115K in April 2010 and very few improvements ever were made. The Farmville Group approached commissioners with a plan that included the Town purchasing the three parcels, demolishing the hardware building and making a very attractive parking lot in its place. The Town of Farmville had the three parcels appraised July 28, 2015 and the resulting figure was $161K. The document says, “It is the appraiser’s understanding that the subject parcels are to be demolished and converted to a municipal parking lot.” Commissioners Moore and Dixon in closed session repeatedly stated that tearing down the building in order to replace it with a parking lot was key to the growth of downtown Farmville. In September 2015 the commissioners voted 4-1 to purchase the three parcels for $175K, with Commissioner Richard Hicks in opposition. In notes from the August 12, 2015 meeting between David Hodgkins and Leonard Safrit, Safrit wanted “to be made whole on what he has invested in the property – original purchase price plus future contributions to assist Rod [Lancaster] in his business.” This quote explained why the owner, Leonard Safrit, wanted $14K over the appraised value of the three parcels. He wanted to be able to help Rod Lancaster, the hardware store manager, in his future business. After the purchase, a large group of concerned citizens organized, asking the Town not to proceed with the demolition plan. The commissioners eventually responded by deciding that the Town would keep the parking lot parcel and put the remaining two parcels up for bid at a start of $188,500. In other words, they would ask $13,500 more for two parcels than they paid a few months previously for three parcels. According to the appraisal these two parcels would have been worth approximately $140K or about $150K if you subtracted the parking lot value from the $175K purchase price. Predictably, no one made a bid of $188,500 or $38K-$48K above their value. Like a gift dropping out of the sky, developer Don Edwards saw a Daily Reflector article stating that the former Farmville Hardware site did not sell. It was the first he had heard of the iconic building being for sale. With much experience in preservation in Uptown Greenville, Edwards looked into Farmville’s situation, had some interaction with Preservation NC and came to a Town Board meeting to state his proposal to purchase the hardware building. A group of over 600 residents, property owners and local businesspeople signed an ad to be placed in The Enterprise, urging our commissioners to accept a low bid for the two parcels if Edwards would agree to put over $1M into its historic preservation. The night of the next Board meeting, the commissioners voted unanimously to accept the $1,100 high bid of a sitting commissioner to purchase the former Elks Lodge building (currently Lanoca Coffee Company) on Main Street, surplus property owned by the Town and slated for demolition. This demonstrated that the Board was willing to accept even an extremely low bid for surplus property. Eventually, the Board agreed to sell the two Farmville Hardware parcels to Edwards for almost exactly what the town paid for them, or $150K. The town would keep the $20k-$25k parking lot parcel. A group of concerned citizens stepped in to donate towards the $150K purchase price since Edwards made it clear that he did not intend to pay the appraised value of the building or the town’s higher asking price since he planned to invest so much money in its preservation.
It looks like Edwards’ tab will amount to well over $1.5M. None of us can take credit for his private investment, although we sure are grateful for it. That anchor corner is looking amazing and we owe him a debt of gratitude. Claims that the hardware building was not purchased by the Town for demolition are patently and provably false.
During conversations of the future of the Farmville Hardware building it was publicly and repeatedly brought before the Town Board that we could pave and line the town-owned parking lot next to Farmville Furniture, since parking on that part of Main Street was a desperate need. No comment ever was given after these citizen presentations, but within 24 months that parking lot was put up for bid at a start of $10K. When this was publicly questioned, since the Town had paid $18K for that lot and was supposedly in dire straits for downtown parking, the starting bid was upped to $20K.
That transaction, the trade for the current fire station and the trade for the use of the temporary library all bring up important questions about transparency. Why does the Town not simply pay an exact amount for the sale or rent of a piece of property? Why muddy the waters with trades or partial trades? Farmville’s commissioners voted unanimously to spend $340K for the development of a parking lot and a parking area at the old train depot in exchange for rent through the spring of 2021. The town manager told me of an “expectation” that $40K in private donations will materialize. Depending on the time occupied, this adds up to anywhere between $20K and $24K per month for rent of the temporary library space. Why couldn’t this transaction and others be more straightforward? Why would the commissioners enter into this agreement when they did not know the projected cost of developing the parking area/lot? Would they act this way with their personal finances? It was nice of the train depot owner to offer its parking spaces for public use during non-event hours, but this area is too far removed from Main Street to help much with alleviating downtown parking issues.
Good things happen in Farmville. Great things happen in Farmville. The best things would happen in Farmville with a commitment to transparent dealings with taxpayer money. The best things would happen if we resolved to proceed with town projects based mostly on the priority of needs and the number of residents who would benefit directly and regularly as opposed to the connections of those who propose or would gain from the projects. We are doing well but we could do even better.