Sparta Streetscape: Neither For Nor Against

On Monday, April 22, a joint session of the Sparta Town Commissioners and Alleghany County Commissioners was held for the purpose of allowing public comment concerning the upcoming Sparta Streetscape (and Waterline) municipal project, especially concerning how the project should be financed.

I attended this meeting and was the first citizen to speak during the public comment section of the meeting.

Here is the transcript of what I said, which consists mostly questions for stakeholders in the project.

“My name is Ben Erlandson.

[**I’ve omitted the statement about my street address]

I was born in Elkin, North Carolina, and my father and I built a home here at the base of Bullhead Mountain in the mid-1990s.  

I’ve spent most of my life in the mountains and forests of Alleghany County.

It is my permanent home.

We are engaging in an interesting municipal project with long-term implications for success and failure of economies and communities in the Town of Sparta and Alleghany County—within a much larger GLOBAL context.

Considering the ties to economic development for the Streetscape project communicated by the Chamber of Commerce, the Town of Sparta, and Alleghany County leaders, should we not also consider this Waterline and Streetscape project to be a business venture?

If so, let’s consider Alleghany and Sparta resident and nonresident taxpayers to be de facto investors in this venture.

Either way, I’ve got a few questions.

How will we know that this Streetscape project is successful?

What are the current definitions of success for this project?

What does failure look like for this project?

Which organizations and individuals will be held accountable for the failures of this project?

How will they be held accountable, and by whom, and to what end?

What sort of recourse will taxpayers have in the event of project failure?

What happens if and when taxes need to be raised again for additional phases of the streetscape project?

What happens when there is a surplus and we no longer need the tax dollars to pay for the streetscape, will taxes be LOWERED again?

How are we planning to enforce the economic goals of the streetscape project?

Who has the authority to enforce these goals?

For example: what happens if a successful business that doesn’t fit the tourism-centric Streetscape model takes up space in the streetscape environment and refuses to leave?

[** due to the three-minute time limit per speaker, I decided at the moment to skip this next statement and did not say it aloud:

OR – What about a rogue group or individual wanting to add elements to the Streetscape plan such as trees or benches or monuments creating an extra maintenance burden on town and county employees and annual budgets?

** but it should be known that Barbara Halsey has already instigated one of these rogue endeavors, attempting to force the town and county to add trees back into the Streetscape plan despite the logical reasons for removing them from the plan.  Ms. Halsey spoke openly about this endeavor at this meeting on April 22, after announcing her intentions to force the trees back into the plan during the Information Session held at the Sparta Methodist Church on Tuesday, April 9.]

Who will regulate these rogue endeavors, and how?

I certainly have many more questions.

As I mentioned before, this is the sort of project that can garner national attention for its successes and its failures.

All stakeholders involved in this long term project should be excited that we are interested, we are fascinated, we are observing, and we are reporting.

I look forward to an ongoing open discussion about the successes and failures of this project.

Thank you!”

Knowing that I’d have a three-minute time limit for my remarks—despite the fact that several of the people at the meeting went well over their time limit, with what appeared to be no effort at agenda/rules enforcement from anyone running the meeting—I trimmed the above comments down from a much longer set of remarks.  I’d like to include some of these remarks in this blog post, in order to generate more discussion about the ongoing implementation of this and future phases of the Sparta Streetscape Project.

I do not intend to take sides on this issue. I think one of the worst things that can happen to any long term project is for its stakeholders to take sides with a “for or against” mentality.

My goal is to illuminate the complicated relationships between the many different perspectives to be held on this multi-faceted long term series of projects to help navigate an equitable way forward, in service of current and future residents of Alleghany County and the Town of Sparta.

Regarding the successes and failures of the Sparta Streetscape project:

Which aspects and elements of the project will we be measuring in order to make appropriate assessment decisions as we evaluate the successes and failures of this project (both during its construction and after its completion) regarding the economic development and economic vitality of the town of Sparta and Alleghany County?

Regarding communication about the Sparta Streetscape project:

What kind of transparency will be provided regarding the progress, successes, and failures of this project over time?

Will the thousands of residents investing in this venture have access to public quarterly progress reports, written in layman’s terms?

Will we have quarterly or semi-annual “town hall” style meetings in each township?

Will these communications run in two directions?

Will town and county officials listen openly to citizens whenever concerns are voiced, whenever questions are asked?

Will town and county officials provide open, transparent responses to these questions, and will clear connections be made between these citizen concerns and questions and the resulting actions taken by town and county officials?

Regarding economic development and the Sparta Streetscape project (or “economic vitality” as the Chamber of Commerce prefers to call it):

How do the non-essential streetscape elements (such as the new stoplight) tie directly into Workforce Development, Youth Retention, Healthcare, Infrastructure, Agriculture, Tourism, Small Business Development, and Business Recruitment—which are the Eight Issues of economic development identified in the Alleghany Strategic Economic Development Plan for 2015-2020?

What are the specific benefits of these Town of Sparta Streetscape tie-ins to the Eight Issues of the Economic Development Plan, and how, specifically, do they benefit the thousands of residents of Alleghany County?

 

Erlandson For Alleghany County Commissioner

My name is Ben Erlandson, and I am running as an independent write-in candidate for Alleghany County Commissioner in the 2018 general election.  I believe we can build a reasonable future for Alleghany County and its citizens as part of the Appalachian Mountains and the New River Basin.

Let’s Respect the Past and Consider the Future.

As the first step in this process, I need to gather signatures to submit to the Alleghany County Board of Elections to ensure that my write-in candidacy is officially recognized—so all votes cast for me in the general election will be officially counted.

But first, let me introduce myself and tell you a little bit about why I want to be an Alleghany County Commissioner.

I was born in 1979 and grew up in Elkin, NC, just down the road from Sparta.  I spent most of my childhood and teenage years walking and camping in the forests and mountains of Alleghany County, from Stone Mountain to Doughton Park.  We are so lucky to have these wilderness areas in our backyard.

In the mid-1990s, my father and I finished out a modular home at the base of Bullhead Mountain, in Glade Valley, NC, where I now live.

I am quite proud to be a product of the North Carolina public school system: Elkin Primary School, North Elkin Middle School, and Elkin High School.  Even for college, I went to a public university: UNC-Asheville.

I am a photographer, a brewer, a gardener, a naturalist, a writer, and a professional educator living in this beautiful land we all call home.  Over the course of my life experiences, I have come to realize that I am passionate about supporting the following issues in my local and regional communities:

Healthy Communities

Education and Lifelong Learning

Arts, Craftsmanship, and Creativity

Local Economies

Sustainable Agriculture

Social Justice

Environmental Stewardship

Natural Wonder

I will write more about each of these things in future posts.

SO!  You may be wondering…

Why am I running for a seat on the Board of Commissioners?

Well, as an Alleghany County Commissioner, I would like to achieve three major goals with our communities during and beyond a four-year term:

Reasoned progress

Evidence-based problem solutions

Open communication and participation

For each major issue the county faces, I believe we can work together for reasoned progress by establishing measurable outcomes to define and track the successes and failures of any program funded by the county.  If we don’t have data to know how well a program is working over time, then how do we know if it is working or not—and if that county money was well spent?

If we use measurable outcomes, we can begin to implement evidence-based problem solutions for all of the critical issues facing our communities.  We can evaluate and assess these outcomes over time to know which direction to take with the solutions we establish.

Do we keep funding the solution from one year to the next?  Do we change the solution? Do we throw it out altogether?  Do we work with the organization implementing the solution to help them find additional sources of funding?

Finally, as an educator and technology systems designer, I firmly believe in communication and participation.  Open communication and collaborative participation across our communities is a requirement if we are to have any chance of building and maintaining a reasonable future for the current and future citizens of Alleghany County.

Can any one of us predict or define what that reasonable future looks like?

Absolutely not. We’ve got to work together to build it, and we’ve got to continue working together to keep it.

Should I be elected, here is what I will bring to the table of the Alleghany County Board of Commissioners:

Local effort and elbow grease

Critical thinking and common sense

A “big picture” perspective

Global experience and expertise

A passion for life and simplicity

Concern for all of our communities

As I mentioned, the first step is to collect enough signatures from registered Alleghany County voters and submit them to the Alleghany County Board of Elections before the deadline.  As we get down to the wire, I’ll keep you posted.

Please connect with me via email or send me a message through the Erlandson for Alleghany Facebook page, and I will find a way to ensure that you can sign the official petition form.  We can meet at the Blue Ridge Business Development Center (next to the Alleghany County Library) or I can meet you in a place that is convenient for you.

Also, petition forms are available to sign at two other locations in downtown Sparta:

Becca’s Backwoods Bean – 21 N Main St, Sparta, NC 28675 (map)

Journey Wellness Studio – 81 W Doughton Street, Sparta, NC 28675 (web)

Thank you for taking the time to read my introduction to my platform for reasoned progress in Alleghany County.

I look forward to the opportunity to serve you as a public official!

Please feel free to get in touch with me if you have any questions or concerns.

Let’s work together to build a reasoned future for Alleghany County!

Stay tuned for updates. 🙂

Timespace: Early December Snow

Early December snow fell on Alleghany County, North Carolina.  We got about six or eight inches, with deeper drifts in the usual spots.  Of course, as a photographer, as the flakes start to fall, and it becomes apparent that we’re going to get some serious accumulation that will stick around for a while, I start thinking about the best spots to shoot, and how to get there before they’re disturbed, especially by other humans.

And I start checking the weather forecast to figure out when and where the light and snowscapes are going to be best, thanks to clouds, wind, and all those intricately interwoven variables we just can’t know.

December 9th, 02017

My father and I started on the Blue Ridge Parkway at the gate near Mahogany Rock Road, at the base of Bullhead Mountain.  Technically, I can easily hike here from the house, but I wanted to save some time and get to some good spots while the conditions were good — and potentially before anyone else got there.

Continue reading Timespace: Early December Snow

Creative Concepts: Ecological Experiential Documentation

As I continue to travel the world—and spend more time exploring my own big backyard right here in North Carolina—I’ve come to realize that I can apply my academic training, professional experience, intelligence, and creative abilities in a combined effort over the next few decades to produce what I think and believe will be experiential documents worth consuming as materials for lifelong learning and understanding.  I am conceptualizing an ongoing series of experiential documentation, taking appropriate form over time as ebooks, print books, magazines, interactive apps, websites, and perhaps even videos.

This concept first came to me when I was looking at a map of the United States and thinking about the difference between national parks and national monuments.  Based on my personal experience onsite at various national monuments, coupled with my research and perusal of the maps of these monuments and the surrounding areas, I realized that I would love to commit to exploring and documenting a sense of place in each of these areas—demonstrating their importance as sacred spaces for maintaining the natural order of our relationship with the environment and all other species with which we share it.

So, to put a stake in the ground, I created a map of all the US National Monuments.  (Yes, there is at least one that does not appear in the image.)

Map of United States National Monuments
Map of United States National Monuments

Inspired by my recent trip to Helsinki, which included a stay at the hostel on Suomenlinna, I decided to add UNESCO World Heritage sites to the map.  I figured it would be interesting to see how many UNESCO sites in North America are within reasonable proximity to US National Monuments, thus allowing me to combine several locations into exploratory experiential documentation journeys of 1-3 months in duration.

Continue reading Creative Concepts: Ecological Experiential Documentation

Building Rental In Downtown Elkin

205 South Bridge Street

Welcome to 205 South Bridge Street in Elkin, North Carolina.  We’re actively seeking rental tenants for the building.

The building at 205 South Bridge is situated at the primary entrance to downtown Elkin—one of the few places to cross the Yadkin River between Yadkin and Surry Counties.  There are approximately 10,000 cars per day that cross this bridge.

With two business partners, I bought the property in early 2015 to renovate and use as local Elkin offices for the remote work we’ve done through various national and international employers and contracts.  We’ve done quite a bit to transform the inside and outside of the building and grounds, including a complete overhaul of the north suite into tech-friendly offices, as well as the addition of a large patio on the east side of the building, a new storage shed on the northeast corner of the building, a sidewalk and terraced garden on the south slope of the property, and several garden boxes and landscaped flower beds on the west side of the building near South Bridge Street, which is also US Highway 21 Business.

We’re finishing the renovations to the building by the end of 2017, with the goal to be rent-ready in mid-January 2018.

Continue reading Building Rental In Downtown Elkin