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.
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?