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Smithville Residents Push County To Pay For Redevelopment

Most speakers at Thursday night's public hearing on the Mecklenburg County budget came to praise the plan. But a half-dozen speakers from Cornelius pushed for something that wasn't included - money to redevelop the historically black Smithville neighborhood.

Smithville is a neighborhood in decline near downtown Cornelius. Founded by people who had been enslaved, it went decades without basic services such as water and sewer. In recent years, a neighborhood group called the Smithville Community Coalition has been plotting how to revitalize the area.  

The coalition had asked County Manager Dena Diorio for $3 million in this year's budget to buy about 16 acres of vacant land and begin a 155-unit redevelopment that would include affordable housing and a community center in an old Rosenwald School.

When the budget came out last week, the money wasn't there. So several dozen residents came to the public hearing to renew their pleas.  

"We're here now to argue the case that Smithville is in trouble," said Willie Jones, who sits on the Smithville Community Coalition board. "We're fighting for our life. We're fighting against gentrification and displacement. Without your assistance, we will not have a Smithville in the future."

Longtime resident Lisa Mayhew-Jones said the coalition's redevelopment plan would "prevent displacement of all current occupying residents. It gives our seniors options to age in place, or age in a neighborhood with affordable senior rentals.

"Smithville will become a mixed-income, mixed-tenure neighborhood that will honor our history as a historically African American community," she added.

Resident Ron Potts said he was born and raised in Smithville, when it was an unincorporated area of the county. "Smithville was redlined and isolated," he said, including no running water or sewer service. That led to deterioration even as a newer, wealthier Cornelius grew up around it.

Cornelius Town Commissioner Denis Bilodeau said, "Smithville's very important to Cornelius, and we don't want to see it go away."  The project, he said, would allow older long-time residents to stay in the community.

Bilodeau told county commissioners that the neighborhood is organized and ready to push for the change, but they can't do it without the county's help.


The manager's proposed budget does include about $22 million for affordable housing, including $11 million to set up a new rental subsidy program and $1 million for home repairs.

A county spokesman said Friday the Smithville project wasn't entirely left out. The budget has $250,000 to pay for a consultant to help the neighborhood continue planning.  

Smithville residents say they'll keep pushing for more than that.

To Willie Jones, it's in part about righting a historic wrong. He said Friday: "Public resources were not invested in Smithville. The lack of public investment has been a major contributor to the depressed values that exist in Smithville. We don't think you're going to make that up and allow the current residents to continue to live there without some form of public investment."

"Had they made that public investment in an ongoing way, we wouldn't need $3 million now," he added.

The county commission is scheduled to vote on the budget June 4.

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.