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Cornelius Group To Seek Public Money For Smithville Revitalization

Daniel Coston
The historically Black neighborhood of Smithville is facing gentrification pressures, so residents are plotting a revitalization.

A Cornelius community group told town commissioners Monday it needs financial support from the town and Mecklenburg County to carry out a proposed $11 million redevelopment of the historically Black Smithville neighborhood.

The neighborhood off Interstate 77 Exit 28 is at risk of gentrification, so the Smithville Community Coalition has developed its own revitalization plan. It calls for buying about 25 acres of vacant property; improving roads, water and sewer and other infrastructure; and building about 167 affordable housing units.

The new housing would be aimed at current and former Smithville residents as well as public employees, such as police, firefighters and teachers.

It also would help existing residents repair their homes, the coalition's Willie Jones told commissioners when he presented the plan Monday.

"The approach we're taking, it protects vulnerable, primarily low-income seniors, who have no place to go if they're displaced," Jones said. "They can continue under this plan to live in their homes, and age in place."

And there's another element, Jones said.

"This plan partially corrects the history of disparate treatment or disparate public investment," he said.

The neighborhood founded by formerly enslaved people went decades without basic services such as water and sewer, getting those long after the rest of the town. It wasn't annexed into the town of Cornelius until 1980.

But to make the plan work, Jones says the coalition will ask Mecklenburg County for $3.5 million and the town of Cornelius for $750,000, plus eight parcels of land worth about $450,000. Most of the remaining money would come from selling housing lots, according to the plan posted on the coalition's website.

Some town board members were supportive, though the lone African American board member, Thurman Ross, says he's not sure all neighborhood residents are behind the plan.

"How do you plan to build consensus within the community, especially ones going to be affected ... I guess you're going to try and acquire their land?" asked Ross, who lives and owns property in Smithville.

Jones says the coalition would have to negotiate to buy land from existing property owners, some of whom include heirs no longer living in the area. He said they've already been working with a law firm that has helped identify about half those owners and is helping to straighten out legal titles.

"We've contacted a large number of landowners. We figured out a solution to the biggest problem landowners have (and that) is a title problem. That is people died and didn't leave wills," Jones said. "Overwhelmingly, we don't think we have a problem there, because they want to sell it and can't."

He says the coalition will ask county leaders soon for money in next year's budget. If that's approved, they'll make a formal request to the town.

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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.