By David Rogers. February 15, 2020. BLOWING ROCK, NC – If a majority of Blowing Rock’s Board of Commissioners – in this case, Sue Sweeting, Virginia Powell, and Doug Matheson — aimed to disrespect one of the Town’s major constituent interests and to insult the intelligence of independent onlookers familiar with an important and timely community issue, then they achieved their objective at Tuesday night’s meeting of Town Council.
Worse still, in their callous dismissal (by 3-2 vote) of the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce proposal for a gateway at the intersection of Valley Blvd. and Sunset Drive – without so much as a look-see – that same majority of the Board of Commissioners continues to demonstrate dysfunctional behavior that is not in the best interest of the town. We must again caution the members of Town Council that, however well-intentioned they think themselves, wheeling and dealing behind closed doors toward what should be publicly aired decisions resulting from publicly aired discussions is not in keeping with modern standards for transparency in government.
It is also important to note that what that same majority did approve Tuesday night was an INCOMPLETE plan that did not address the questions and concerns of all affected constituent interests. During Tuesday’s presentation, the Parks & Rec Landscape Specialist, Chris Pate, explained that the plans for the Glenwood Office Condominium side of Sunset could not be completed because of utility-related poles and other fixtures that had yet to be removed. Pate told the Council that the Glenwood side “would look very similar” to the service station side. In our view, until those plans are actually fleshed out the vision for the intersection is incomplete. You have to ask and even challenge the members of Town Council: What’s the rush to approve incomplete plans?
Beyond their injurious attitudes toward the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce initiatives, the Board of Commissioners might as well have been buying a pig in a poke by approving an incomplete proposal. In short, they should have delayed any decision about the Parks & Recreation proposal until complete plans became available. Whether or not the Chamber’s vision was acceptable, you can bet that their plans were comprehensive, detailed, and complete – and it only serves to add insult to injury when the majority of commissioners vote in favor of plans they have not fully seen. Question: if the Chamber-contracted designer can offer plans for the Glenwood side, why can’t the alternative plans do the same? They are dealing with the same topography and the same circumstances.
How can a majority of commissioners justify approving incomplete plans?
Keep in mind that we are not being critical of Landscape Specialist Chris Pate or Parks & Recreation Director Jennifer Brown. They do great work and are, frankly, treasures to the Town of Blowing Rock in their respective roles. They simply complete any assigned tasks at the direction of the Town Manager and we hate it that they were caught in the middle of this firestorm.
It bears pointing out that what the majority of the Board of Commissioners railroaded through on Tuesday night is NOT a conceptual plan for a gateway into downtown Blowing Rock. Rather, it is a landscaping beautification project that does not achieve, in our opinion, what so many in town have been aiming toward to support Blowing Rock’s downtown business community — especially with the widening of Valley Blvd. enabling passers-by to just whiz on by. That a gateway is needed was reinforced in a survey of people passing through town who stopped at the visitor center. With the welcome signs on the north and south ends of town, most respondents thought that what was along Valley Blvd. was the extent of Blowing Rock, much like travelers on U.S. 321 through Lenoir don’t realize there is an historic and redeveloped downtown just a mile or so to the west.
The recent completion of repairs to Sunset Drive’s buckled sidewalks, broken asphalt, potholes, and other traffic hazards was long overdue. The project was completed within budget and on time. Everyone seems to be in agreement: driving up and down Sunset Dr. is no longer akin to driving in a Third World country.
But did it go far enough?
Longtime readers of Blowing Rock News will recall that, in 2014, we penned a story about an Appalachian State University graduate-level course that, as a class project, designed a multi-faceted “gateway” concept for at least the three primary entrances to downtown Blowing Rock. And, by the way, we found in the TDA minutes from a budget work session on April 28, 2015, that the estimated cost of the App State gateway concept at Sunset and Valley Blvd., at that time, was $517,000, as reported by then Town Manager Scott Fogleman.
And that class project was just the end of the beginning. This whole concept of a gateway really had its roots in the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce because two of that organization’s board members, architect Steven Price and landscape architect Jim Pitts collaborated as instructive contributors for the App State class.
Apparently in 2014, the commissioners embraced the gateway concept because they picked up the ball and ran with it.
As reported in the minutes of a special joint meeting of the Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners and the Blowing Rock Appearance Advisory Commission on May 8, 2014, the course’s instructor was Dr. Terrence Milstead, Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at App State. The class project was formally identified as a “Town Gateway & Wayfinding Study,” with six graduate students performing the work. The minutes of this meeting go on to say that a Powerpoint presentation by the team “…showed renderings of plans for the entrances into Blowing Rock located at Sunset Dr. (and Valley Blvd.) and the southern and northern boundaries of town (along U.S. 321).”
Attending this special meeting were then sitting commissioners Albert Yount, Dan Phillips, Sue Sweeting, Doug Matheson and Ray Pickett. BRAAC board members in attendance were Alice Roess, Bo Henderson, and Melissa Pickett. And the audience for the presentation also included Fogleman, Planning Director Kevin Rothrock, Parks & Rec Director Jennifer Brown, Landscape Specialist Chris Pate, EMS Director Kent Graham, and then Town Clerk Sharon Greene.
According to the minutes, Council members thanked the team for their “great job” on the gateway concept.
We mention all of this for perspective’s sake. Many of the names participating in that meeting are still either on Town staff or on the Board of Commissioners today.
Apparently, the Commissioners (which included three of the current board members in Yount, Sweeting and Matheson) embraced the gateway concept. In fact, both the TDA and the commissioners were so enthused about the idea that they picked up the Chamber’s ball and ran with it.
We could not find in any of the Town Council’s 2016 or 2017 meeting minutes at what point the then sitting Board of Commissioners publicly approved paying Destination by Design and another outside consultant more than $38,000, but the Boone-based firm was hired to draw up conceptual plans of a design for the entire Sunset Dr. streetscape improvements, its renovation and repairs. The firm laid out the project in three sections — and the bottom section of those plans specifically featured an iconic gateway structure at Sunset’s intersection with Valley Blvd.
That’s when the then-sitting Board of Commissioners put the proverbial cart before the horse.
According to Destination by Design (DBD) principal Eric Woolridge, who spoke with Blowing Rock News by telephone on Wednesday, the DBD team presented their first conceptual design to the Council members at the January 2017 Annual Retreat in Asheville. It was generally well-received, he said, but the commissioners asked for certain modifications. Those were incorporated into redrafted conceptual design alternatives presented to the public for the first time at the May 9, 2017, Town Council meeting. Woolridge stated that at no time during or before their contracted work was there any guidance from the Commissioners regarding available budget resources for the eventual project.
As newly elected Commissioner David Harwood observed to Blowing Rock News in our pre-election, ONE on ONE interview published on October 23, 2019, that’s where the then sitting Town Council “…put the cart before the horse.” The design team should have been informed about budget constraints. That is what good planners do.
The Destination by Design team did admirable work and they did exactly what they were asked to do. Their design alternatives were beautiful, detailed, functional, and creative. But the streetscape makeover’s price tag was too much for the Board of Commissioners to swallow and in 2017 they abandoned the DBD plans, kicking the can of Sunset Drive renovations and repair even further down the road as they regrouped and reconsidered their goals vs. available resources.
Again, we point this timeline out for the sake of perspective.
Everyone needs to remember that the recently completed work on Sunset was born of a significantly scaled-down conceptual plan. By the end of 2018, constituents were getting anxious about the delays and voicing their frustrations about conditions on Sunset Drive. One resident quipped to Blowing Rock News before the construction project finally started last year that “…Sunset might soon become a donkey track with potholes the size of meteorite craters. I half expect that we’ll find bandidos hiding behind every cactus.” He was, of course, referencing the evolving Third World conditions.
As a result of these kinds of public sentiments, the Commissioners were in panic mode to get SOMETHING done by the time came for the January 2019 retreat, in Asheville.
So, in response to the then-current and previous Board of Commissioners kicking the proverbial can down the road for far too long, early last year the Board voted to approve a more modest and much less expensive design by McGill Associates, the Town’s engineering firm. Gone was the under-grounding of utilities. Gone were the pavers. Gone was an effort to really dress up the lower section east of Ransom St. with a planted median. And gone was any notion for a “gateway” at Sunset Drive’s intersection with Valley Blvd., which was one of the key features of the Destination by Design conceptual plan.
There is a difference between a gateway and a beautification project.
But, That’s Important!
It is important to understand the difference between a gateway into downtown and a simpler beautification project that Tuesday night’s majority of commissioners approved. A beautification project may be nice for the pedestrian crowd to stroll around on landscaped terraces among flower beds and shrubbery. Maybe to even read a book sprawled out in the grass on a lazy summer afternoon.
But that is not a gateway. A gateway includes a more iconic vision, perhaps even a structure that by its very existence beckons drivers to turn up Sunset Dr. and visit downtown. As they speed by on Valley Blvd. at 40-50 miles per hour, the gateway gets their attention and says, “Hey, you ought to turn here because this gateway suggests something truly special lies beyond. You REALLY need to visit and experience downtown Blowing Rock.”
If the Board of Commissioners had picked up the Chamber’s original gateway ball and ran with it in hiring Destination by Design, they dropped the ball, even kicked it away when the budget considerations became known and real.
It was only a matter of months, if not weeks after the gateway was abandoned by Town Council that various members of the Blowing Rock business community began work on reviving the gateway to downtown concept as a public-private project with potentially significant amounts of private funding to go along with previously committed contributions from the Tourism Development Authority (TDA). The TDA had originally planned to contribute $400,000 specifically for the gateway development and had already paid into the Town fund $300,000 when the Board abandoned the gateway concept. The Commissioners had used $38,415 for Destination by Design and an outside consultant, so that leaves a little more than $261,000 sitting on the Town books, unspent and waiting for a purpose.
Enter the Chamber of Commerce to pick up and recover the abandoned gateway ball in a collaborative effort with the Village Foundation.
There’s no need for you to present because you don’t have enough votes.
We have not seen the Chamber-led plans but understand that they are comprehensive and detailed. They are COMPLETE and worthy of consideration and a public airing. According to a recounting of the timeline by Chamber CEO Charles Hardin to Blowing Rock News, each of the Board of Commissioners members were individually shown the early conceptual ideas for feedback last September and October. None of them have seen the final drafts. The design work, as well as the redesign work was contracted and paid for by the Chamber and Village Foundation at no cost to the Town.
Hardin stated that the plans were generally well-received during the individual presentations, but each commissioner had a variety of ideas or tweaks. The Chamber took the feedback and incorporated many of the ideas or concerns into a second draft document. That revision, paid for again by the Chamber, was to be presented at the December 10th meeting for everyone to see, but at the 11th hour the Chamber team was contacted and told that it was virtually pointless for them to present “…because you don’t have enough votes.” (We’ll have more to say about that later in this editorial).
Hardin explained to Blowing Rock News in a telephone interview on Thursday that they heeded the suggestion to take their presentation off the December agenda, but “…in no way did we withdraw our proposal entirely. We understood that we would have an opportunity to address any concerns, make yet another revision, and present our plan to the Council, as well as to the public, and soon.”
Cutting to the Chase
We have several concerns, as well as questions about the events of Tuesday night’s hasty Board decision to adopt the Parks & Recreation beautification plan without consideration or even a public viewing of the Chamber’s gateway plan.
- Assuming that it is true that the Chamber principals were told before the December meeting that “you don’t have enough votes” so might as well not present, in what public forum that is supposed to be a Town Council meeting did such voting occur? What three or more commissioners are getting together outside of the regular meeting and making town decisions out of the public view? The State of North Carolina’s “Sunshine Laws” forbid that. Instead of a formal balloting, it may have been someone’s “straw poll,” but the outcome is the same. De facto “votes” were counted outside of an open meeting.
- We’ve read the Town Council minutes going back more than even the past two years and there is no indication that a public decision was made with all commissioners present for Town staff to develop a beautification alternative. In a telephone conversation on Friday, Town Manager Shane Fox explained that one of the commissioners had requested that town staff draw up some alternative plans, “…then a couple more commissioners called to support that idea.” So, since he was preparing the agenda items for the January retreat, Fox said that he asked Brown and Pate to come up with some rough ideas but told them, “…there is no need to spend a lot of time on it.” Sounds reasonable enough, but QUESTION: If three council members outside of a public town council meeting requested that staff be directed to come up with an alternative design, did the other two commissioners at least get a chance to weigh in on such a decision, expressing their opinions and viewpoints, even if they might have been outvoted? QUESTION: Do three commissioners communicating back and forth with one another by telephone or email run contrary to the limitations imposed by North Carolina’s “Sunshine” laws? Of course, we can make a good guess as to which three commissioners got together to promote the idea of a staff-created plan…
- After Mr. Pate presented his ideas for the beautification project that share similar design elements at different points in town, Commissioner David Harwood thanked Pate for his efforts and ideas, then offered, “In fairness to the Chamber, we should push ‘Pause’ on any decision (about the Parks & Rec plan) to give the Chamber an opportunity to present their plan publicly.” Commissioner Powell responded that she had seen the Chamber’s plan (back in September), then quickly moved (seconded by Sweeting) to embrace the Town staff’s plan. In fact, she may have seen the Chamber’s first draft back in September, before they incorporated changes based on feedback in two subsequent revisions, but Powell misrepresented herself because she had not actually seen the Chamber’s revised and updated plans.
- Commissioner Sweeting mysteriously rationalized dismissing the Chamber’s plan by first saying that she had seen the proposal when, like Powell, she had not seen the modified presentation. Then she further perplexed onlookers by advancing a notion that the Chamber wanted “full ownership” of the TDA monies – when the Town would, in fact, be “owning” (and benefiting from) a finished gateway. Just like the Parks & Rec proposal, the Chamber plan proposed offsetting a portion of the gateway development expenses with monies already budgeted for that purpose through TDA contributions. Either way, it is the TDA’s money and ultimately the Town’s project.
- Sweeting also misrepresented the cost of the Chamber plan when she stated that the staff’s proposal to spend $200,000 “…is easier to swallow than the (Chamber’s) $700,000 to $825,000.” The estimates we have heard for the Chamber gateway is closer to half those amounts. The TDA money would be used and at least a portion if not all of the balance, if needed, would be provided by privately raised funds. Even the Blowing Rock Civic Association letter to its members on January 19, 2020, represented that the proposed Chamber plan is $400,000. How and why Sweeting doubles that figure is a mystery.
- In spite of the fact that Harwood pointed out to Powell, Sweeting, and Matheson that what they had seen in September and October of the Chamber’s proposal had been substantially revised, and that the modified plan deserved a public airing, the three ignored the fact that they were ill-informed and pressed on. We echo Harwood’s observations and the articulated question: why the haste?
- During Mr. Pate’s presentation, he took great care to show illustrations of what his design would look like from the service station property on the northwest corner of the intersection, both before and after. Except for Commissioner Matheson’s close relationship with the service station owners, why has there been so much attention to the interests of the service station owner(s) and less attention to the interest of the other affected property and business owners? We appreciate that the service station has a long history in Blowing Rock and would be directly impacted by any modifications, just as would the Glenwood complex, but the service station is no more important than the enterprises of other affected business owners – including those further up Sunset Dr. who would likely benefit from a gateway-type improvement, properly designed and executed to protect the interests of all, including the service station.
- The alarming bias toward the sole interests of the service station owner(s) became glaringly clear Tuesday night when family representative Kim Hartley was asked by Powell to go to the podium and microphone to comment on the Parks & Recreation beautification proposal as it pertains to the service station. Given that there will be equal impact from any completed project on the Glenwood Office Condominiums across Sunset Dr. from the service station, why was not a similar request made of Pam Vines, a principal of Jenkins Realtors who serves on the Glenwood board of directors and was sitting in the audience Tuesday night?
- During Mr. Pate’s presentation, we heard him say that among the steps to be taken in his proposal would be to beautify the landscaping and foundations of the large “Welcome to Blowing Rock” signs that, more than ironically, were purchased by and are maintained by the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce. We have to ask: before advancing this alternative proposal, has the Town discussed those modification plans with the Chamber, what they might look like and how their signage assets would be incorporated or used? Mr. Hardin tells us, “No, not yet.”
- Left out of the discussion Tuesday night was the fact that the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) owns the right of way on which the Chamber’s gateway or the Parks & Rec beautification project would be developed. Representing the Chamber, Hardin stated to Blowing Rock News that the very first call they made to discuss their plan was to Mike Pettyjohn, chief engineer for NCDOT in this region. Did anyone from the Town contact the property owner for their beautification project? If not, then their plans are incomplete because there may be design elements that are inconsistent with NCDOT practices, policies or needs.
Because next time elections come around voters will know which commissioners to hold responsible for a potential lost opportunity.
Without making a public record request for the email accounts of Sue Sweeting, Virginia Powell, and Doug Matheson, we speculate that two or more of them actively communicated with one another about a prospective decision before Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting, as well as before the January retreat in requesting the alternative plan. Their actions and their statements Tuesday night suggest that they had made a predetermined decision to approve the Parks & Recreation proposal, even if not yet complete, without even seeing the revised Chamber proposal. If true, it is yet another violation of North Carolina’s “Sunshine Laws” that demand transparency in government at all levels within the state.
Another final point has to be made: when a community interest group like the Chamber of Commerce offers a significant investment in a public-private partnership for a town improvement (at little or no added expense to taxpayers), the Town’s voting and even non-voting public deserve an opportunity to see that proposal. That way, the next time elections come around the voters know which commissioners to hold responsible for a potential lost opportunity.
New Commissioner David Harwood, as well as re-elected Commissioner Albert Yount deserve a commendation for their defense of the Chamber’s opportunity to present, even when it became obvious early on that the other three had already made up their minds. Harwood was elected by a veritable landslide last November because a great many Blowing Rock voters are fed up with a Board of Commissioners that is dysfunctional. The same majority that railroaded to passage the Tuesday night decision is also the same majority that rewarded Sweeting with the Mayor Pro Tem position at the December meeting, even though last year she clearly violated ethical standards of representative government, if not the law itself.
Tuesday night, both Harwood and Yount demonstrated intelligence and sensitivity about the players and the processes on this issue. We can’t say the same for the other three commissioners.