The late Steve Jobs is often touted as one of the great innovators of the age, but his real genius was in taking ideas from others, tweaking them, and selling them.
Jobs didn’t invent the computer mouse, smart phone or the MP3 player, for example; others came up with those ideas, but his tweaks changed everything.
Taking cues from Steve Jobs, the City of New Bern has gone into he business of taking others ideas, as well.
For example, take the Farmer’s Market.
For $1 per year, the Farmers Market was leasing city-owned land at South Front and Hancock streets coveted by developers. Everyone was happy, the Farmers Market thrived, and neighboring businesses enjoyed the extra foot traffic Farmer’s Market attracted.
Meanwhile, the city was saddled with a blighted piece of property off First Street zoned for heavy commercial use that it will never be able to sell because of decades of accumulated pollutants from the power plant that once stood there.
On a tear to unload surplus property, here was one property the city could not unload, so it sought alternatives.
City officials thought they could kill two birds with one stone. They approached Farmers Market leaders about moving to the First Street power plant property, a concept called City Market. Moving Farmer’s Market would free up city-owned land it could sell, and put to use city-owned property the city could not sell.
Farmers Market board members didn’t like the idea. They are doing well where they are and the rent they paid to the city for the property was almost nothing. Also, the present location brings in casual visitors who are downtown for other reasons.
Downtown businesses didn’t like the idea, either. They see Farmers Market as an additional attraction that fills restaurants and shops with customers on mornings when the Farmers Market is open.
At the moment, almost nobody goes to the old power plant, and other than Lawson Creek Park across the road, there is nothing else for people to do in that section of town.
It started to get ugly, as things often do when one opposes City Hall. There were veiled threats of eviction countered by a petition that gathered 15,400 signatures from people opposed to the Farmer’s Market moving.
At some point city officials realized that the Farmer’s Market had an ace up its sleeve: Although its lease with the city was about to expire, it had the option to extend it for one more year. That would have put the city in the awkward position of evicting a beloved downtown institution right in time for the 2017 municipal elections.
The city backed off. Rather than let a squabble with Farmers Market and downtown merchants drive the 2017 municipal elections, the city was forced into another lease. This time, however, it increased the rent from $1 a year to $500 per month.
The idea seemed to wither away. There was no further public discussion about outdoor vendor sales at the old power plant property. But meanwhile, city officials worked out a deal for Craven Community College to use the First Street main building for vocational classes, calling it the Volt Center (a nod to the building’s past as an electric plant).
Then on Feb. 13, the City Market plan sprang forth once more. The city is now seeking grant funding to help pay for outdoor vending areas, a market, a commercial kitchen accelerator, and an inventor’s space.
As city director of Development Services Jeff Ruggieri said, the idea never went away. But now, rather than forcing the Farmer’s Market to move, the city now looks poised to go in head-to-head competition with the Farmer’s Market.
It’s an odd thing, the city trying to compete with an existing commercial operation. Alderman Jeffrey Odham has said he wanted to run the city more like a business, but this? Start a business? One that competes with existing businesses?
And it’s not the only one.
In January, a private artists group approached the city seeking approval to rent the old Firemen’s Museum on Hancock Street.
A little background on that: after he became mayor, Dana Outlaw began a push to unload as much surplus city property as possible. The Hancock Street museum property was on the list, and the city gave the bum’s rush to the Firemen’s Museum, forcing it to rush fundraising efforts to pay for renovations of the old Broad Street Fire House so the museum could move there.
Outlaw and city staff envisioned selling the old museum site on Hancock Street, but when bids came in, they didn’t meet minimum requirements. The building is a fairly large commercial space suitable for a restaurant or even a microbrewery, but there’s a problem: it has no parking.
True, there’s a city-owned parking lot right next to it, but the downtown parking plan calls for the city to reduce the number of leased spaces, not increase the number. And the city parking lot at New and Hancock streets is a pretty important component to the city’s master parking plan.
So, like the old power plant on First Street, the city found itself with a substantial piece of real estate that is virtually unsellable.
It makes one wonder whether city officials do any research into these things before jumping in.
Back to the artists’ group. It had lost its existing location and was basically homeless and in a bind. They thought that perhaps they could rent the Hancock Street property from the city for, say, $500 a month — the same thing Farmer’s Market was paying for its piece of prime real estate.
Good idea, Mayor Outlaw said. More research is needed. Could be the city would pay them, rather than the other way around.
But that’s not how it turned out.
Meetings were held and the city came back with a plan: The city Parks and Recreation Department would open up its own art gallery and artist space at the old Firemen’s Museum — and make money doing it.
That private artists group? Still homeless, although they are welcome to apply to use the city-owned, city-run artists gallery along with everyone else.
So, yeah, those are two examples of the city shouldering its way into areas previously the domain of private groups.
A little bit sneaky, a little big underhanded. But unlike Steve Jobs, who bought or stole proven, successful ideas and made them better, the city still has to prove whether it is any good at running an outdoor market and an artists gallery, both of which have existing and entrenched competition in the city.
But, paraphrasing a line from Steve Jobs when he would announce new products, in the sneaky, underhanded department, that’s not all.
City Market is a triangular piece of property, with the Ghent neighborhood on one side, a mixed residential-commercial street on one side, and Country Club Road/First Street on the remaining side.
City Hall is giving that section of the city a lot of love and attention recently. Lawson Creek Park is right there and has benefited from a lot of improvements: a reconfigured and beautified entrance, a ball field, and more.
The city moved its Parks and Recreation offices to a building off Country Club Road, and is seeking funding to improve boat access there.
And it has worked with the state to reconfigure Country Club Road/First Street from four ugly, unsafe, ugly lanes of traffic, to two beautiful, safe, beautiful lanes of traffic with a center turn lane, bike lanes on both sides, and broad sidewalks stretching from Broad Street/Neuse Boulevard all the way to Pembroke Avenue.
Because that stretch of street is actually part of N.C. Highway 55, the state is paying for the improvements with a couple of small conditions: the city has to take care of moving street side utilities, for example. Oh, and the city can’t put the entrance to City Market on First Street.
Seems like a pretty small thing for the state to worry about, but the reasoning is sound: the entrance would be close to a blind curve and too close to the onramps and offramps at U.S. 70.
That means the entrance to City Market will have to be behind it, on Rhem Street (not to be confused with nearby Rhem Avenue).
Shouldn’t be a problem. The city gas station is there, but it is going to move it.
But if state Department of Transportation engineers take a close look at what the city has in mind, they’ll find that it’s a much worse option than a City Market entrance on First Street.
Rhem Street and the entrance to Lawson Creek Park form a four-way intersection with Country Club Road. There’s that same blind curve that DOT was worried about in one direction, and it’s even closer to the U.S. 70 offramps and onramps than a First Street entrance to City Market.
With traffic throttled from four lanes to two lanes after the street is reconfigured, traffic at that intersection is going to get very cosy. Many motorists will opt to reach City Market from the other direction, turning on to Second Street from Trent Boulevard.
Oh, but wait. Second Street is where Ghent Neighborhood residents have been complaining about heavy traffic (an average of 1,500 cars per day on a four-block, two-lane residential street). Full disclosure: I live off Second Street.
Second Street is an example an exasperated City Manager Mark Stephans sidesteps by pointing to all the things the city — no, he himself — has done for the Ghent neighborhood to address speeders on Spencer Avenue. (Ignoring complaints about speeders on Park Avenue.)
Referring to Second Street, Stephans said the city has moved its warehouse and will be moving its filling station, so that should be enough to satisfy the Ghent neighborhood. He says it as if they have gone to so much trouble, but they were doing it anyway.
What he’s not saying, and this is where “sneaky and underhanded” comes in, is that Second Street at Trent Boulevard is going to become a major access point to City Market.
Now let’s put this in perspective. If a private company were to propose putting a high-use business where the city plans to put City Market, say a hotel, the city planning department would be all over the developer to deal with traffic issues.
But the city is not a private company. It is free to ignore any issues its projects cause on surrounding properties.
This is why we can’t have nice things.
I’ve been wondering for some time why City Hall is so resistant to solving the high traffic problem on Second Street. When Alderman Sabrina Bengel suggested that Second Street be blocked at Trent Boulevard, city staff dug in its heels.
Whatever reasons city officials give against closing Second Street or reconfiguring it to reduce traffic, the real reason has been lurking in the dark for well over a year.
City Hall doesn’t want to decrease traffic from 1,500 cars a day. City Hall wants to increase traffic even further.
The Craven Community College (Craven CC) Foundation has established a new scholarship endowment in memory of Gregory Fitzgerald Smith, a well-known community leader, Craven CC Foundation board member and owner of Mitchell Hardware who passed away suddenly on Jan. 29.
Approved by the Foundation’s executive leadership committee Thursday, Feb. 8, the Gregory Fitzgerald Smith Scholarship Endowment acknowledges the positive and substantial impact Smith had on the students at Craven CC, as well as his service as a board member and chair of the foundation’s current Community Campaign.
Gregory Fitzgerald Smith
“Greg was always one to find ways to make things better and we wanted to honor that sentiment in a way that is appropriate and respectful,” said Lloyd Griffith, Craven CC Foundation president. “With help from this endowment, we are excited about the potential lives that will be touched by Greg’s influence.”
The new scholarship endowment will provide financial assistance for part-time students who reside in Craven County. Craven CC has numerous scholarships in place for full-time students, but the Gregory Fitzgerald Smith Scholarship Endowment is the first in school history to provide assistance exclusively for part-time students.
“There is a recognized need for those students who are seeking that next step up but can only do it on a part-time basis … and need to do it on a part-time basis,” added Griffith. “Rather than simply adding a scholarship in Greg’s name, we felt like this was a spot in the community we could make a real difference.”
Several donations made to Craven CC in Smith’s name have already been earmarked for the scholarship endowment.
“Greg’s compassion for our students is being realized through this endowment,” said Craven CC President Dr. Ray Staats. “Greg put his heart into everything he touched and we are humbled that members of our community chose to honor Greg’s legacy with an endowment that will touch the lives of students for many years to come.”
At the time of Smith’s death, he was serving as a Craven CC board member and was chair of the Craven CC Foundation’s Community Campaign. Smith, as the owner of Mitchell Hardware, was also a recipient of the 2014 Community Fabric Award (CFA) for Business Leadership, which he received during the Craven CC Foundation’s annual CFA ceremony and fundraising luncheon.
“I was delighted when Greg, as one of the strong community leaders, agreed to serve on the Foundation board,” said Griffith. “Like everything else he did, when he joined, he gave it his complete dedication to make it better. After a year, we asked him to chair the community campaign and he enthusiastically said ‘yes.’ He saw the impact that the college was making on the lives of so many people and it seemed fitting to the Foundation board to continue his legacy by investing in the students with opportunities to make their lives and consequently this community better.”
Efforts to recognize Smith’s community leadership are being discussed by other community organizations as well, including the interagency committee consisting of representatives from Craven CC, Swiss Bear, Craven County Government, City of New Bern, the New Bern Area Chamber of Commerce, Craven County Tourism Development Authority, Tryon Palace and others.
“There is a desire among all of us to do something downtown to memorialize Greg,” said Lynne Harakal, executive director of Swiss Bear. “We are taking our time and brainstorming ideas to think about what this is going to be. There will definitely be opportunities in the near future for people to participate in this effort and express an appreciation for his life.”
For more information about the Craven CC Foundation or the Gregory Fitzgerald Smith Scholarship Endowment, call 252-638-7351 or visit www.cravencc.edu/foundation.