By Jameesha Harris
I serve as the Ward 2 Alderwoman for the City of New Bern’s Board of Aldermen. I am writing out of concern for my experience at the April 13, 2021 City of New Bern Board of Alderman meeting regarding the 4-3 decision to change the scope of work on the City Market/VOLT Center.
When the original planning meetings were conducted regarding the grants and funding needed to build and operate the City Market/VOLT Center on First Street, there were many community representatives at the table at the CCDRA in the O. Marks building. Some vital and trusted community reps included Corey Purdie (WashAway Unemployment/Catalyst Kitchen) and Lovay Wallace-Singleton (Veterans’ Organic Garden), were still at the table. I also remember that the original vision included entrepreneur education, growing food, partnering with local farmers, and a City Market to sell community products.
Craven Community College President Dr. Ray Staats’ presentation at Tuesday’s BOA meeting was the first time that I or the public had been notified that those plans had changed. The concept of the City Market was born from the 2-year Choice Neighborhood Planning Initiative that was funded with a $400,000 grant from HUD to revitalize the Greater Duffyfield community. Over 1,800 citizens were involved in that planning process, and the City Market was born from that effort. If you have not read the plan, I invite you to do so. The community truly created the plan for the betterment of all New Bernians. (link to plan: https://choicenewbern.com/)
Choice Neighborhood Initiative Planning. HUD launched the Choice Neighborhood Initiative (CN) program in 2010 to help local leaders transform struggling neighborhoods of concentrated poverty into sustainable, mixed-income communities of choice. New Bern is one of only 9 planning grant recipients nationwide for 2013!choicenewbern.com
Understandably, here are my concerns as an elected official of residents close to this facility that stand to gain the most from its education, trades, and potential for economic advancement. While Craven Community College has continued to be a vital community partner in our city’s efforts to educate our citizens, properly prepare our workforce, and deliver specific entrepreneurial results, the original vision expressed to our city residents and promoted in the primarily minority and underserved neighborhoods closely located to the City market/VOLT Center was to incorporate horticulture (in a known food desert) and the communities’ need for additional entrepreneurial hospitality space (for food preparation and sale). If that plan changed, the community must be engaged in any change of direction or vision and should have been notified, just like Dr. Staats was engaged and able to prepare for Tuesday’s meeting.
It was expressed in the meeting by the City Manager that the kitchen aspect of this project had sat idle for 2 years, hence the City’s decision to receive a presentation from the college. However, the community was unaware of any attempt to change the original plan and vision of the City Market safely following the COVID pandemic while still reeling from the impacts of Hurricane Florence.
This secrecy extended to several Aldermen themselves representing the community served, as they were unaware of any proposed changes to the original vision of the City Market Program. Additionally, The City Manager would not disclose who’d given him the direction to have Dr. Staats present or who gave direction to call the EDA to request this major change in scope. These actions seem highly suspicious and disingenuous to a community that continually sees resources promised and never delivered (such as Stanley White). Additionally, the population demographic (low-income and lack of transportation) surrounding the City Market/ VOLT Center that were used to promote its funding and development are not participants in the Downtown Farmers Market which commonly suffers from limited space and diversity (according to testimonials from local minority entrepreneurs).
Why shouldn’t their voices be heard regarding these intended, last-minute changes? Although we hear the consistent argument of “why are two markets necessary for a small town like New Bern?”, two farmers’ markets are just as practical as two gyms, or two schools, or two gas stations in any town. There is more demand than supply for another outlet to provide live-action entrepreneur events that have the opportunity to create capital and jobs closer to marginalized communities prone to lack of opportunity and transportation issues. Creating programs that empower people to grow fresh food, from which healthy recipes can be crafted in a community (commercial) kitchen, in a clean facility which creates local jobs through maintenance and training in food prep, with an opportunity to sell in an open community market and stabilize income potentially lost through a global pandemic is empowering to a community that at times feels powerless to political influence and lack of access to power and resources.
The Small Business Center is a great partner for training and education, but the buck stops at capital creation, which is essential to budding entrepreneurs and incentivizes progress. And while some officials believe it is just practical to have the college (with its wealth of resources) take over this school-to-kitchen pipeline, practicality it is only beneficial for the business-driven individuals with an agenda for their bottom line; because empowering communities to be owners and creators and not just workers, takes the politics out of the community vision and promotes the greater good.
Additionally, it is not lost on this community that some elected officials who voted in favor of this move are in the hospitality industry and would benefit from the service workers created by this program. The vote to change the vision of the City Market that evening was clearly down racial lines. Why? Maybe because creating additional food industry entrepreneurs is considered competition or a threat to the New Bern establishment, and it is just another example of the systemic racism inherent in the majority’s decision.
We firmly believe now that the pandemic is becoming more manageable and people emerge from social isolation; we can meet the original community-centered vision of the City Market concept and create a thriving entrepreneurial market that will deliver on the promises made to this marginalized community identified in the CNI Plan.
I ask for a review of this decision related to the original vision for the Volt Center, and I respectfully ask that the EDA not change the original community-supported vision of the City Market project.
Jameesha “Jamee” Harris
Alderwoman 2nd Ward