The Volt Center

Sunday Reader, which debuts today, is a curated collection of what people were talking about in New Bern this past week. It appears first thing Sunday mornings.

By Randy Foster of New Bern Post

The VOLT Center is an acronym in search of a meaning. Or it’s a stylized word that harkens to a previous use of the facility as the city’s electrical generation plant.

The old power plant is bordered by Country Club Road, First Street, Spencer Avenue, Park Avenue, and Rhem Street. It was an eyesore being used as storage and a fueling station. 

After Dana Outlaw was elected mayor in 2013, the city embarked on a plan to rid itself of surplus properties and make better use of the properties it was keeping.

Any thought of selling the old power plant property would be dispelled by an environmental report, so city leaders latched on the idea of turning it into a farmers’ market, but they couldn’t get buy-in from the existing farmers’ market downtown, nor downtown businesses that didn’t want the farmers’ market to move from South Front Street.

So instead, the city partnered with Craven Community College, which started offering vocational classes from a renovated main building. More than 1,000 students have completed vocational training there, with about 1 in 5 being offered jobs in their fields before they graduated.

The college has expanded from the main building to the old garage, where it now teaches engine repair, and the brick building at the corner of Rhem Street and Park Avenue, where it teaches police skills.

The college now has its eyes on another building where it wants to teach restaurant food service skills up to but excluding chef.

There’s a shortage of restaurant workers across the nation, and New Bern is no exception, but for some reason the college believes that by having people go through a formal education, that will help address the problem.

Time will tell; there aren’t enough restaurant workers available who are willing to go through on-the-job training, much less pay the expense of going through a program that lasts several weeks. There is also the question of whether restaurants will pay people who have this training more than they pay those without it. 

The Board of Aldermen approved the college’s plan on a 4-3 vote on Tuesday, with aldermen Jameesha Harris, Johnnie Ray Kinsey, and Barbara Best voting against it.

It needs final approval from the Economic Development Administration.

For the three aldermen who voted against the proposal, their issue is that the original plan called for a restaurant commissary on the campus that would be used by food trucks as a home base. They need that home base in order to secure health department approval and inspections.

City Manager Mark Stephens said the city has been trying to get a restaurant commissary off the ground for a couple of years without success. The college, on the other hand, has the funding somewhere around $200,000 to equip a restaurant laboratory and get it running by this summer.

The rub is that if the college uses it to teach, the facility can’t be used for commercial purposes, and the idea of it being a home base for food trucks is effectively killed. Harris, Kinsey, and Best oppose the change in scope.

Craven Community College President Ray Staats said the college has been developing the idea of a restaurant teaching facility for three years, although many on the Board of Aldermen say Tuesday was the first they’d heard of it. There were no supporting documents included in the aldermen’s packets.

Staats read from a prepared statement on Tuesday and allowed copies to be made for the aldermen, but no copies have been made public so far.

The issue sparked conversation even as the Tuesday Board of Aldermen meeting was being live-streamed.

Talina Lynn said, “The original vision included entrepreneurship, growing food/partnering with local farms, and a city market to sell community products.

“I’m curious how many elected officials are in the hospitality industry that would benefit from the service workers created by this program? Because creating additional food industry entrepreneurs is considered competition maybe?

“Seems those additional back door meetings worked. Politics-100, Community-0.

Diane Marr replied, “Not politics, practicality. CCC has the money, in hand, the staff and ready to go. Not going to cost the city (& taxpayers) a dime. The Farmers Market has repeatedly stated they want the market where it is downtown. In a city the size of New Bern, 2 Farmers Markets are too much. Food Trucks are great, entrepreneurship is great…….there is the SBA, already there.”

Lynn said, “While CCC has an abundant source of income through our youth’s financed future, the original vision was to incorporate the communities’ need for additional entrepreneurial hospitality space. If the plan changed, the community should have been notified like the presenter was in order to prepare for tonight. Additionally, considering the community statistics surrounding the VOLT Center were used to promote its inception, who also aren’t typical participants in the beloved downtown farmers market (which commonly suffers from limited space), why shouldn’t their voices be heard regarding these intended, last-minute changes? 2 Farmers Markets is as practical as 2 gyms, or 2 schools, or 2 gas stations. Because there is more demand than supply for another outlet, closer to additional communities prone to transportation issues.”

Alderwoman Harris weighed in further with a letter to the editor published here.

5 Comments

  1. It sounds like there was a “bait and switch” going on, and/or a complete lack of transparency to community concerns. I doubt seriously that a formal food service training program will be beneficial to the community at large. Maybe for food service management, but not for the “boots on the ground” workers. I can’t imagine what they could learn that they couldn’t have learned faster and more efficiently on the job.
    The original ideas that were “sold” for this project still have value and are the best use for the facility. A food truck base of operations seems like a wonderful idea! Why not?

    1. Agreed! Also, it was never the situation that this site would take the place of the current market. That is false. The schedules would have been different and the site would have increased access to fresh food in the community. Having numerous sites that serve as farmers’ markets is a common-place dynamic in cities and towns all over the country and world. For some reason there are people in New Bern who believe there can/should only be one Farmer’s Market!? The original plan was/is an amazing idea.

  2. As a restaurant General Manager/Operating Partner of a corporate chain in our town, I hire many people with various work experience. I do not think it would be in someone’s advantage to take basic cooking classes that do not result in a culinary arts degree. Many restaurants local and corporate, have a cap on what they can pay starting out, no matter the experience they have, and many corporate chains have extensive training built into their hiring/onboarding programs. From my perspective it would be money wasted and will not make the impact on the community that is hoped.
    What will make an impact and possibly change people’s lives, is giving them the opportunity to own their own businesses, and providing this area with better access to farm fresh food with a farmers market/hub for food entrepreneurs.

    I believe the thing that might be getting missed here is that it is not a lack of skilled/educated prospects in the restaurant industry, it is businesses are not willing or unable to pay people a living wage. I’ve worked in this industry for 20 years and many of the people I have worked with have to work 2-3 jobs just to squeak by, that’s no way to live.
    Maybe there could still be a partnership with CCC but I think they can find a more mutually beneficial way to serve the people of this community.

  3. A win for the city appears to be filling their business venture with tenants, like most landlords. When did the city get into the rental business anyway? It’s true taking responsibity for environmetal failures is a bitter pill to swallow and it is easier to pave over the problems, and push the burdens of responsibility onto future generations to deal with. Very telling of city officials priorities.

    People aren’t filling unskilled, low wage, entry level food industry jobs because of a lack of “training.” There are other issues at play.. Most restrauants have training programs in place, the corporate ones at least. One of the issues is a lack of a living wage, and benefits. People can’t afford to work for such little pay. Will the certification program change national corporate policies? If not, wouldn’t focusing on education that promotes upward mobility for our communities citizens be a wiser long term investment for the city, for our community?

  4. The last two commenters have hit the nail squarely on the head! Does ANYONE doubt that minimum wage or even $10.00 per hour is simply not enough to sustain a person. If you’re in high school and working after school, that’s one thing. But trying to live on your own on that kind of money is just impossible. Especially in an area where an apartment or other rental site simply can’t be gotten for the amount you can earn on that kind of salary. Not to mention transportation, food, utilities, etc. I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t think further “training” at the Volt Center or anywhere else will make a difference. A Living Wage law is desperately needed!

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