Regional planning effort draws reactions
by Staff Writer
With a $4.9 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 14 counties in the Charlotte region are embarking on a program called CONNECT Our Future.
The Centralina Council of Governments predicts this region will grow by 50 percent during the next 20 years and double that within 40 years. The program’s goal is to create a strong, diverse economy with sustainable, well-managed growth, a safe and healthy environment, high quality educational opportunities, increased collaboration among jurisdictions and enhanced social equity.
The 14 counties endorsed the plan last year and supported pursuing the HUD grant, but now that the grant has been awarded, they need to agree on appointing members of their town boards and staff to the 100-person committee that will include people from the private, public and nonprofit sectors.
This CONNECT region is one of 30 in the country to receive the grant from HUD.
Davidson on board
Statesville Mayor Pro-Tem Michael Johnson gave the pitch to Davidson town board during a meeting July 17. The commissioners were excited about entering the partnership because the idea of sharing ideas and information regarding economic growth are in line with the town’s ongoing work to create an economic development plan.
“The town feels it’s important to devote time to collaboration on all sorts of regional issues,” Christina Shaul, the town’s public information officer said. “As part of this group, we will be identifying efficiencies in working together, especially in infrastructure. For economic development, we have to identify strengths as a community within the region because economic development is a tiered process where the state, region and local governments all work together to achieve results.”
Shaul cited the recent announcement that MSC Industrial Direct Co. would be locating a new customer service center here as an example of the town working with the state and region “to promote the positive aspects of the area for economic development.”
Mooresville appoints town leaders
The Town of Mooresville has also signed on, already appointing Commissioner Bobby Compton as its elected representative and transportation planner Neil Burke as the staff representative.
Burke said CONNECT will help with transportation issues because of “greater regional partnerships,” which would help them work with various agencies like the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
“A lot of different agencies are involved, and there’s a lot of planning occurring at local, regional and statewide levels, I think this initiative will help synergize and make it so we’re planning in unison and not separately for transportation initiatives,” Burke said.
However, the area already has transportation groups like the Lake Norman Transportation Commission and the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization, which next year will include Mooresville.
Burke is the technical coordinating committee chairman for the Lake Norman Rural Planning Organization, which is similar to MUMPO. He said while those organizations do good work for their areas, he noted that CONNECT will definitely be beneficial.
“What CONNECT will do for the I-77 corridor will probably help us have a unified vision for the corridor from South Carolina through Iredell County and give us a greater regional look and get more people to the table,” Burke said.
Huntersville supports CONNECT
County Commissioner Jennifer Roberts delivered the CONNECT pitch to the Huntersville town board July 16.
“CONNECT will be able to focus on the current, most urgent priority (for the region),” she said. “Right now, that’s the economy and bringing jobs back.”
The town board unanimously passed a memorandum of understanding indicating the town will participate in the CONNECT project.
Cornelius wary of project costs
However, the Cornelius town board expressed reservations during its July 16 meeting because of concerns regarding federal funds being spent on this project, Assistant Town Manager Andrew Grant said.
Commissioner David Gilroy said he had issues with the program, pointing out that $1.6 million of the government grant was designated for public engagement, administration and planning costs.
“We’ve got millions of federal taxpayer dollars that will finance public awareness and bureaucrats that will watch over it all,” Gilroy said. “It’s concerning, as we barrel down the same path as Greece, why would we spend this type of money?”
Residents already pay local taxes that fund planning departments at both the town and county levels, Gilroy pointed out, asking why their tax dollars should go to fund yet another planning group.
Cornelius Mayor Pro Tem Lynette Rinker asked how the town would benefit from joining the program.
Johnson said by partnering together and pooling resources, the towns will save money when putting together small or large plans related to transportation, infrastructure, even zoning.
“The board ultimately took the information under advisement and did not determine that night whether to join the CONNECT consortium,” Grant said.
While it’s unclear what decision the board will make, Grant said there is an advantage to participating in the program.
“The advantage of the CONNECT project is that it is a comprehensive planning approach, covering all aspects of everyday life including everything from land use to the environment to public safety, for the entire multi-county metrolina region,” Grant said. “It will assist all the local jurisdictions to plan, individually and collaboratively, for our future by providing key pieces of information, public opinions and recommendations. Why is it so important to plan for the entire metrolina region as opposed to each locality, or each county, for that matter? Because this entire region is slated to continue to grow in population at a relatively fast pace; i.e., growth is not just limited to Charlotte, Concord or Lake Norman.”
Precedent for regional planning
This region won’t be the first to have undertaken such an initiative like CONNECT Our Future. Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Sacramento and the Chattanooga and Knoxville regions all have completed some form of collaborative planning.
The results were more than $2.5 billion in infrastructure savings for the Kansas City region; $3.5 billion in infrastructure savings in the Salt Lake City region, a revitalization of the urban cores for Chattanooga and Knoxville regions, and housing for the aging population in the Sacramento region.
CONNECT kicks off
Sushil Nepal, the CONNECT project manager with the Centrolina Center of Governments, said a kick-off celebration was held July 26 at the U.S. Whitewater Center and 180 people attended.
“The meeting was to say ‘Hey, we’re doing a lot of work in background,’ but this was the first time to go out in public and do a kickoff, and we got a very good response,” Nepal said.
Nepal explained that while many are excited about the project, he understands some might still be weary of such a big process and added it’s completely voluntary.
Nepal said regardless of whether someone has their representatives at the table, the whole region will be looked at and planned for.
“Even though a jurisdiction isn’t a member doesn’t mean it will be carved out of the process,” he said.
He said the rest of the CONNECT members will still go out and do public meetings and engagement meetings and work will still happen within those counties.
Nepal said he hopes to start public meetings in September with meetings going on through February 2013.
“This is good opportunity because we’re trying to promote and educate people about the project as much as we can at this point,” Nepal said.
The second phase of the project will begin the middle of 2013 and will focus more on various planning options for the region regarding transportation and infrastructure.
For more information on CONNECT, contact project manager Sushil Nepal at 704-372-2416 or email@example.com.
How will the money be spent
While the HUD grant is for $4.9 million, the actual cost of the project is $7.9 million but that additional $3 million will come as an in-kind match from project partners in the form of research, staff time, etc.
The grant money will fund:
• A full-time project manager
• Public engagement forums throughout the process and throughout the 14-county region, to engage the communities, businesses, nonprofits, other public and private sector organizations as well as the general public, in creating a regional framework;
• Technical studies to assess, problem-solve and develop strategies in areas of challenges facing the region such as the economy, housing, air quality, energy, food/agriculture and public health;
• Data collection and analysis including compilation of local land use and transportation maps and plans into a regional database; modeling and mapping software to project land use trends into the future; identification of current trends, opportunities and challenges in the region;
• Development of multiple regional growth scenarios based on local input and feedback; and analysis of how those scenarios impact the issues deemed important to local governments in the region; identification of grant funding opportunities to support implementation and development of a framework for continuous improvement; public meeting logistics, facilitation, and process communications.
The grant funds are received on a reimbursable basis, meaning, as work is completed to create the regional growth framework, they are reimbursed by HUD. The Sustainable Communities grant from HUD is not comprised of “pass-through” funds that are divided among communities. Rather the funds are used for specific tasks and activities to help achieve the broader regional framework.
With all partners on board, the hope is to start public engagement in the fall and winter of 2012 with more public involvement, modeling and data collection in 2013-14.
– Brett Freeman and Brian Carlton contributed to this article