Hickory leaders want the General Assembly to allow a referendum this fall on levying a 1 percent tax on prepared foods sold in the city.
The money would go toward completing a long list of improvements over the next decade, from dressing up major entrances to the city, building a downtown fountain and building pedestrian and cyclist trails between city parks.
Parks on Lake Hickory would get facelifts. The city also would convert several of its one-way streets to two-way traffic flow.
If successful, the referendum would bring in $1.3 million annually, Mayor Rudy Wright said. Six North Carolina cities now have a prepared-food tax, Wright said. It would be charged on foods sold in Hickory restaurants and prepared foods sold in groceries.
But the proposal drew strong criticism from one Hickory restaurateur.
Adding 1 percent to the cost of a restaurant meal “is a horrible idea,” said Matt Miller, who owns Bistro 127 in Hickory’s Viewmont community. A new tax will drive up the cost of eating out, and more people will decide to stay home, Miller said. “Eating out is seen as a little bit of a luxury, and sales are already down,” Miller said.
He said Hickory should focus on improvements that directly affect bringing in new businesses, such as making regulations easier to follow. “Places like Lenoir and Hudson bend over backwards to help businesses open, but not Hickory. They make it harder.”
More than a dozen business leaders and council members drove to Raleigh on Wednesday to talk with legislators about supporting the bill. They have one sponsor for the legislation and expect to have a second sponsor soon, said Wright, who was also in Raleigh.
Hickory is trying to sharpen its image in an attempt to make it a more attractive place in the competitive world of bringing in new jobs. Catawba County has lost 24,000 jobs in the last decade, and the population is growing very slowly. One out of five young workers, ages 20-34, left the area in the last decade.
“We need to turn that around and make Hickory a more attractive place to live,” Wright said. The mayor said he was especially interested in doing something about the many empty mills and buildings around town.
LandDesign, a Charlotte consulting firm, recently showed city officials a list of 47 improvements it says are needed across all parts of the city. Wright did not have an estimate on what the entire list would cost but said he thought the work could be done in 10 years with money from the prepared-food tax, borrowing, grants and private gifts.
Construction of the first projects will start this year, City Manager Mick Berry said. The City Council will soon decide which five projects to complete first, and some money will be set aside in the new city budget now being drafted, Berry said.
He hopes to interest local foundations or families to sponsor some of the projects as a memorial or dedication.
“Our focus is on economic development by enhancing our quality of life,” said Andrea Surratt, an assistant city manager.
Some of the projects suggested by LandDesign include:
• Improving the appearance of 10 major streets leading into the city, including the Interstate 40 exits at Lenoir-Rhyne Boulevard and McDonald Parkway.
• Building a pedestrian bridge over U.S. 321 as a way to connect city parks on Lake Hickory, such as Hilton, Geitner, Jaycee and Winkler with a bike path. A boardwalk could be built on cliffs in Geitner to give hikers an elevated lake view.
• Improving access to lakefront parks for canoeists and kayakers.
• Build a bike/pedestrian lane along Main Avenue and the railroad tracks to downtown, perhaps reaching as far as Lenoir Rhyne University.
• Converting Second and Third Avenues N.E. and N.W. and First and Second Avenues S.E. and S.W. to normal, two-way traffic, if a study indicates that’s feasible. Those are now one-way streets.
• Building a decorative fountain downtown and perhaps a splash pad for children.
• Choosing a standard design, perhaps reflecting Hickory’s role in furniture-making, that could be outdoor art at gateway streets leading into the city.