Gaston & Catawba

Inspiring Spaces plan moves forward

A little more than a month after Hickory voters approved two bond referendums totaling $40 million to fund public improvement projects, city officials have started initiatives to beautify the city and encourage development.

But the revitalization plan, known as Inspiring Spaces, will not come quickly or easily. In addition to selling the bonds, obtaining rights of way and deciding which projects to fund, the plan will be subject to public scrutiny.

“We hope for and anticipate a lot of feedback,” Assistant City Manager Warren Wood said, adding that officials will keep the process open.

The city will create an advisory committee of residents who will work with business owners, philanthropists and city leaders.

About 60 people have applied for a seat on the committee, which could have as many as 30 members.

City Council could appoint the members as soon as early next year, City Manager Mick Berry said. The city still is accepting applications.

City leaders also have to agree to a framework and bylaws governing the committee.

Divided into four phases, the Inspiring Spaces plan will take the city at least the next 10 years to carry out, officials have said. In addition to creating the advisory committee, the first phase involves hiring an outside firm to help manage some of the projects.

The second and third phases include selling the bonds and approving the first round of improvements, which could start in a year after city leaders award construction contracts.

The plan includes four major improvement projects: construction of two cycling and walking trails connecting both Bud Geitner Park and Lenoir-Rhyne University to L.P. Frans Stadium; streetscape improvements throughout the city; and additional infrastructure at a planned business park where the city is seeking to attract commercial and industrial development.

Even though the plan was approved by Hickory voters in the Nov. 4 referendum, officials have spent the past couple of years envisioning ways to revitalize the city.

“We’ve done a lot of planning,” Wood said, noting a Charlotte urban planning firm the city hired a couple of years ago came up with dozens of ideas for improvements.

The revitalization plan did not overwhelmingly win voter approval.

One ballot measure for $15 million of commercial and industrial development passed with about 55 percent of the vote, while the other focusing on beautification projects passed with about 60 percent, according to official election results. About 23,000 residents cast ballots in the referendum.

To reach the public and show how they are spending the money, city leaders will use two software programs. One, which the city is testing, collects data from its accounting system, including money tied to improvement projects, and sorts it into charts and graphs available online.

The other, a social media application called MindMixer, offers a place to gather public input on projects.

City officials also are expected to take a more traditional approach, working with libraries and speaking at civic events.

“It’s really important for people to have the opportunity weigh in on details related to a space,” Andrea Surratt, assistant city manager, said at a special meeting late last month. Referring to the social media app, she added, “This is ideal for reaching a broader audience.”

When carrying out the revitalization plan, city officials will have to balance what’s best for Hickory and what the public wants.

“We’ve got to keep the voters happy,” Mayor Rudy Wright said.

The plan will lead to a tax increase, though the amount is undetermined.

City officials will meet with credit rating agencies to try to upgrade the city’s rating, which would lower interest rates. The city’s financial adviser, First Southwest, will help it determine when to sell its bonds, based on interest rates and bond market conditions.

“We know we have a lot of work to do,” Wright said.