Davidson officials hope they’ve heard the last gasps from residents, and themselves, about a study of how best to use a 3.5-acre site that includes Town Hall and the town’s police and fire departments.
At a Town Board meeting last week, there were several references to the “gasps” from the audience during an Oct. 20 information session on the Catalyst Study – a study prepared by the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government on the potential redevelopment of the town-owned tract.
Those gasps came when representatives of the School of Government’s Development Finance Initiative projected an image of how a mixed-use development might look. The rendering was a conceptual design including up to 100 residential units, a 125-room hotel with as much as 10,000 square feet of meeting space and more than 50,000 square feet of office and retail space.
The Oct. 20 gathering was the fifth public meeting related to the project over the course of a year, and the town had heavily publicized the process. Even so, Davidson Economic Development Manager Kim Fleming, the town’s primary liaison with DFI on the study, said it appeared to be the first time many residents had seen examples of what the project could look like were asking, “How did we get here?”
But at least one commissioner wondered whether “here” was where the town should be at this point in the process.
“I think there have been some mixed messages – unintended, but nevertheless mixed – and I, too, heard the audible gasp,” said Commissioner Jim Fuller. “In fact, I was probably gasping when the rendering went up showing the entire project. It seems to me that that (the image) projects an inconsistency with what I have heard us say from the start, which is that it is a feasibility study, (and) we can do much, little or nothing (on the site).”
The illustration represented something close to maximum use of the site – when the study had yet to determine what was feasible for the tract, Fuller and other commissioners said. DFI officials have said feasibility is tied to the property’s development potential because developers want to know what is possible before committing to a project financially. But Fuller suggested that DFI’s models might have gone too far, too soon.
“If I hadn’t been to all five (public) meetings, it would have been easy for me to say, ‘This train has left the station,’” Fuller said. “I think the train is still sitting in the station, waiting for a thoughtful, thorough discussion about not only where it’s going, but whether it’s going and, more importantly, how it’s going.”
Commissioner Brian Jenest noted the renderings illustrated what DFI had been discussing for months.
“The difference is this one looks so much more real,” Jenest said. “It’s one thing to put things on paper. It’s another thing when you’re talking about doing real things.”
Still, Jenest agreed with Fuller that DFI’s presentation reflected a certain scope, and that there is not yet a consensus – among commissioners or the community – of what that scope should be.
“I think it would be helpful for us to decide, is this a priority?” He said of redeveloping the site. “I think we know we need to do something. The question is, how much?”
Commissioner Beth Cashion said she, too, was surprised by DFI’s rendering. “I think it’s important for the public to know that we saw that slide at the same time you saw it,” Cashion said. “We’d never seen the final result. … I think we all thought it was a whole lot of brick.”
Cashion’s concerns dovetailed with criticism from some residents that DFI was too involved in driving the project.
“We heard from all of you that you want to hear from the elected officials and not so much from DFI during the presentation,” Fleming said.
She said the town plans to include small group sessions for residents in future Catalyst Project meetings, which would allow for more on-the-spot interaction.
“Ultimately what we’re working toward is something that makes sense for everyone, and it may not be what you saw on the screen the other night,” Fleming said.
John Deem is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.