By Callie Hietala
Aid for the homeless, support for small business owners, and the need to rebrand Martinsville were among the topics discussed when Martinsville’s City Council held a public input session on how it should allocate its federal American Rescue Plan (ARPA) dollars.
Among those to speak during the 3.5 hour, standing room only meeting was Keith Owens, executive director of Peer Recovery Connection. Owens said he would like some of the money to be directed toward a 30-bed “recovery program shelter” for the homeless.
“The number one contender for relapse is stable housing,” Owens said. “If someone doesn’t have stable housing, then relapse is imminent. Their mental health issues increase, their addictions increase because they have nowhere else to go and no one else to depend on.”
He said his organization has reached out into the community and found that city residents “are very passionate about a homeless shelter.”
“We don’t want to be a public eyesore, we don’t want to be on Main Street,” Owens said. “Somewhere tucked away at the edge of the city.”
Clients would come into the shelter where, in addition to having access to food, a bed, and showers, they would be assessed and, for 45-60-days, receive the services of various religious programs and mental health providers. “Essentially, a one-stop shop for these people and an opportunity to go from have-not to back on their feet as productive citizens” and eventually find stable housing, he said.
Ariel Johnson, the director of the MHC Warming Center and the co-chairman of the West Piedmont Better Housing Coalition, also discussed the need to better serve the city’s homeless population by building a year-round shelter.
She said the Warming Center served 76 guests during its 120 days of operation, from November to March.
“We average 20 guests a night,” she said, ranging in age from 6-months to 85-years-old. “This year saw more senior citizens than ever,” she told council members. “Imagine the people that we miss the rest of the year. There is a need for some type of shelter that is year-round.”
Business owner Joe Martin, who operates What’s Your Sign in uptown, said he supports the idea of a homeless shelter.
Martin said he is “not so much a fan of the buying property from people that have dilapidated buildings.” The comment referenced one of Towarnicki’s earlier statements related to uptown revitalization, in which he suggested the town could purchase and rehabilitate some of the uptown properties that have long sat unused.
“It seems to me off the bat that’s rewarding people for bad behavior when there are ordinances that can take care of that if they’re enforced,” Martin said, and suggested at least $2 million be directed to supporting small businesses that have suffered over the course of the pandemic and are still trying to recover.
During the height of the pandemic, “many small businesses were forced by the government to close their doors for extended periods of time, many of those businesses incurring losses of 75 percent or more” and others closing their doors for good, he said.
The losses suffered by those businesses “are immediate, they’re real, and they’re lasting,” he said. “The funds in the hands of the city government are at least in part directly because of the suffering and the loss of our small businesses. They need our help to recover.”
Martin requested that at least $2 million be allocated to “direct financial relief to our many small businesses that are still fighting to survive in this economy.”
That amount could equate to “$10,000 each for 200 brick-and-mortar small businesses in Martinsville” to help with expansion or even just to keep the doors open for a few more months.
“It is the morally right thing to do and also makes economic sense,” Martin said.
Aaron Rawls, who owns a bed and breakfast in Martinsville and is the founder of Oakdale Technology, said there is a “legacy issue” and a “nostalgia factor” among the long-time residents of Martinsville which he finds unfamiliar. “I think a lot of the community has struggled to shake that free,” particularly as more new people without that sense of nostalgia move to the area.
Rawls made a number of suggestions, the first of which was hiring a marketing agency for the city. “I think we need to rehabilitate our brand but also build a brand that is current to who we are and who we want to be.”
“Marketing is not advertising,” he clarified. Rather, it is engaging objective professionals in the exercise of “clearly defining who we are, how we can best present ourselves to the world, and getting that message to the people who want to hear it.”
“I do not want to be known as the city of opioids and Mexican restaurant shootouts. I don’t think any of us do,” he said.
Rawls’ second goal is the need to diversify the property owners in the city. He cited the current “monopolistic nature of property ownership” that creates a barrier to “new creative community members to come and join us.”
He said the city has “way too many properties that are unkempt, run down, vacant, or unsalvageable,” the most prominent of which are in uptown. Rawls recommended the city pursue updates to ordinances, tax structures, and zoning “to establish boundaries and standards for uptown property ownership.”
Derrick Ziglar, who recently purchased Jefferson Plaza and the Setback Building, addressed the need to build infrastructure to support job creation and educational opportunities that would allow workers to find higher-paying jobs locally.
Tim Martin, owner of the Showroom, said he was a long-time member of Martinsville Uptown and has a long relationship with the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber Partnership for Economic Development (C-PEG). He said the organization that has long been in place “has worked for us,” noting particularly the success of C-PEG’s small business startup program. “I think we are in a position with what we already have in place to do it,” he said.
Lisa Watkins, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said her organization is “looking forward to continuing to be good partners in the community” and “continuing to do the work that needs to be done to improve our entire city.”
“How willing is the chamber to work with all organizations and do what they need to do,” Vice Mayor Jennifer Bowles asked. Watkins replied the organization is ready to partner “with any organization that’s willing to work with us.”
The Rev. Charles Whitfield, of Charis Transportation, said, “I would hate for us to spend this money and Martinsville will still reflect that we never had it. I think we’re skating over the true blight and trying to cover it with lights. There are still systemic problems with youth, with addiction, with homelessness, with small business challenges that I don’t want us to overlook,” he said.
City Manager Leon Towarnicki previously shared a list of potential ARPA-funded projects proposed by staff for council’s consideration. The items on the list, he said, consisted of both previously-discussed projects and others that the city would not normally have been able to fund within the normal budgeting process. It was compiled, he said, from discussions and needs identified at previous council meetings, neighborhood meetings, and annual budget reviews. He previously stated that the list also was based on input from other city staff and suggestions from various members of the community who had reached out with ideas.
Towarnicki said that the city was allocated $15,463,451 in funding which much be committed by the end of 2024 and expended by the end of 2026. Use of the funds is restricted, Towarnicki said. The money can go toward COVID-19 related expenses, such as helping offset negative economic impacts of the pandemic, providing premium pay for essential workers, and can be invested in infrastructure such as water, sewer, and broadband, among other uses.
The money cannot, Towarnicki said, be used to directly or indirectly offset tax reductions, nor can it be deposited into any pension funds.
At its last meeting, council members voted 4-1 to approve 6 projects: the Summit View water line project, Southside Ballpark and restrooms and upgrades, city-wide park improvements, an upgrade to MGTV, upgrades and renovations to Hooker Field, and a $50,000 contribution to Piedmont Arts’ capital campaign.
The public input session on the funding was approved in a 4-1 vote at council’s March 8 meeting on a motion by Bowles. At an earlier meeting, council member Tammy Pearson, who was the sole no vote on the motion to hold the session, called for more public input on how the funding should be spent. Pearson argued that she wanted council to solicit input by “going out more into the community” rather than asking residents to come to council chambers to speak.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Towarnicki seemed to suggest another of Pearson’s suggestions on public involvement was being considered. The original version of the list included $4.5 million in funding for uptown revitalization. Towarnicki explained that city officials proposed such a large amount because “there’s a lot of work going on in uptown right now” to revitalize the area the funds “could make a substantial impact” in that effort.
Then, the funds were meant to be directed to the Uptown Partnership (UP). Now, he said, city thinking has shifted toward creating a pot of money for grant-driven funding process, which would allow any uptown entity to apply. A committee would be formed to review applications and based on certain criteria, allocate those funds.
“We greatly appreciate the recommendations we have received here tonight,” said Mayor Kathy Lawson, adding that many of the comments presented were ones she and other council members have previously heard from residents while out in the community.
“It is very important, as Pastor Whitfield said, to make sure that we don’t take this money and then five years from now wonder, ‘what did we do with it?’”
She noted there were many factors for the city to consider in deciding how to allocate the money, including how it would serve the community as a whole.
Council member Danny Turner said council would need to evaluate how much money should be saved in case the reversion process is not successful. “We need to keep the cost of living low here,” he said.
Towarnicki noted at the beginning of the meeting that the ARPA funding cannot be used to offset tax reductions and has certain deadlines by which the funds must be allocated and expended.
Council member Chad Martin said he wants people to “be careful about how people think about certain people who are saying they want to hear from the public and when they ran, they did not go door-to-door. I want people to realize this process is about people, not about politics. People can say what they want about politics, but this process is about caring about what the people actually want.”
Pearson, who, along with Martin, attended the meeting via phone, said she was “still quite concerned” about the process being followed. “It’s difficult for me to vote on something when we don’t have details, numbers, specific components. I am still suggesting we follow a more stringent, more holistic process.”
She cautioned that if such a process is not followed, “and we continue to go through these bits and pieces, before you know it, we are going to be down to zero. We are already below the $10 million level just with what we’ve approved thus far.”
Two more of Pearson’s suggestions are being used as well. Towarnicki said an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, was created specifically to receive further input on the funding. A survey will be posted on the city’s website for residents to offer further input.
After the input session, the council unanimously approved using $700,000 of the funds for two projects – $200,000 for stormwater repairs, and $500,000 to address funding issues with two ongoing affordable housing projects.
In other matters, the council:
*Read and presented a proclamation acknowledging March as Red Cross Month.
*Presented funds to Martinsville native George Metz, who recently returned from helping drive refugees from Ukraine. Metz said he transported 112 people across the Ukrainian border, and plans to return in April to continue providing assistance.
*Read and presented proclamations recognizing recent winners from the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Blue Ridge who participated in US Cellular’s Black History Month Art Contest. The first place winner was Judith Tuttle, Layce Everhart came in second, while Zy’Jerryah Martin placed third.
*Read and presented a proclamation recognizing week of April 3-9 and National Library Week.
*Read and presented a proclamation recognizing Martinsville High School football coach Bobby Martin.
*Read and presented a proclamation recognizing the 75th anniversary of the Martinsville Speedway.
*Read and presented a proclamation recognizing the third week of March as Emergency Management Professionals Week in Virginia.
*Read and presented a proclamation recognizing the month of April 2022 as Martinsville’s Bee City Month.
*Heard a presentation from Building Official/Zoning Administrator Kris Bridges on the rental inspection program. Conducted a public hearing and subsequently approved a resolution adding 3 properties to the program. The properties are 706 Spruce Street, 203 Greyson Street, and 818 Starling Avenue. All were added on a finding that, for each property, there is a need to protect the public health, welfare, and safety of the occupants of that individual dwelling unit, and the unit is both blighted and in the process of deteriorating. Bridges acknowledged that some property owners have indicated plans to sell the properties, but if they become rental properties again, they will remain in the program. He also said some of the issues were tenant-driven, rather than owner-driven.