Johnston County wants to build its next jail, or law-enforcement center, near three schools, a park and a pediatrics practice. Some Smithfield residents think that’s a bad idea, for two reasons. One, they argue, it’s unsafe to house inmates so close to that many children. Second, they say, the land needs taxpaying homes and businesses more than it needs a law-enforcement center that would take the land off of the tax rolls.
We think the first argument is much ado about little. Downtown Smithfield has been home to the county’s jail for as long as anyone reading this newspaper can remember, and the last time an inmate tried to escape, in March of this year, she got close to an exit before being captured.
Downtown Smithfield isn’t Buffalo Road, home to Smithfield Middle School, or Booker Dairy Road, home to Neuse Charter School, Smithfield-Selma High School, the Smithfield Recreation and Aquatics Center, Community Park and Kids Care Pediatrics. But in downtown Smithfield, First Baptist Church offers child care, and First Presbyterian Church operated a preschool for many years. No one worried about the jail being a threat to those children, and rightly so.
Downtown Smithfield is also home to many businesses – banks, restaurants and a jewelry store among them – and we suspect those businesses worry more about criminals who aren’t behind bars more than they worry those tucked safely in the Johnston County jail.
In short, we don’t think a jail on Buffalo Road poses any greater threat to personal safety than a jail in downtown Smithfield.
But without question, a law-enforcement center on Buffalo Road would take private land off of the county’s tax rolls. Sitting mostly empty now, the land is worth about $12,000 annually in property-tax receipts to the county. (We base that figure on the $1.56 million option the county secured on the land.)
Obviously, building a jail on that land would end those tax receipts forever. But sell that land to a private developer for homes and businesses and the tax receipts would balloon well beyond $12,000 a year. For comparison purposes, the Walmart shopping center in Smithfield pays $188,560 annually in county and town taxes, and that shopping center sits on 26 acres. The county wants to buy 48 acres on Buffalo Road.
But in defense of the county’s thinking, Buffalo Road north of the Smithfield town limits is not a hot bed of commercial and residential development. The Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce hoped the extension of Booker Dairy Road from Buffalo Road to U.S. 70 Business would open the area to development. But in the years since the extension opened, the only new construction of note is a State Employees’ Credit Union branch on Booker Dairy Road near its intersection with Buffalo Road.
No doubt, the Booker Dairy Road extension itself is partly to blame for the lack of development. It’s just two lanes, and by N.C. Department on Transportation rule, the extension can have no driveway cuts. That’s not exactly conducive to homes and shopping centers. But equally important, Smithfield’s commercial future continues to lie on and around Outlet Center Drive, which has the virtue of being near heavily traveled Interstate 95. At least commercially, Smithfield will grow there before it grows at the intersection of Buffalo and Booker Dairy roads.
Is a jail complex the best use for 48 acres on Buffalo Road? Probably not. But neither is it the threat to personal safety and economic development that critics make it out to be.