Historically, Clayton has been the bitter stepsister to Smithfield’s Cinderella, but for the past decade or so, the glass slipper has been on the other foot. Recent population and economic trends smile on Clayton as western Johnston County feels the gravitational pull of Raleigh suburbia, and Smithfield’s downtown and Interstate 95-fueled economy have struggled to keep up.
But some Smithfield leaders see the $1.8 billion Novo Nordisk expansion as a way to renewed prosperity for the county seat. That is, unless Johnston County builds a new law enforcement center and jail on land tapped as Smithfield’s growth area.
Last month, the Johnston County Board of Commissioners optioned a piece of land near Smithfield Community Park and Smithfield-Selma High School for a future public-safety complex and jail. While no one disputes the need for a new jail, the location near the intersection of Buffalo and Booker Dairy roads has found many opponents in Smithfield. Last week, the Greater Smithfield-Selma Area Chamber of Commerce wrote a letter criticizing the plan, and chamber officials showed up at the Dec. 6 Smithfield Town Council meeting to deliver their message in person. They were not alone. The meeting was standing room only and turned into a de facto public hearing on the project, as neighbors, students, parents and Smithfield residents spoke out against the proposed jail site.
Smithfield chamber president Rick Childrey led off, presenting an alternate reality for the land on Buffalo Road. He said that in 2008, Smithfield approved a 160-lot subdivision that, at $175,000 per home, would today represent $2.8 million on Smithfield’s tax base. The recession and housing collapse scuttled the deal, but Childrey argued that’s too large a chunk to take off the market should Johnston County purchase the land. Instead, he thinks the intersection will be ripe for development with the coming Novo Nordisk and Grifols expansions and increased eyes on Johnston County.
“Now is the time for Smithfield to look to its future,” Childrey said. “The U.S. 70 corridor is our new front door, and the site for the proposed law enforcement center and all the land in that surrounding area is prime for future residential and commercial development. The roads have been placed there to serve this new growth. ... We don’t expect everything from Novo Nordisk to come to us; obviously there are other communities. But this is such a big project that it’s going to have a ripple effect all over. We’re eight miles away. It’s going to be a major part of the future of Smithfield.”
A divided county board voted 4-3 to option the land, with commissioners saying the county considered around 10 sites before picking the one on Buffalo Road. Childrey recommended taking another look, specifically at county-owned land near the landfill off of N.C. 210 west of town. Smithfield has planning jurisdiction over the Buffalo Road site because it lies within the town’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. For the county to build a jail on the land in question, it would need the Smithfield Town Council to rezone the tract.
Councilman Perry Harris said Smithfield submitted a number of viable sites to the county, and the board of commissioners picked one it liked.
“Months ago we started having conversations with the county about a location for this facility,” Harris said. “This particular location they voted to go to, they knew there were issues with that. The town made clear there were zoning issues and other issues. but I want the citizens to know that we’ve tried to work with the county very closely. ... Obviously, we didn’t make the decision, the county made the decision. I would urge citizens of Smithfield to reach out to their county commissioners. I think they’d enjoy talking to you. I think they have an open mind about this situation.”
A number of speakers mentioned the rocky performance record of SSS and worried that putting a jail a half-mile from the high school would reverse any recent gains in the school’s perception. Diana Augustine has three kids at Wilson’s Mills Elementary School and said she’s worked to prepare her kids and their classmates to help improve the culture at the high school.
“Even my Realtor said to try and find someplace else besides Smithfield because your kids are going to eventually go to SSS,” Augustine said. “I volunteer every day. I’m there working with kids every day. I love those kids. I do that because I know they will be going to SSS, eventually, not just my kids, 505 kids. I know they’re going to SSS, and I want them to be better than what their reputation is now. ... So to hear about this jail just throws a big ole punch into everything we feel that we have become.”
Rick High, a gang educator who works with Ida Morton’s law-literacy program CopTube, said building a jail and law enforcement center so close to schools brings to life the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, as if after middle and high school, the jail was simply another step of graduation.
“To build a jail next to a school, to me it don’t make any sense,” High said.
Tuesday’s meeting was held just a few hundred feet from Johnston County’s current jail in downtown Smithfield, far closer than any student would likely ever come to the planned jail on Buffalo Road. Several speakers talked about the proposed jail as if it would have an open-air yard where inmates could exercise in plain view of the passing public. But the new jail won’t be that kind of facility, and inmates will always be out of sight.
Still, some speakers said their opposition was pure economics. Ken Langston would be a neighbor of the site and said he used to work for a commercial developer.
“I never remember going to a community and asking the question, ‘Where is the county jail so we can build our shopping center next to it,’ ” Langston said. “I have my real estate license and I can’t believe there’s ever been a real estate agent that’s asked the same question, ‘I want to know where the jail is so I can buy a lot or house next to the jail.’ It just doesn’t happen.”
Two county commissioners attended the Smithfield meeting, Ted Godwin, who voted against the site, and Keith Branch, who joined the board this week. Neither spoke at the meeting or indicated the county would be abandoning its site, though Godwin told the crowd its message had been received.
“I’ve found you can learn a lot more by listening than talking,” Godwin said.