In choosing land on Buffalo Road for a law enforcement center, Johnston commissioners said they knew Smithfield leaders wanted county offices to remain in or near town. I took that to mean Smithfield leaders had told commissioners that county offices play a vital role in the town’s economy. Smithfield Town Councilman Perry Harris is inclined to think so. That’s why, to him, the land on Buffalo Road is preferable to, say, county-owned land near the Johnston County landfill.
But I’m not convinced that downtown Smithfield or Smithfield at large would die on the vine if the jail were far removed from East Market Street. I’m not even sure it would wither.
For starters, no one housed in the jail is spending any money in Smithfield. Also, the jail employs 60 people, or about 20 percent of county government employees who work in downtown Smithfield. I doubt that Smithfield would dry up if 60 employees one day found themselves working outside of town.
But what if all of county government and the court system moved out of downtown or out of Smithfield? Would I feel the same way?
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I think so. For starters, after paying their fines and court costs, people in District Court for traffic tickets don’t have a lot of money left over to spend in Smithfield. The same is true of people convicted of misdemeanor crimes, and of course, anyone found guilty in Superior Court of a felony is headed to jail, not to The Diner or Gotham’s Deli or Walmart
But what about the people who make their livings off of people who find themselves in court? What would become of them if the courthouse moved out of town? Well, unless the courthouse moved to another Johnston town, say Benson or Clayton or Four Oaks, I doubt the many lawyers in downtown Smithfield would pull up stakes. If the jail and courthouse were, say, on land near the landfill, I don’t think we’d see lawyers beating down the doors to build offices there. The same, I think, goes for the bail bondsmen who now call downtown Smithfield home.
Look at it this way: Downtown Clayton has neither a jail nor a courthouse, and yet its downtown is arguably Johnston’s most vital. Both downtown Smithfield and downtown Clayton are busy places during regular business hours, and in both Clayton and Smithfield, people who work downtown punch out at 5 or 5:30. But at 7 o’clock on a weekday night, it can still be hard to find a parking space on Main Street in Clayton. That’s not the case on Market Street in Smithfield. What’s the difference?
I think it has less to do with either downtown and more to do with the number of people who live close to downtown. Clayton is now Johnston County’s largest town by population, and that population grows almost daily. It’s not surprising then that entrepreneurs are rushing to meet that growing population’s demand for shops, restaurants, bars and the like. Downtown gets a good number of such new businesses because it has buildings waiting for new tenants. By comparison, Smithfield’s population is growing much slower. I’ll leave it to Smithfield leaders and Johnston County school leaders to argue who’s to blame for that.
But in any event, if Smithfield leaders fear erosion of economic vitality, they should worry less about losing the jail and more about making Smithfield an attractive place for people to call home. If people come, businesses and their jobs will follow, and it won’t matter what happens to county offices.