Town leaders will discuss Wednesday night whether to take over part of Salem Street from the N.C. Department of Transportation, which would give Apex officials the final say on downtown traffic and sidewalk issues instead of the state.
The change, if approved, would have two effects. The town, and its taxpayers, would pay for future road improvements. But the move also would cut through several layers of red tape, making it easier for festival organizers and business owners during special events.
“Most of my folks in the Downtown Business Association, we’re tickled to death about it,” said J.C. Knowles, the association’s president and ambassador.
Apex Mayor Bill Sutton said many downtown business owners were surprised to find out the state’s right-of-way actually extends on the sidewalks and to their front doors.
That means when the state shuts down the street for town festivals – such as the upcoming Christmas Festival or the Jazz and Music Festival held in September – the sidewalks are technically shut down as well, and businesses can’t put out tables, signs or displays without going through a cumbersome DOT approval process.
Knowles said restaurants downtown rely heavily on outdoor seating during the festivals, since people don’t want to be inside missing the action.
“They have about eight to 10 tables on the sidewalk all the time. And you multiple that by three chairs each, that’s 24 customers.”
The Apex Town Council will consider a resolution to ask for control of Salem Street from Apex Peakway to N.C. 55. If it passes, it’s very likely that DOT will agree to hand it over, Town Manager Bruce Radford.
“We have had numerous conversations with our friends at DOT” about the proposal, he said.
Radford said town staff, not business owners, originally asked for the change. Even though it would mean more work and potentially an increase in costs for the Town of Apex, he said, he thinks it’s worth cutting the DOT bureaucracy out of the picture.
“We know it because we organize, or are a major participant in, all the events downtown,” Radford said.
Sutton said the move will eliminate the DOT approval process and would remove the possibility of penalties for those who have technically gone against the rules in the past.
If the town takes over the street, it also would mean that people who want to shut down a portion of the street or host an event would only need to approach the Town Council, not the DOT.
Sutton said the town has done this once before, taking control of Hunter Street in front of Town Hall several years ago. That was an easy transition, Sutton said, and he expects the Salem Street move would be, too. The DOT was happy to turn it over, he said.
“Generally they’re happy to get rid of roads,” he said.
Sutton said the town will get some extra funding from gas taxes to help pay for improvements on the road, but those funds likely wouldn’t be enough to cover all of the new costs.
Even still, he said, it’s worth a small loss to help businesses and everyone else who uses the town’s busy, historic street.
“My personal statement on it is, if we own any street in town, it should be Salem Street,” Sutton said. “You know what I mean? That’s our downtown.”