The decision by Duke University not to cooperate with planned light rail has been “devastating,” said Wendy Jacobs, Durham County Board of Commissioners chairwoman, on Monday night.
In her annual “State of the County” address, Jacobs led with her disappointment over Duke’s decision a few weeks ago that may have derailed a project many years in the making.
“[Light rail] has been the centerpiece of our strategy to address the reality that 20 people move here every day, and over the next 30 years we will need to figure out where 160,000 more people will live and how they too will get around,” Jacobs said.
She stopped short of saying the light rail project is over.
“At this moment, the future of the Durham-Orange Light Rail project is uncertain. But what is certain is that the need to manage our growth, sustain our economic development and combat poverty and racial inequities must be our collective community focus and the foundation for any future plans,” Jacobs said.
She is an alumna of Duke, parent of a Duke graduate and married to a Duke employee, she said.
“The fates of Duke and Durham are inextricably intertwined. This is one of the reasons why the decision of Duke leadership to not be a partner in the light rail project has been so devastating,” she said.
Jacobs said there need to be community conversations about the future of Durham and Duke’s relationship.
Other county priorities Jacobs outlined:
Durham Public Schools and pre-K
“Our number one priority is our children,” Jacobs said. The county spent $3.5 million on its pre-K program last year, which is in the technical phase of expansion. Thirteen classrooms will open as Durham pre-K sites this month, she said, with another 18 in August. Tuition will be subsidized or on a sliding scale. When fully implemented, the pre-K program will cost $15 million a year.
On the K-12 front, Jacobs said the county needs to face challenges of increasing charter school enrollments and declining enrollment in traditional Durham Public Schools. She said there is a need for school system redistricting to be more efficient and make the best use of existing school capacity. She said the county will also look for funding for a new or renovated Northern High School and a new elementary school in South Durham.
“We encourage young families to choose to send their kids to DPS. Our public schools can create a community of shared prosperity,” Jacobs said.
Poverty and racial inequity
“We must also face the harsh reality that 26 percent of our children are now living in poverty — 37 percent of black children and 36 percent of Hispanic children compared to 8 percent of white children,” Jacobs said. Even though Durham is growing economically, the child poverty rate is increasing, she said.
Jacobs called for the creation of a Durham County Master Aging Plan, with a community advisory committee already being formed. She said Durham just received a certificate from AARP calling them an “age friendly” community.
Bull City United, the violence interrupters, worked in McDougald Terrace and Southside neighborhoods and doubled successful mediations. They were involved in 157 successful mediations last year, Jacobs said.
Jacobs said that while there is a positive trend in decreasing property crimes, violence still plagues their community.
Durham ranks fourth highest in the state for violent crime, with 613 incidents per 100,000 people, she said. Jacobs said that violence is a public health crisis.
In Jacobs’ 2018 “State of the County,” she looked ahead to the merger of the city and county fire departments, a report on what to do with the crumpled Confederate statue pulled down by protesters in 2017 and the existing base, pre-K education and downtown development on the county-owned 300 and 500 blocks of East Main Street.
The fire departments merged over the summer, and Durham’s new fire chief is Robert Zoldos.
The Durham Confederate Monuments Commission made recommendations for what to do with the statue and base earlier this year, but the decision is up to the county, which has yet to decide what to do with them.
County Commissioners voted to redevelop the 300 and 500 blocks of East Main Street into parking garages wrapped in affordable housing.
And the county continues to ramp to a launch of free pre-K.
In December, Jacobs was reelected chair, along with James Hill as vice chair, by their fellow commissioners.