Chapel Hill News

IFC, businesses could talk soon about Carrboro food center, existing problems

A conversation about where to build a community food pantry and kitchen and how to address downtown issues related to chronic homelessness could start after the Thanksgiving holiday, says IFC director Michael Reinke.

“Communication is really hard, and if people aren’t telling you how they’re feeling, then you’ll never know,” Reinke said. “We really appreciate the work that everybody has done to try to lift up this conversation.”

The Inter-Faith Council for Social Service may start holding community conversations on a regular basis, he said. The Board of Aldermen encouraged the agency last week to talk with businesses and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce before moving ahead with the planned FoodFirst center.

The aldermen have set a March public hearing to consider a zoning change that would allow social services and dining to be offered at the same site.

The IFC has not submitted a formal application for its FoodFirst center, but the idea of replacing its 110 W. Main St. offices has been on the table for many years. There will be months of meetings and public hearings before any plan is approved.

The zoning would require a community kitchen to be near a bus stop and have sheltered place for people to line up where they won’t block the public right of way. A conditional zoning would allow the town to ask agencies for other steps to avoid potential problems.

FoodFirst, if approved, would combine a food pantry at the IFC offices with a longtime Community Kitchen now on West Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill. The pantry distributes bags of groceries to roughly 4,000 people a year, Reinke said. The new kitchen could serve up to 125 meals a day, he said.

The IFC’s board of directors has decided to keep looking for sites over the next three to four months, he said. Sites previously considered include land near the N.C. 54 exit ramp at South Merritt Mill Road and the Carrboro Public Works site on South Greensboro Street, he said.

More than 60 Carrboro business owners have signed a petition opposing the downtown site. While they support the IFC and want to help hungry and homeless people, the biggest worry is the potential for more panhandling and nuisance behaviors, said Rick Robinson, with Rise Biscuits and Donuts.

“We’re concerned about how the pedestrian experience in our community will be impacted by an increase in the number of idle adults before and after meal periods,” Robinson said. “Virtually all of the undersigned can detail an experience or public health threat in the form of human waste that they have encountered as a result of Carrboro’s current chronically homeless population.”

Other business owners said they support keeping the IFC’s services in downtown Carrboro.

Chapel Hill has wrestled for over 20 years with downtown panhandling and nuisance issues, often blamed on the IFC’s Rosemary Street clients. Reinke said the environment changed after most services moved this fall to the new Community House on Homestead Road.

Carrboro doesn’t have the same framework as Chapel Hill for dealing with public nuisances, chamber President Aaron Nelson said. Carrboro business owners were caught off guard by the IFC’s plans, but they are ready to help find solutions and a better site, he said.

They first need to find out what other communities have done, what the IFC wants to do and who will be served, he said.

“This is families and kids, the problem is real, and we need to make sure that it works for the folks who need the services and we need to make sure that it doesn’t have a substantial negative impact on a thriving central business district,” Nelson said. “But nobody should confuse the business community’s worries with any opposition to the IFC’s mission.”

Aldermen Jacquelyn Gist and Randee Haven-O’Donnell, who rejected a March public hearing as too soon, said they also share business concerns. But they agreed with other aldermen that Carrboro should not shoulder the burden for all of southeastern Orange County.

No matter where the community kitchen is built, people will be upset, Alderman Sammy Slade said. He and others talked about working with Chapel Hill, the county and other regional partners to identify needs and solutions. The county may have an even better site, Gist said.

“Carrboro’s a tiny town,” she said. “We’re very cool, so people think we’re bigger than we are, but we’re really little, and social services and human services, that’s a county and state responsibility. That is not a two-square-mile responsibility.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926