The IFC Board of Directors stuck with a controversial plan this week to replace the agency’s offices on West Main Street with a community kitchen and food pantry.
The IFC could submit a conditional zoning application to the town later this year. The 110 W. Main St. site is located in one of three zones available for social service providers with dining facilities.
IFC executive director Michael Reinke said the coming months will be spent addressing public concerns and allowing time for review and input. The goal is to build the best center possible for the neighborhood and for feeding hungry people, he said.
“One of the things that the past seven or eight months has demonstrated is not just our intent, but our process,” Reinke said. “That we have tried to be really public, we have tried to involve people, and most importantly, we followed through on what we said we would do.”
The agency’s administrative offices, Food Pantry and Community Services programs are located now on the quarter-acre West Main Street lot. The Community Kitchen has been at 100 W. Rosemary St. in downtown Chapel Hill since 1990.
The FoodFirst plan would combine those services in a central location with room to offer more social services programs and resources. The pantry distributes groceries to 4,000 people a year, and the new kitchen could serve up to 125 meals a day.
The nonprofit started looking for another site in January, after the West Main Street plan drew opposition from residents and business owners. A 1.3-acre site at 303 Jones Ferry Road, across from the Orange Water and Sewer Authority, became available in March.
That site and the West Main Street site raised similar concerns, such as where people would go after meals and how to handle security and nuisance behaviors. Chapel Hill’s downtown has wrestled for over 20 years with those issues, often blamed on the IFC’s Rosemary Street clients.
The IFC board compared the two Carrboro sites before making its decision, Reinke said, weighing public concerns, potential building sizes and construction costs, street and transit access, and environmental and physical limitations.
While both sites offered similar program space, West Main Street had better bus connections and more supporters, he said. The Jones Ferry Road land purchase could have added at least $600,000 to the project’s cost without any guarantees that the IFC would be able to build there.
The board also considered having the IFC near the central business district to be a major benefit, he said, because like everyone else, the people they serve also like being within a short walk of shopping and services. The Jones Ferry Road site is another six minutes west of the IFC’s offices.
The aldermen last talked about the FoodFirst project in May, when Alderman Sammy Slade asked about the potential timetable for moving forward. Alderwoman Jacquie Gist responded that an open community dialogue should take place before any plan advances.
Gist said this week she is excited the IFC is reaching out and expects they will lead a conversation that doesn’t intimidate people or minimize their concerns. Many of the 60 businesses that signed a petition asking the aldermen to delay a hearing last fall were threatened with boycotts, she said. Some, as a result, decided to skip a March hearing at which the aldermen created a new social services agency with dining zoning designation.
“I trust the IFC (supporters) to not view the people who have (concerns) as being anti-poor people or not caring, because that’s just not true. I think we have time as we move forward to bring people in,” Gist said. “My fantasy is that we will end up with a facility that the whole community takes part in and celebrates and is supportive of ... and people feel good about it.”