Johnston County

This NC community is getting state money for its downtown. But where is downtown?

An unincorporated community in western Johnston County will receive state money for downtown revitalization this year, although residents aren’t sure where their “downtown” is located.

North Carolina legislators this summer earmarked $30,000 for Cleveland, a fast-growing crossroads community of shopping centers and subdivisions that does not govern itself and does not have a traditional downtown.

The money surprised Johnston County leaders and residents. They hadn’t applied for the money, and so far no one has received direction on what it is meant for or any regulations for its use.

“We’ve been throwing out ideas – what about this, what about that,” said Kim Lawter, executive director of the Greater Cleveland Chamber of Commerce. “We’re all trying to figure out what to do with this money. We don’t have a downtown. Where would downtown be? Even that’s been a topic of conversation.”

Cleveland is one of 75 communities and counties across the state receiving a total of $5.78 million in one-time funds for downtown revitalization projects. The special allocations were carved out for primarily Republican districts represented by legislators on the House or Senate appropriations committees.

The Republican-led General Assembly began allocating funds for specific downtowns in 2015, when it unexpectedly gave $1.25 million to 13 towns. In 2016, that number rose to $5.7 million for 31 projects.

Some Democrats have criticized the earmarks as “pork” spending, while Republicans have said the money helps small communities that might have a tough time coming up with enough money to complete large projects.

Cleveland, which has a population of about 27,000, has seen dramatic growth over the past two decades as more people have moved to the Triangle. At Interstate 40 and N.C. 42, the area has attracted many people who commute to jobs in Raleigh and Research Triangle Park but enjoy a more rural setting.

Once a farming community, the area is named for the former Cleveland School, which has been turned into a community hub on Cleveland Road with a gymnasium and athletic fields. A branch of Johnston Community College is also there, along with a fire station. Stores and restaurants line N.C. 42.

Some leaders have said for years that Cleveland should incorporate as a town so a local governing board instead of the Johnston County Board of Commissioners would be responsible for approving or denying development projects.

“I wish we’d use (the state money) to begin the process of becoming a town,” said Jeff Carver, chairman of the Board of Commissioners. “The legislature is going to decide how that will be used later, and all we’ll do is follow the exact instruction on what to do with that money.”

Residents agree incorporation will likely become necessary as the area continues to grow, but some say $30,000 isn’t enough to pay for the kind of project that would make it worthwhile.

“We want it, but we don’t want the taxes,” said Michelle Trajanovska, who lives in the area. “What do you get in the tradeoff? If I’m paying more, what am I going to get for it? Sidewalks? A community center? What?”

Without plans to incorporate, it’s unclear why the legislature chose Cleveland to receive money for downtown revitalization.

Rep. Nelson Dollar, senior chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said legislators asked for specific amounts for certain communities. An accountability system will be in place to ensure the money is used properly, he said.

Sen. Brent Jackson, who represents Johnston and serves on the Senate’s appropriations committee, said he was not involved in drafting this portion of the budget. Rep. Donna White, also of Johnston and a member of the House appropriations committee, did not return calls requesting comment.

House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson was critical of the money designated for Cleveland.

“What caught my eye when reading the budget was that it was a downtown revitalization grant for an area that I didn’t believe had ever been incorporated,” Jackson said.

Dollar defended the money, adding that the state probably should have informed the communities ahead of time that they were picked to receive funds.

“I don’t know of any community that doesn’t have some sort of project or set of projects that they could use some extra funding for,” he said. “I’m sure those counties will work with those communities and be able to put those funds towards the appropriate purposes.”

The earmarks sidestep traditional downtown funding programs like North Carolina’s Main Street Solution Fund, a competitive grant with rigorous planning and accountability processes, including a requirement that communities come up with a two-to-one funding match.

This year, the legislature budgeted $500,000 for the grants, and last year none at all.

“One of the reasons why the Main Street program is so successful is that you have to show you have commitment, that you have a plan, that there is infrastructure and support in place,” said Beth Gargan, assistant secretary of communications for the state Department of Commerce. “If you don’t have that local momentum, and that local government and business community with everyone working together, sometimes those projects don’t get off the ground.”

Do you have a story idea from Johnston County? Email Autumn Linford at autumnlinford@gmail.com.

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