William Peoples gets key to city

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 6, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — A surprise key to the city, awarded Tuesday at the Mayor’s Spirit Luncheon, didn’t stop William Peoples from challenging city officials a few hours later.
While City Council considered stiffer parking penalties meant to prevent downtown employees from hogging two-hour spaces, Peoples spoke up.
“But what about the consumer?” he asked. “Will they have to be penalized too?”
Peoples warned the new parking ordinance might keep shoppers away from downtown.
“Aren’t you biting the hand that feeds you?” he said.
If anyone thought the city’s highest honor would quiet Peoples, a longtime critic and inquisitor of city policies and leaders, they learned Tuesday that nothing has changed.
“This is just going to make me work a little harder,” he said while choking back tears after Mayor Susan Kluttz handed him the award at her biannual luncheon, which celebrates racial and religious diversity.
One of 15 children, Peoples lost both parents before he graduated from high school. Raised by grandparents in the Dixonville neighborhood, Peoples said he was humbled and surprised by the award.
He encouraged others to help make the city a better place.
“It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and complain, but if you want to make a difference, you roll up your sleeves and get involved,” Peoples said. “If you don’t put nothing in, you don’t get nothing out of it.”
Peoples often criticizes the system but doesn’t buck it.
He’s an active member of city groups tackling everything from gang prevention to race relations, and police have roused him with middle-of-the-night phone calls to help diffuse situations fraught with racial tension.
Past president of the local NAACP, he’s also a member of Covenant Community Connection, which hosts the Mayor’s Spirit Luncheons.
Kluttz lured Peoples to the podium Tuesday by asking him to speak about the city’s new $170,000 federal grant to plan redevelopment of the West End neighborhood.
He did so, eloquently.
Peoples said he envisions housing for people both poor and middle class. A city within a city where children have recreation and a learning lab with computers, and where veterans have housing and services.
“If Salisbury is going to be the greatest city….we have to bring up the less desirable areas,” he said. “We have a chance to make the West End our crowning glory.”
After a year of planning, the city will compete for up to $30 million in federal funds that would pay to demolish and rebuild Civic Park Apartments and transform the West End.
Peoples pointed out the differences between the city’s haves and have-nots.
“I’ve always said if people get off the beaten path of OctoberTour and make it down Monroe Street and see the apartments, what would they think of Salisbury then?” he said.
The government will look for cooperation, and community and business leaders have a responsibility to help Salisbury win the grant, he said.
“You have a voice for people who don’t have a voice,” he said.
Kluttz then took the podium and said she and Peoples had a “rocky start.”
Peoples often criticizes the city for hiring too few minorities. He asks for personnel information the city can’t share, Kluttz said.
But he’s also a valuable contributor, Kluttz said, and she’s come to understand and appreciate him.
Peoples does what he does “out of love,” she said.
“He is constantly promoting and asking what can we do better for this community,” she said.
Calling him both a bulldozer and a bridge, City Manager David Treme said Peoples pressured the city to build new housing in the West End five years ago. The Salisbury Community Development Corporation built and sold about eight homes, Treme said.
“He was a leader in identifying the need,” Treme said.
After a rough start to their relationship, Treme now calls Peoples his brother and said they pray together.
Pastor Henry Diggs said the award for Peoples and the diverse luncheons celebrating varied religions and cultures show how far the city has come.
“We can disagree without being disagreeable,” Diggs said. “Differences are OK. That’s how we grow.”
The thunder early Tuesday morning followed by sunshine in the afternoon symbolized Peoples’ relationship with city officials, Diggs said.
“They went through rocky times, stormy times, and now the sun is shining,” he said.
Peoples’ intentions, however, are more consistent than the weather.
“I’m not going to let up,” he said. “We have to stay on the city and stay involved.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.