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East Spencer talks grants, partnerships at retreat

By Shavonne Walker

shavonne.walker@salisburypost.com

EAST SPENCER — The East Spencer town board discussed at length during a Thursday planning retreat how it could potentially work with local and state partners to move the town into a better position to take on future endeavors.

The board members and town staff explored new grant opportunities for fire and police as well as talked about economic development.

Darren Rhodes, with the N.C. Department of Commerce, acted again as facilitator for the all-day retreat.

Police Chief Sharon Hovis told the board she has a number of needs including handguns, Tasers, vests and a four-wheel drive vehicle that could be used for inclement weather. Hovis said she is looking into obtaining grants for the vests, some of which are set to expire soon.

Interim Fire Chief Marshal Moore and Deputy Chief Josh Smith told the board their two main priorities are to have enough staff that would provide adequate weekend fire coverage and develop a capital outlay program to replace vehicles.

Smith said the fire station has staff from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, but on the weekends it’s hard to get volunteers who are available. He said the problem is that volunteers are working full-time jobs and are spending time with family during the day. However, those same volunteers are more available later into the evening or night.

Both Moore and Smith said they’d like to see more available personnel on the weekends. Smith said if the fire department has less than four responders at fire and medical calls, in the eyes of the state it’s like not responding at all, which could in turn affect the department’s ISO rating. Medical calls do not count against a station’s ISO rating.

There have been fire calls with inadequate response and medical calls with no response because the volunteers were not there, Smith said.

Grants

The board heard from Allen Hart, area director of U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, regarding opportunities for loans and grants. Since the town is considered to be in a low-to-moderate income bracket, the town qualifies for a number of business grants, Hart said.

He said opportunities like its rural business enterprise grant program can finance and facilitate development of small, emerging businesses in rural areas like East Spencer.

Almost a year ago, Congresswoman Alma Adams spoke with the town about changing its development classification. The town was looking at changing its designation from metro to rural.

The change could have a positive impact on funding with a commercial developer seeking a loan from a lending agency to have it backed by the USDA.

At the time of the meeting with Adams, East Spencer didn’t meet the federal definition of rural because it was a town that didn’t exceed a population of 50,000, but it was located within proximity to metro areas including Salisbury, Concord, and Charlotte and were not “rural in character.”

Early feedback from Hart indicates the town’s classification may now meet the federal definition of rural, essentially paving the way for potential business developers to get loan backing from the USDA.

Hart suggested the town start by setting priorities, specifically where they want development, how they plan to get development, etc. He said the funding will be there.

“The grant funds are limited, but there are grant monies,” Hart said.

He added there would not be an unlimited supply, but if the board began by setting their priorities then USDA could certainly work with them to provide grant funds.

This would provide jobs and economic opportunity, Hart said, which is a good place for USDA to spend money.

“East Spencer has missed economic opportunity (in the past) and we are focusing our efforts on helping you with economic opportunities,” Hart said.

Last year, the town received a USDA Special Evaluation Assistance for Rural Communities and Households (S.E.A.R.C.H.) grant that will look at its sewer/water system to include looking at alternatives of operation and the current structure.

Partnerships

Salisbury Fire Chief Bob Parnell gave the board examples of how other local fire departments work together to get better fire coverage including Concord, Kannapolis and Harrisburg fire departments who work together, but keep their management separate.

Parnell pointed to the Greensboro Fire Department, which has taken over coverage of Guilford College.

He suggested sitting down to discuss with other local departments to see how they could help each other.

“Few departments can do it themselves,” he said.

Parnell said these partnerships could also help East Spencer better their ISO rating, which is a priority for the town.

Working with other departments could mean the fire departments could potentially share personnel, equipment and training.

As the meeting drew to a close, Rhodes asked each board member to create a list of goals for the coming year. The list was compiled and then the board divided that list into its top priorities.

Mallett noted that many of the items on the list were part of last year’s goals, including the rehabilitation of Royal Giants Park. Improvements at the park have already been in the works for sometime including adding picnic shelters and securing funding for upgrades.

The top goals for the coming year are:

• Replace public works equipment

• See that the zoning/planning department is more active

• Increase full-time public works positions

• Look into other water resources, i.e. wells

• Get weekend fire protection

• Improve fire ISO rating to at least four (one being the best)

The board also wants to find businesses for the Gateway area, find a way to increase the population, improve and beautify Long Street, and get a new fire station, to name a few.

Contact reporter Shavonne Walker at 704-797-4253.

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