Spencer residents, board looking ahead, building on success

Published 12:07 am Sunday, March 12, 2023

SPENCER — More than 80 people participated in Thursday night’s annual planning session for the town, an event last held in 2020, just before COVID quashed in-person meetings.

Mayor Jonathan Williams, who refers to the time period of the last meeting as “BC, before COVID,” said he was pleased with the turnout, given that the last two years have changed people’s attendance habits.

The event was organized and run by Fountainworks out of Raleigh, the same organization that managed the 2020 planning session. Warren Miller and Emily Wilson were on hand to guide those in attendance through the process, and said following the meeting, they would put together a summary of the highlights for the board to review Friday.

Four different break-out sessions were set up, focusing on community outreach and involvement; infrastructure, facilities and properties; improving public safety; and community planning and development. Attendees were asked to choose three for which they wanted to be part of the discussion, and then they were given three 20-minute sessions to meet with leaders and representatives on their chosen topics.

Boards were set up on the walls for each group, and during the discussions, group leaders would write thoughts and ideas on large sticky notes and attach them to the boards. There were three categories — what folks think the town has already done well, what people would like to see more of or improvements to, and what participants see as long-range goals.

By the end of the night, all four boards were well filled with notes, and there was a lot of consistency in what participants were looking for across the focus groups.

Those talking about community planning and development discussed how to help Spencer grow developmentally in both business and residential growth.

“I would like to know if the town plans to do anything like offer incentives businesses to get them to locate here,” said Phillip Pless. “I know we would like the town to see some growth with new residents, and the way to draw them in is jobs, but if we are competing with larger cities, like Charlotte, how are we going to be able to compete to get businesses to come here?”

The town representatives pointed out that there is already good-sized planned growth along the I-85 corridor, with businesses that have already committed, but the question that stood out the most in discussing growth was how to control it, so the growth does not cost Spencer its small-town feel or take away from the history that is currently evident in the community.

Cathy Chipman, 19, said Thursday night was the first time she has ever attended a town meeting, and she was interested in the communication between the town and residents.

“We need to work together,” she said, after listening to the discussion about growth and development.

Youth involvement was a big point of discussion in the community outreach and involvement group.

“What worries me is with the new businesses coming in and bringing young families with children, what are we offering those kids?” asked Linda Miller.

“I’d love to see us offer something the kids could get really involved in,” said John Haddock, who moved to Spencer just a year ago from Jacksonville, Fla. He and his wife chose Spencer after attending WinterFest, and he said he likes the idea of events to get kids involved with hands-on activities. Some towns, he said, have kids paint electric boxes at traffic lights, and others have sidewalk painting, and he suggested finding something that will appeal to today’s youth. The library, which many touched on, needs updating, he said, especially with technology, because “kids don’t read books or papers anymore. They’ll be sitting three feet away from each other and texting and the room will be silent.”

It was not a criticism but a suggestion, he said, in order to meet kids where they are today. Williams agreed that the library is currently under-utilized, though he praised the librarian’s dedication and understanding of youth.

“Libraries have changed, have had to adapt, and ours needs to as well, but we have to find the funding for it,” he said.

Some suggested perhaps the town could hold more events, but Mayor Pro Tem Patti Secrest said “I think it’s more a matter of creating more event awareness for what we have.” She suggested perhaps the town could put together a “newcomers” packet with information about all the events through the year, and it could be available to anyone.

There was also interest in having an informational sign for the town to increase awareness of not just events but of the town’s history, and finding ways to build relationships between neighbors.

“We had some comments about people not coming out to participate in events as much and I think that may be related to another comment we got, which is that neighbors don’t know each other anymore, and it seems that is something people would like to address,” said Town Manager Peter Franzese.

Public safety discussions were lead by Police Chief Michael File and Fire Chief Michael Lanning. One of the things residents mentioned was getting both departments fully staffed, and File said he now has seven patrol officers, bringing the department to a total of 15 on staff with one opening.

“We are both in a much better place that we were just a few years ago, but we are still not quite where we want to be,” said Lanning. Residents praised what they see as an increase in communication between public safety and the public, and made a point of asking for a way to contact police without having to call 911.

“We do have a routine number and if you don’t have it yet, let us know, we’ll get it to you,” said Lanning.

There was also some discussion about how to possibly provide security along walking trails and in places like the Fred and Alice Stanback Educational Forest and Nature Preserve.

In looking at infrastructure, facilities and properties, residents were appreciative of the town’s efforts at improving the 8th Street baseball field, though hope for more use, but there were suggestions like more street lighting for side streets, lower speed limits on side streets, additions of sidewalks around schools and to downtown, and the biggest long-range suggestion was the creation of an actual Parks and Recreation department to oversee all the new additions.

At the end of the night, all those in attendance were given five sticky dots, and asked to peruse all the suggestions in the middle of each board, which represents things folks are interested in seeing the town either improve or take on, and put their dots on the top five specific ideas most important to them. Thursday night, Miller and Wilson would count the ideas and those that received the most votes will be presented to the board as a guide for how the town should consider moving forward.

“Thank you,” said Williams as the evening drew to a close. “Thank you for your time, for your interest, and for being a citizen of Spencer.”