By Cash Michaels
The five candidates for the Raleigh City Council District C currently held by appointed Councilman Eugene Weeks all want the best for the growing, predominately black area. But Tuesday night, during the nonpartisan candidates forum sponsored by Wake Up Wake County, the North Carolina Center for Voter Education and the Wake County League of Women Voters, it was clear that despite their collective lack of experience in city government, they all had different visions for the future of the predominately black area.
One candidate even felt that if the Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Center, which is to house Raleigh’s police, fire and emergency communications departments for the entire city, is ever built, it should be in Southeast Raleigh on Martin Luther King Blvd. to “help lower crime” there.
That candidate lives in predominately-white Heddingham, not Southeast Raleigh.
During the two-hour forum held at Fairmont United Methodist Church in West Raleigh, the five candidates - Corey D. Branch, Shelia Jones, Paul Terrell, Councilman Weeks and Racquel Williams - gave their views on how to create jobs for Southeast Raleigh’s low-income population; whether, if elected, they would support construction of the controversial $200 million Lightner Public Safety Center; support a public referendum for half-cent sales tax increase to improve transportation; push to upgrade the district’s aging water and sewer infrastructure: promote healthier lifestyles in Southeast Raleigh; and encourage young people to get more engaged in voting and the political process.
The special challenge for whomever wins the District C seat on Oct. 11th (unless there is a November runoff) - carrying forward the fight to bring more business opportunities and economic development to Raleigh’s poorest district; more affordable housing; and enhanced public safety services to further reduce crime.
Corey D. Branch, an engineer and manager of Network Support at AT&T, grew up in Southeast Raleigh, graduated William G. Enloe High and is an alumnus of NC A&T University Class of 2000. Bringing about better economic development, and citizen collaboration on important issues are his goals for District C.
“Until we start working together, nothing will improve,” he says.
Branch says one way to bring more jobs to Southeast Raleigh is to work with struggling businesses already there, helping them improve and grow, thus increasing employment. Branch is fully for attracting more economic small business development to the district as well, involving residents to the process. Branch agrees that in order to facilitate growth, District C’s aging water and sewer infrastructure must be upgraded, as do all of the candidates.
Regarding the long stalled construction of the Lightner Public Safety Center - stalled by City Council since last year because of its hefty price tag, and design concerns that the 17-story structure housing police, fire and emergency communications services would be too vulnerable to terrorist attack - Branch says if elected, he would have to review the costs and design feasibility, and he would want the police, fire and communications departments at the table to further weigh-in.
Branch says he regularly engages young people on both St. Augustine’s College and Shaw University campuses on topics ranging from engineering to voter registration. He also believes that that a healthier Southeast Raleigh is one where children eat better food prepared by their parents, as when he was a young man, and they have good recreational fun.
Rev. Shelia Jones, who vied to be appointed to the vacated District C seat when Councilman James West left last October, only to lose to Eugene Weeks, says job training, gentrification and improving public transportation are her top issues as a candidate.
Rev. Jones said Southeast Raleigh residents need to undergo retraining, and have their skills redirected in order for them to take advantage of any new jobs developed there. Rev. Jones, who mentors students through her nonprofit agency, raised terrorist attack concerns with centralizing the city’s key public safety services in the Lightner Center, and recommended a “sufficient and suitable plan” of protecting those services before she could support moving forward.
As District C councillor, Jones, a Shaw University alumna, would work to make sure district parents are better educated about healthier foods for their children to combat obesity.
Paul Terrell, a self-described “compassionate conservative,” ran for the state House District 33 seat last year, losing to Rep. Rosa Gill. He lives in the upper-middle-class, predominately white Heddingham section of District C, but says if elected, he would represent the entire district.
His top issues are improving transportation, lowering the city’s debt, and increasing public safety.
Terrell said if elected, he would work with business and community leaders, the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, and local community colleges, among others, to help develop and attract more jobs to District C. He, too, said that more job training was needed.
On the Lightner Public Safety Center, Terrell said there were “too many problems,” with "location and financing” being just two of them. He suggested putting the matter to a public referendum to determine whether it should be funded with bonds.
Terrell then complained that city officials were, “…picking some of the most expensive real estate in the city of Raleigh to build this place. Why can’t they build it where it’s needed? Let’s say parts of Southeast Raleigh…Martin Luther King Blvd. If they can find the real estate suitable, that would be the perfect place for it. The best visibility helps lower the crime rate.”
“If we have police in the area,” Terrell added, “We’ll have less crime.”
While Terrell agreed that children should be educated early about proper fitness and eating healthier, he warned that that wasn’t the role “ of the nanny state,” and that people should be allowed to “live their own lives.”
Councilman Eugene Weeks, who is finishing out the unexpired term of former Councilor James West, says he deserves a full two-year term in office to build on the experience he’s already received, and the service he’s already rendered. His top issues are public transportation, small business development and youth initiatives.
To develop more jobs for Southeast Raleigh, Weeks says he wants to further evaluate what is needed to spur business growth, help provide greater access to business loans for small businesses, and work to create skills and training centers.
Councilman Weeks was fully supportive of the Lightner Public Safety Center - named by the Raleigh City Council in honor of the late Clarence E. Lightner, the city first black mayor - even before he was appointed to the council. He says with the old Raleigh police headquarters closed down, and officers in temporary facilities spread throughout the city, he believes that the design plans can be modified and the center built more cost effectively.
Weeks says several community organizations and nonprofits, including the Hargett Street YWCA, area churches and the Southeast Raleigh Assembly, are already promoting healthier eating and physical activities throughout the district.
And regarding getting young people more politically involved, Weeks credited students at St. Aug’s and Shaw University campuses for their past political activities. He suggested that high schoolers could be better shown how to become more involved.
Racquel Williams, a small business owner, also vied for the District C appointment last October. She has been a community advocate for 13 years. Economic development, capital investment, and crime and public safety are her top issues.
Williams wants to use Shaw and St. Aug’s as “community resources” to help those with criminal histories be rehabilitated and trained for meaningful work and opportunities. She calls this “Hustleman University,” and believes this will help spur economic growth in Southeast Raleigh.
Regarding the Lightner Public Safety Center, Williams told Paul Terrell that his was a “really good answer’ regarding locating the facility in Southeast Raleigh. She feels the council was “getting a little out of hand with the money that we were spending” on the center, objecting to the $200 million projected cost of construction. Williams said she was “ a little disappointed” with the lack of public opinion on the center (even though the issue generated lots of public comment, and even a demonstration for it by the black community over a year ago).
Williams also suggested breaking down the plans for the Lightner Center in laymen’s terms so that the public can better understand it.
Per promoting healthier eating and lifestyle in District C, Williams says there should be more recreational after-school programs in the community, and more outlets that sell nutritious foods to those on public assistance.
Williams criticized District C’s traditionally low voter turnout, and said more must be done to engage young people in the political process, like citizen advisory councils (CAC). She also suggested modernizing participation through technology so citizens who can’t participate physically, can still be plugged in.