By Charles Petty
Roughly 900 buildings wedged between the old McIver School and Temple Ballpark could be in the spotlight soon for some drastic changes which would in turn dramatically overhaul much of East Sanford in general
That’s per a recent study conducted by the UNC School of Government, the findings of which show East Sanford being in need of economic growth and better stability.
UNC Associate Director for Development Finance Marcia Perritt presented the report to the Sanford City Council in October and pointed to several alarming statistics about East Sanford. Among them: More than 50 percent of the neighborhood properties are considered “distressed,” meaning they have a value of $20 per square foot or less, homes in the area area far older than homes in other parts of the city (62 years in East Sanford versus 41 years citywide), and while the unemployment rate matches the rest of the city’s, the poverty rate in East Sanford is significantly higher than in other parts of town.
Sanford Mayor Chet Mann said those challenges come with some opportunities, particularly the rapid growth of the area and the influx of Hispanic residents, many of whom choose to live in East Sanford.
“Unlike other cities in the country, the people in East Sanford mainly choose to live there,” Mann said. “There is typically a significant exiting in other cities in distressed areas, leaving lots of vacancies. We are exactly the opposite. What the study found was that the folks that live there mainly choose to live there and they could afford better housing if it was improved. So the key there is we have to focus on East Sanford and make it appetizing for investors to come in and work with us to do the redevelopment.”
Perritt’s presentation to the council included a recommendation that could lead to significant revitalization in East Sanford – implementing a tool available via state law called an Urban Redevelopment Area (URA). URA’s, once identified, essentially allow local governments to use special tools to attract private dollars aimed at redeveloping the blighted properties. These tools range from the relatively minor – demolishing dilapidated homes, for example – all the way up to acquiring property via imminent domain.
Most of the tools, however, are things like the installation of site improvements and assisting with financing for those who want to get involved in redevelopment.
“When you are looking at a parcel of 1500 homes or more, you can’t take a bite of that whole apple so you want to find an area that you can take your best bite of and make your biggest impact,” Mann explained. “And so a URA is an area where one identities the most promise. The area we want to focus on is in and around Temple Park.”
One struggle with the use of a URA is keeping housing affordable for low-income families. Families eligible for low income housing tax credits must live within a mile and a half from a grocery store, making much of East Sanford ineligible since the nearest grocery store is the North Horner Boulevard Food Lion – 1.7 miles away.
“The potential worst part (of redevelopment) is possible gentrification,” said City Councilman Sam Gaskins. “You could get lots of people willing to invest into these homes, and we bring it up, and then we lose some affordable housing. That is the most dangerous possibility. However, if you move from substandard housing to standard housing that is a good thing.”
But one underutilized asset East Sanford does have is the aforementioned Temple Ballpark. Some city leaders believe giving Temple a much-needed facelift – potentially transforming it into a green space and/or a community center where residents can gather and enjoy a tranquil public space – could do as much for the neighborhood as anything else, especially since it’s adjacent to the proposed URA.
“Outside investment would be great for this spot, and we’re working with Lee County to improve this park, to bring up a green space and a multi family apartment complex next door,” Gaskins said. “People who are 65 and up, for them, townhomes are especially good. Less maintenance to keep up, and hopefully still affordable. It would work great for the Temple Park area, and it’ll be great to have mixed ages living in these dwellings. Older people will be around during the day which improves community watch, and it helps build generational relationships.”
In the end, Mann said he sees the challenges for East Sanford as opportunities.
“East Sanford was the first neighborhood of Sanford, so we see a lot of opportunity to provide better housing and better amenities for those who live and walk in that area,” he said. “East Sanford is also growing twice as fast as the rest of Sanford, and that is an opportunity we can’t ignore. These families in East Sanford deserve it and we cannot ignore a whole section of our city. Rising tides lift all boats and Sanford is on fire for growth.”