By Richard Sullins |

If you haven’t been to the downtown area of Sanford recently, it’s worth a trip to see how things are changing for the better. New businesses are being opened by local entrepreneurs in spaces that have been vacant for years and it’s breathing new life into the city’s central district that has an incredibly rich history.

The Sanford City Council gave its approval on February 1 to a memorandum of understanding requesting assistance from the North Carolina Department of Commerce’s Main Street program and the Rural Planning Center to begin a review of downtown ordinances regarding potential bars and the serving of alcohol, event venues, and a social district, all aimed at creating another means of attracting people to the downtown area.

The study, which could be completed in as little as a month, comes at no cost to the city. Sanford’s city ordinances don’t presently offer options for bars or meeting spaces. The result will be a report containing recommendations and options for the council to consider.

Social districts are a new creation of state legislatures across the country in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Contained within House Bill 781, entitled “Bring Business Back to Downtown,” the districts are outdoor areas where patrons can carry open alcoholic drinks in provided to-go cups during certain hours. Sponsors of the legislation say that they provide more options for people who prefer social distancing and being outdoors.

But social districts are not without their detractors. As the bill was being debated in Raleigh last summer, opponents said that they could produce more litter, public intoxication, and threaten public safety. Kannapolis, one of the first cities in the state to adopt its own such district, has reported few problems and more metropolitan areas are lining up this year to create their own.

The Main Street study is the latest in a series of measures aimed at bringing people back to the downtown area. Kelli Laudate, executive director of Downtown Sanford Inc., told the council on January 18 of the success of the RISE program, a collaboration between Central Carolina Community College’s Small Business Center, DSI, and the Sanford Area Growth Alliance.

RISE was designed to give new entrepreneurs the tools and skills necessary for business success. Since the program started in the spring of 2020, four classes of students have graduated, and the number of new graduates has created something of a “success problem.”

Laudate said one of the initial goals of the program was to occupy the vacant buildings and spaces in downtown Sanford. In two years and during a pandemic, the program’s graduates have filled those buildings and created spaces that are contributing to the growing economy. Initially limited to just the downtown area, the council recently approved expansion of the program to the city limits of Sanford so that others could participate. RISE also encompasses the downtown sections of Jonesboro and Broadway.

The program’s numbers speak for themselves. Fifteen new full-time jobs and 13 new part-time positions have been created by its graduates. It has also resulted in the virtual elimination of vacant inventory space in the central business district. Laudate said a developer recently purchased six of the vacant large department store buildings in the downtown area and it’s likely these will be split into parcels soon to larger numbers of smaller retails spaces. Renovations to these properties will begin in the next few weeks.

And there’s more.

Last summer, a new wireless internet option became available in portions of the downtown Sanford area, thanks to a partnership between the city, Lee County Government, and DSI.

“Open Sanford” is available to persons visiting or working in the area bordered by Gordon Street on the west and Cole Street to the east, and extending from Horner Boulevard along its southern boundary northward to the old Sanford Buggy Company parking lot just off Chatham Street.

The network began operation in 2018 and is now nearly complete. The first phase of the project is operational and providing wi-fi service through line-of-sight infrastructure, which can be expanded without the need for digging up streets or stretching new cable runs.

Cumnock changes approved

The council gave approval to a rezoning request from developer Mark Lyczkowski to take 14 acres in the Village of Cumnock Conditional Zoning District previously designated as Highway Commercial and Office and Institutional and add it to the residential area. The land involves two tracts on the west side of Cumnock Road and north of the 421 Bypass that also adjoin Deep River.

Residents adjacent to the area have continued to express concerns about the overall Cumnock Village project and how it might impact the character of the Cumnock community. Lyczkowski said that he had reassessed the project and no longer believed that the project needed 56 acres of commercial property within its boundaries.

Residents had also raised worries about the amount of storm water runoff that 56 acres of asphalt could generate, leading Lyczkowski to reduce the amount of commercial space down to 42 acres. An additional discovery of a quarter acre graveyard in the center of the proposed commercial district was another factor in the reduction in area of the commercial zone.

Lyczkowski said that finding the graveyard is serendipitous because it allows it to become a part of a community of townhouses that will serve as a transition between the commercial sector and single-family housing.

Housing Authority vote controversial

The council makes dozens of appointments each year to several boards and commissions and while these occasionally generate some interest, they are rarely controversial. But what should have been a routine appointment to the Sanford Housing Authority generated strong difference of opinion between Council members Charles Taylor and Chas Post.

Two persons – Kat DeLee and Tamekia Dowdy – had submitted applications for appointment to a seat on the Authority’s board because long-time member Hope White had recently moved out of the city limits, which is a requirement set by the council for appointees to the SHA board. White, who had expressed interest in continuing to serve, had been chair of the board for several years and her term of service was longer than those of the other members combined.

The issue had been discussed at the council’s workshop on November 9 when SHA’s executive director, Shannon Judd, had requested that the city change its appointment rules to allow two people living outside the corporate limits to apply because of their interest in the work of the board, but no action has been taken by the council to this point. Taylor insisted that the matter had been resolved at the November meeting and couldn’t understand why it was being discussed again.

Post opined that the city’s code of ordinances should be revisited on this issue because it requires citizens to be a resident at the time of their initial appointment but is silent about what happens after that.

“The code of ordinances doesn’t say she has to be kicked off. It ain’t clear and it needs to be clear,” Post said.

Taylor was unconvinced, questioning whether White’s purchase of a home outside the city limits was timed to influence her potential for reappointment. He also wondered about the impact of waiving the policy on appointing board members on the receipt of federal funds.

“Will this affect any federal money coming in? I value her work there but right is right and wrong is wrong,” he said.

The vote was close, with three members voting to waive the policy and reappoint White and two members supporting DeLee.

Additional COVID leave approved

At its January 18 meeting, the council approved a request from City Manager Hal Hegwer for a one-time sick leave of up to 80 hours for city employees who have either contracted or been exposed to COVID. The initial leave plan was made retroactive to November 1, 2021.

Hegwer requested a change in the retroactive date, adding an additional five months and making it effective on June 1, 2021, to accommodate a larger grouping of employees who had suffered when the Delta variant struck in the fall. The council unanimously approved the change and will continue to monitor the progress of the virus through the community during the winter months.