Wednesday, October 27, 2021

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Council votes, 3-2, to rescind grant application after businessman’s objection to median in front of his business

Major thoroughfare would have narrowed lanes, bike path, median

Burlington’s city council has agreed to put the brakes on a federal grant application that city officials originally hoped would give a kick start to a multimillion-dollar plan to redevelop a section of the Maple Avenue corridor.

During a regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday, a majority of the council voted to withdraw an application to the U.S. Department of Transportation that, if successful, might’ve brought in up to $25 million to bankroll the corridor’s proposed upgrade.

 

Original plan had hefty price tag: $46M; some officials hoped feds would chip in

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The federal agency’s subsidy would’ve potentially covered a large chunk of the $46 million-plus that the corridor’s overhaul is expected to cost, based on the estimates of a consulting firm that the city hired to draw up a plan to upgrade and beautify a 2.7-mile stretch of Maple Avenue.

The Toole Design Group, which began work on this plan in 2017, ultimately returned to the council in 2019 with a wide range of potential improvements along the corridor.

Among the highlights of its so-called Renew Maple Avenue Plan are a road realignment near Maple Avenue’s intestate interchange, the construction of several roundabouts, and a conversion of Maple Avenue’s current five-lane configuration to a more boulevard-like, two-to-three lane layout as it approaches the city’s downtown business district.

The council, for its part, made its first bid for funds from the USDOT right after its members signed off on the Toole Group’s proposal in 2019. After the city’s first application was unsuccessful, the council made another request to the federal agency in 2020 – albeit with a similar lack of success.

The council decided to take another stab at a grant from the USDOT earlier this year after city staff members reworked the city’s previous application to reflect the funding priorities of the current Presidential administration.

It wasn’t long after the city submitted this revised request that Burlington’s administrators heard from Sam Hunt, the president of Hunt Electric, about some objections he has to the corridor’s overhaul.

 

Businessman objects to proposed median                                                                      in front of his company located along Maple Avenue

According to a memo that the city’s administrators shared with the council prior to Tuesday night’s meeting, Hunt had expressed particular opposition to a median that the Toole Group had proposed along the section of Maple Avenue where his own company, Hunt Electric Supply, is headquartered. The same memo noted that Hunt had urged the city to withdraw its grant application in light of the project’s potential impediment to traffic.

The city council ultimately spent more than an hour debating the application’s proposed withdrawal when its members first took up the matter during their latest monthly work session on Monday.

It was the transformation of this stretch of Maple Avenue from four or five lanes to just two, including a median to divide the road, that drew the ire of businessman Sam Hunt, whose business is located at 1215 Maple Avenue (near where this illustration was made). Below is how it looked in 2019 when the consultants first made their presentation for transforming the roadway.

The council failed to reach any consensus during the work session despite pleas from Burlington’s city manager Hardin Watkins for a prompt resolution of the application’s fate.
“The worst scenario is that DOT awards us the funds and we decline them,” Watkins informed the council that evening. “That tends to leave a bad taste in the mouth of the federal agency.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, Watkins told the council that the city’s federal lobbyist has assured him that Burlington wouldn’t endanger its future relationship with the USDOT as long as the council acts quickly to pull its current grant application.
“She confirmed that we would be welcome to apply in the years in the future,” the city manager added.

The proposal to nix the grant application received the immediate support of councilman Jim Butler during the council’s discussion on Tuesday. Butler, who is also a candidate for Burlington’s mayor in this year’s municipal elections, said that his biggest qualms with the current application is its exclusion of the part of the corridor that approaches the city’s downtown business district.

“I think we should do something along the corridor,” he told the rest of the council, “But the most important piece, to me, of the entire corridor has gotten removed.”

During Monday’s work session, Butler had also commiserated with Hunt and other business owners who’ve expressed fears about the project’s impact on commerce.

“There’s just some angst over that, and I would like to see the angst go away,” Butler had said at the time. “I don’t want to be tied to a grant on one arm and the angst of the people involved on the other arm.”

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, councilman Harold Owen expressed a concern that the USDOT’s potential subsidy would cover, at most, half of the $46 million to $50 million that the corridor’s proposed makeover is expected to cost.

‘“Could we just step back for a moment and get a clean start for what we want to do on that corridor,” Owen went on to ask, “and put together another request for something that we could functionally get done?”

“I’m disappointed that this is even coming up. I thought when we talked about this several years ago that there was a consensus that we had this vision for the Maple Avenue corridor…I really felt that everybody was on board with the idea that this is what we would do, and we would chip away at it little by little as we came up with the money.”  – burlington city council member kathy hykes

The pressure to withdraw its grant application didn’t get nearly as much traction with Burlington’s mayor pro tem Kathy Hykes.

“I’m disappointed that this is even coming up,” Hykes told the rest of the council on Tuesday. “I thought when we talked about this several years ago that there was a consensus that we had this vision for the Maple Avenue corridor…I really felt that everybody was on board with the idea that this is what we would do, and we would chip away at it little by little as we came up with the money.”

Meanwhile, mayor Ian Baltutis called on the council to proceed with Maple Avenue’s overhaul “sooner rather than later” in order to consummate a plan that he recalled had been drafted with input from “a thousand” area residents.

“The plan that was put together by members of the community represents one of our best efforts so far in civic engagement,” the mayor went on to assert. “Our community truly believed that this council [also] believed in this plan.

“It seems that a small number of people who have influence in our community are attempting to undermine the work of thousands of our residents. I have to share that I had a request made to me by a  campaign donor who asked for the return of their funds if I didn’t some kind of action related to recalling this grant.”

– burlington mayor ian baltutis

“It seems that a small number of powerful people who have influence in our community are attempting to undermine the work of a thousand of our residents,” Baltutis added. “I have to share that I had a request made to me by a campaign donor who asked for the return of their funds if I didn’t take some kind of action related to recalling this grant.”

While Baltutis did not identify the donor who made this request, his campaign finance reports indicate that he has received a contribution from Sam Hunt – as have Butler, Owen, and Burlington’s former mayor Ronnie Wall, who is running for city council this year. In each case, Hunt gave the candidate the maximum contribution of $5,600.

The council ultimately voted 3-to-2 to withdraw the city’s grant application with the understanding that it would revamp its plans for corridor in order to make another go at the USDOT in the future.

The motion to rescind the application passed with the support of Butler, Owen, and councilman Bob Ward, while Baltutis and Hykes voted against it.

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