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Perfunctory hearing elicits critiques of community development program

A pro forma hearing on Burlington’s community development program drew some rather frank feedback from two area residents with concerns about the public’s lack of familiarity with this federally-funded endeavor.

These pointed remarks, which were shared with Burlington’s city last Tuesday (March 19), were themselves a bit of an anomaly for this federally-subsidized program, which allows Burlington to invest in public infrastructure, community services, and affordable housing initiatives in the city’s less-affluent neighborhoods.

That night’s open mic was actually one of several public input requirements that the city of Burlington must meet to receive this Community Development Block Grant, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development distributes to fight poverty and blight in the nation’s metropolises.

Once every year, Burlington and the grant’s other beneficiaries are required to hold public hearings on their proposed outlays for the funds they’re slated to get. In addition, the grant’s recipients also must solicit feedback on their community development strategies and goals, which they’re expected to update once every five years.

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Tuesday’s public hearing was part of the outreach requirement for this five-year strategic plan, which serves as the city’s playbook for distributing the roughly $2 million it stands to receive during this period. As part of this five-year reboot, the city has also staged community meetings, conducted surveys, and scheduled a multi-week comment period that wraps up on April 2.

In previous cycles, the public’s response to these attempts at “community engagement” has been underwhelming at best. Nor has the reaction been markedly better this time around, despite the efforts of Michael Blair, a consultant with the Piedmont Triad Regional Council with oversees Burlington’s community development program on the city’s behalf.

Prior to Tuesday’s public hearing, Blair briefed Burlington’s elected leaders on his ongoing struggles to sound the public’s impressions of the city’s next five-year plan.

“We really do want to get some input on this,” he assured the city council that evening. “We’ve had two public meetings here in Burlington. We’ve had a survey out for over a month. But we haven’t received as many responses as we’d like.”

Blair went on to acknowledge that the first of two community meetings, which took place at the CityGate Dream Center, drew about 15 people, while “half as many” showed up for the second meeting at Burlington’s North Park.

Chadea Pulliam

“How do you determine what’s best [for Burlington’s poorer residents] with just 15 people and 7 people [turning out for the two community meetings]? I think there needs to be another meeting so we can get more people out. . . who understand what the impoverished neighborhoods need. . . We need to get crime reduced so we can get more people to work and more businesses – black businesses – thriving.”

– Burlington resident Chadea Pulliam

This languid public response proved disconcerting enough to rouse a reaction from Chadea Pulliam, a nonprofit organizer who was on hand for Tuesday’s proceedings. Pulliam ventured up to podium as soon as the council opened the floor to the audience and went on to lament the program’s lack of penetration among the very people it’s intended to benefit.

“How do you determine what’s best [for Burlington’s poorer residents] with just 15 people and 7 people [turning out for the two community meetings]?” she asked. “I think there needs to be another meeting so we can get more people out…who understand what the impoverished neighborhoods need…We need to get crime reduced so we can get more people to work and more businesses – black businesses – thriving.”

Pulliam’s concerns were later echoed by Jackie VanHook, a fellow nonprofit organizer who was likewise present for the hearing on Tuesday. VanHook went so far as to offer the council her own assistance should it accede to Pulliam’s suggestion for an additional community meeting.

Jackie VanHook

“I’d like to provide a space for you to hold your next meeting,” she added, “and I will get this community out so you can know their concerns.”

This offer was generally well received by the council, which encouraged VanHook and Pulliam to share their contact information with Blair. In the meantime, Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler assured the two public speakers that the city has done a great deal with the funds it has received in the past, including paying for upgrades to a homeless shelter that the nonprofit Allied Churches operates along Fisher Street.

“This shows just how well the program has worked for the city of Burlington,” he went on to observe before making scheduling note that another public hearing on the five-year plan would take place at the beginning of May.

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