by Danny Hooley
The board of directors for Inter-Faith Council for Social Service will choose Wednesday between building a three-story building to feed hungry low-income people in Downtown Carrboro, or moving it away — but not too far away — from downtown businesses, at 303 Jones Ferry Road.
There's a very good chance the Jones Ferry site will win.
If so, the decision could gall progressive-thinking IFC supporters who know that many business owners in Carrboro would prefer it that way. Worried about the lingering presence of the "chronically homeless" (even though they'd actually make up a tiny portion of clients), about sixty of them made that clear this past November with a petition to the Board of Aldermen.
IFC Director Michael Reinke says he understands business owners' concerns. But he also understands the feelings of local supporters who want it downtown. IFC has owned the current building at 110 West Main Street since 2003, and much of Carrboro takes pride in its welcoming downtown presence.
"IFC has been talking about 110 West Main Street for like, close to fifteen years," says Reinke. "That's really important to honor."
When the decision is made about the site by the end of the day Wednesday, he adds, it will be based on which one can offer the best, and most services for those who need them.
"It's exploring how we can best represent, and be an advocate for low-income people in Chapel Hill-Carrboro," he says.
The search team included Gordon Merklein from UNC Real Estate Development Office; Annette Stone of Carrboro’s Economic & Community Development; and Aaron Nelson and Kristen Smith from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce.
They were joined by two signers of the petition: Nathan Milian, manager of Carr Mill Mall; and Laura Van Sant of Main Street Properties
The resulting prospect is an undeveloped plot with about 1.3 acres of usable land at 303 Jones Ferry Road, near OWASA. The owner is listed as “Longview Group et al and Christopher C. Howlett,” and the tax value is $342,315.
Based just on cost and potential for usable space, 303 Jones Ferry looks like the winner, so far. Building a proposed new three-story building at 110 West Main Street would require including a twenty-one-space parking area at the ground floor, plus a courtyard for those taking public transportation, and an entrance with an elevator and stairwell.
Reinke says the parking area brings an added cost that 303 Jones Ferry — which would be built on a simple slab — wouldn’t incur.
“When you have a building where the first floor needs to be parking, you end up building a concrete podium over the parking, and then you do construction on top of it,” he says. "We're estimating that to build on 100 West Main Street would be about $4.5 million. And it might be less by as much as ten percent to build at 303 Jones Ferry Road."
The current one-story Carrboro IFC pantry at 110 West Main Street is 478 square feet, plus a storage area of 673 square feet. Reinke and the IFC board would like to build something as spacious as possible to replace it.
"It looks like we could have 8,500 square feet at Jones Ferry Road," says Reinke. "And it looks like we're talking about a footprint of about 7,000 at 110 West Main Street."
It would mean a difference between around 800 square feet of kitchen space on Main Street, versus, perhaps, 1,800 square feet at Jones Ferry.
Reinke says that extra space "makes it possible to do a robust culinary training program."
And that, he adds, opens the possibility of IFC sending job candidates to restaurants that already donate food to the IFC program.
Other additional room could be used for more refrigeration and freezing space.
"We want to support local agriculture," says Reinke. "Sometimes, farmers have leftover food that they couldn't sell at the Farmers Market. Sometimes, they might have distressed produce that they'd like to sell at a deep discount. Either way, we can't take advantage of that right now, because we simply don't have the space to put it."
The Jones Ferry site also presents challenges. The property is divided by a stream that could change the usable space estimate, when an architectural report is reviewed. That report will also address any ingress and egress issues.
Some bus lines are less accessible at 303 Jones Ferry than at IFC’s current Carrboro site. That's a very important consideration, says Reinke, especially when considering elderly pantry members.
"We're actually doing a survey right now of patrons to the community kitchen," he says, referring to the 100 West Rosemary Street space for sit-down meals that IFC will stop using once the building to be known as FoodFirst is built. That survey will give IFC a real sense of pantry members' transportation methods, and be factored into the site decision.
One bonus of the 303 Jones Ferry site is that IFC could actually hang on to its Main Street property, and use it for some exciting additional programs.
One idea that Reinke mentioned is to create a small-business incubator at 110 West Main for low-income people. Another is to open a grocery store there that provides "really good food for a low price," as he describes it. He bases that idea on The Daily Table, a nonprofit grocery store in Dorchester, MA that provides affordable "grab-and-go" meals with donated food.
"A decision to locate our FoodFirst program at 303 Jones Ferry doesn't mean that we would then be giving up 110 Main Street," says Reinke. "That would be a decision we would need to make in the future."
If 303 Jones Ferry is chosen, that will mean that IFC needs to sell residential neighbors, rather than business owners, on the idea. Whenever the word "homeless" is included in public planning discussions, as IFC has learned, that can be tough.
IFC is already working on it. Recent outreach meetings with neighbors were held at at St. Paul's AME Church.
Responses so far have been "mixed," says Reinke, adding that he understands that some people are concerned about safety. Others just appreciate the opportunity for some dialogue.
"The nice thing for me was the individual who said, 'You know, I really appreciate that you're not just coming in, saying you're gonna do this development. You're asking what our thoughts are, and whether or not it's going to work.'"
Reinke says that, after the decision is announced, IFC will hold a series of community forums, before submitting a conditional rezoning petition to the town, sometime between October and next March.