Hafeena Ali-Martinez said she was not surprised to learn that the Murchison Road corridor is one of the poorest in the state.
Ali-Martinez, who owns University Dollar Store in Bronco Square on Murchison Road, said she’s seen the poverty firsthand.
As she paused to hold back tears, Ali-Martinez recalled a time when a mother accompanied by her four young children laid change on her counter and started counting it, hoping there was enough to buy a half-gallon of milk. The coins came up short.
Ali-Martinez went ahead and gave her the milk.
“I said, ‘Don’t worry about it,’” she said.
City officials say they have long been aware of the poverty problem in the Murchison Road corridor and are trying to do something about it. They call the corridor their “top priority.”
Census data shows that four tracts abutting Murchison Road have incomes that are far below most others in the state.
For example, tract 24.01, which extends several blocks west of Murchison Road and has Pamalee Drive on the south and Interstate 295 on the north, has a per capita income of $12,842 a year. That makes the tract the 67th poorest census tract in the state out of the 2,169 that have income data.
Last week, consultants presented a preliminary report to city officials with suggestions for creating private-public partnerships to bring new development to the city’s eight “Opportunity Zones.”
Opportunity Zones allow investors to reduce or eliminate the bill for capital gains taxes. The concept is that investors get federal tax breaks, while the neighborhoods get new businesses and upgraded properties.
The Murchison Road corridor from Rowan Street to Country Club Drive is one of eight Opportunity Zones in the city.
“We have taken a comprehensive view (of the zones),” said Walter Davis, who is leading the consulting team that is putting together a development plan for the city’s Opportunity Zones. Davis is a founding member of Peachtree Providence Partners in Charlotte, which helped provide language in 2017 that was used in the federal Opportunity Zones law.
The consultants, who were hired by the Fayetteville/Cumberland County Economic Development Corporation, say they have been proactively marketing the zones to investors.
“Investors have looked at the entire area that we are going to propose a (development) strategy around, and it includes the Murchision Road area,” Davis said.
He said the question that should be answered out of this process and ultimately the prospectus that will come out for investors is: “Where do you suggest public investment or public-private partnerships that energizes the private investors to come in for a true transformation in the community?”
Davis said the consultants have also been talking to leaders in the community about what types of development they would like to see along the Murchison Road corridor.
“We think that there is an opportunity to begin to create the type of energy that I think our council and the mayor and citizens are looking for,” he said. “We’ve talked to business people. We’ve talked to millennials. We’ve talked to developers. We’ve talked to clergy. We’ve talked to a lot of folks and pretty extensively.”
Davis said a developer has not yet made a specific proposal for a new project in the Opportunity Zones, but he said it’s too soon for that anyway.
“You have to have a plan, at least a well-identified plan, a strategy,” he said. “Otherwise, chaos can ensue when it’s one-off kind of activity that occurs. We want it to be thoughtful.”
Mayor Mitch Colvin, who grew up in the Murchison Road corridor and whose family owns a funeral business there, said low incomes are one reason the City Council has made the revitalization of the corridor such a high priority.
“The Opportunity Zone consultants will come back to (the council) in January with their findings and a plan of execution, which we haven’t had,” Colvin said. “I’m excited about the things they say that they’ve uncovered. They have been working with Fayetteville State (University) as well as the urban planners that we have working to come back with some information.”
Colvin said the city needs to find a way to help existing businesses expand and to help create businesses in the opportunity zones that will be supplying Fort Bragg with products and services.
“We, unlike many other communities, are not capturing enough of that money,” he said. “It leaves our community. We talked about (creating) incubators to help businesses that do business with government.”
City officials hope the Opportunity Zone program and other initiatives will help benefit the Murchison Road corridor, a five-mile stretch from Rowan Street to Interstate 295. It is one of the older black corridors in town. City officials say the corridor has been neglected over the years and have made its revitalization a top priority.
Robert Van Geons, chief executive of the Fayetteville-Cumberland Economic Development Corp., said there is definitely a growing interest among investors to take advantage of the Opportunity Zone program in Fayetteville.
“We have had an increased interest in people building projects here in downtown and Fayetteville and the Opportunity Zone consultants have brought some investors in and will be bringing more into town to look at potential deals here,” he said. “It is definitely something that is picking up interest. But it’s also only one part of our story, and I think that’s a very positive story with the transformation of downtown and the overall economic activity we are seeing in Fayetteville and across Cumberland County.”
There are other factors keeping incomes down along the corridor, officials said. Councilman D.J. Haire, who also lives in the corridor, said a number of retirees on fixed incomes contribute to the area’s poverty.
Haire said he’s pleased with how the revitalization is going — slowly but surely.
“We’re doing all we can to get income up (with) all the incentives that we are pushing,” he said. “We’re going to be doing all we can to help highlight the area.”
Other initiatives could also improve the corridor. Councilwoman Tisha Waddell said a program the city is implementing to get working professionals into homes in neighborhoods in need of revitalization might help bring the income numbers up.
Starting next year, the city under the Good Neighbor Next Door program, will dole out up to $20,000 each to 20 Fayetteville police officers to help them buy homes in areas the city is trying to revitalize. Waddell said that, in the coming years, she wants the program expanded to include other professionals, such as teachers and first responders.
“We’re really trying to bring back a sense of community and revitalizing the neighborhoods from an organic perspective,” she said.
Under the national program administered through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, law enforcement officers, pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians can contribute to community revitalization while becoming homeowners. The federal department offers a discount of 50 percent from the list price of the home. In return, the homeowner must commit to live in the property for 36 months as a sole residence.
Aaron Johnson, who is retired after serving for 45 years as pastor of Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church, said the city needs to follow through on plans that have already been developed to improve the corridor .
He said when he was a councilman in the 1970s, the city developed the Mount Sinai housing project and started a housing project in the Cumberland Street area but didn’t follow through.
“I think if we could follow through on some of the studies we’ve had, we could overcome,” he said. “One of the good things about Murchison Road is we do have good infrastructure. The road itself. The land is very good (for building).”
He said he’s elated that the City Council has made revitalization of the corridor a priority.
“The city dropped the ball and we just let it deteriorate, and it continued to where we are at,” he said. “Racism was part of the problem, of course.”
Johnson said another major problem along the corridor is dilapidated homes. He said the people who built them used to care for them, but maintenance was neglected after the homes were passed on to their kin. The relatives rented the houses out, but even the renters left because the houses were not kept up, Johnson said. The city needs to beef up code enforcement to force the owners to repair their structures, he said.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the corridor included many families with soldiers.
“It was primarily the black soldiers’ families that lived in this area,” Johnson said. “They were homeowners. Those older people died and left and the people who took over the houses, those families did not follow through on what the earlier homeowners had started. They didn’t keep the houses up.”
Fayetteville State University student Lelia Gonzalez said the corridor could be improved by adding quality restaurants offering specialized dishes, such as Columbian, Asian and Mexican.
“We are in Fayetteville, which is a mix of culture,” she said. “People like to always go to eat and find good options. This area is close to downtown, so they have more than downtown (to visit).”
She also said a nice cafe where students could read a book and study would be welcomed.
Ali-Martinez, the University Dollar Store owner, said the solution to improving Murchison Road is simple: The city should invest in the corridor just as it has other wealthier areas of town. She said Fayetteville has not hesitated to invest in downtown projects, such as the new Segra baseball stadium, which she said benefits “the big shots.”
“I’ve been here 16 years,” she said. ”(Murchison Road) has been neglected by all the people with the money.”
Burnis McPherson, who has lived in a home in the corridor for 57 years, said the city needs to do more to create jobs along Murchison Road.
“A lot of people are walking around here who are not working, just hanging around,” he said, adding that more jobs could help improve family incomes. “There’s not a lot for these people to do around here,” he said.
McPherson said the city needs to help bring in new housing and stores and beef up code enforcement along the corridor.
“You’ve got a lot of abandoned stuff around here, man, and it’s just deteriorating,” he said. “It’s going down. If you don’t keep up the maintenance on it, it is going to truly be condemned before it’s all over.”
Colvin said the city has been trying to address code enforcement along the corridor.
“We’ve done a number of walk downs and code enforcement,” he said. “I’ve been a big proponent of not only coming in with the stick approach of enforcement but they need to get our community development out on those corridors letting these folks know about these grant programs we have for homeowners and business owners to help improve at least the appearance of (buildings).”