On March 15 voters across the state will decide whether or not the state should invest in a $2 billion bond package for a slew of projects all over North Carolina. The Connect NC bond package includes funding for education, parks, safety, recreation, and water and sewer infrastructure.
Proponents of the bond say the increased economic activity spurred by those improvements coupled with low interest rates and good debt ratings would mean the state can make much needed investments without having to raise taxes.
Opponents argue that if the state is going to take on debt it would be more fiscally responsible to do so to improve roads, which is what the bond package was originally designed for.
If voters approve the bond on March 15 what does it mean for Stokes County? A whole lot of money for park improvements and the expansion of the Forsyth Tech campus in Meadows.
The bond includes $2,100,000 in funding for Hanging Rock State Park, $4,481,850 in funding for neighboring Pilot Mountain State Park, and $5,809,410 for Forsyth Tech of which approximately $800,000 has been earmarked for expansion of the new Stokes County campus.
The initiative also includes $309,500,000 in funding for water and sewer grants across the state.
How would funding be spent at Hanging Rock State Park?
Friends of Sauratown Mountains (FSM) President Jay Young said the $2,100,000 earmarked for Hanging Rock State Park in the bond package would almost entirely be used to renovate the Vade Mecum property which was transferred to the park in 2014.
“There is a very long list of repairs and upgrades to bring the facility up to state standards,” he said. “Some of the stuff on the list are required upgrades to bring it up to code, some are renovations to bring the buildings more in line with the appearance of the rest of the park.”
He said the money included for the park would not be enough to fully reopen the Moore’s Springs and Vade Mecum properties, but would go a long way to making them a viable part of the park.
What would Pilot Mountain State Park get?
Bond funding for Pilot Mountain State Park would be used to construct a new parking lot and visitor’s center at the base of the mountain to deal with extreme traffic issues on busy days, as well as to possibly help create some form of shuttle system which could transport visitors to the summit.
“At Pilot, the parking and transportation improvements are just as important as the visitor’s center,” said Young. “What they have talked about is that the shuttle would only run on weekends or other peak times, but it would greatly enhance the staff’s ability to work. Right now the superintendent and his rangers are regulated to being traffic directors on busy weekends.”
Another building on Stokes County’s Forsyth Tech campus?
The new Forsyth Tech campus in the Meadow’s community is still being built, but Forsyth Tech President Dr. Gary Green says if the N.C. Connects bond package passes then the college would quickly work to build an additional building on the site for expanded programming.
He said out of the $5.8 million in funding for Forsyth Tech, the college’s board of directors have decided that $800,000 should be earmarked for the new, additional Stokes County facility. The rest of the bond funding would be used for renovations on campuses in Forsyth County.
“We are looking to spend about 14 percent of the funding in Stokes County,” he said, noting that the board has not finalized any specific plans for the project. “We have been exploring the idea of a technical education shop or building. We want to expand our presence in Stokes County.”
When would these projects happen?
Both Young and Green were quick to point out that no funding was guaranteed for any of the proposed projects, saying the decision to fund them was up to state voters on March 15.
Even if voters approve the bond package, it could be sometime before any funding is released.
“They do not all get released at the same time,” said Young. “It is a long and drawn out process. Some projects will move very quickly and others will take more time. There will be a lot of jostling and lobbying to get projects to the top. FSM will certainly do our part to get Hanging Rock and Pilot to the top, but it is also going to take a little interest from the local governing bodies.”
But Young said he felt both projects had a good chance of being quickly funded if the bond passes.
He said the state was already working on a master plan for the Vade Mecum property and had identified exactly what the funding would be used for making the project largely “shovel ready.” He noted that getting the property reopened as quickly as possible was also important because it had the potential to generate revenue for the park.
“If the bonds pass then funding for that project could possibly be released later this year, but I don’t think any of them would be released prior to July 1,” said Young.
The Pilot Mountain project may be funded a little later, according to Young.
“With Pilot there will have to be plans drawn up, but we are hopeful that one could also move fairly quickly and those funds could be released maybe sometime next year,” he explained. He noted that the Pilot Mountain project was one of the very top priority projects in the state park system.
Dr. Green said expansion at the Meadows campus would not begin until after the college found out what the bond release schedule would be.
“Once we get that then we would move from a general program idea to start looking at the kind of facility that we would want to provide in Stokes County,” he said. “When we know when the bond funds would be available, then we would be able to move ahead with the design phase. We want to be in the position where we could acquire a design service and move forward with the facility as soon as the bonds are released.”
But he said no designs for the facility would be started until the college had gotten feedback from community, area businesses and local leaders.
“We will welcome input,” he said. “If the bonds are approved then we want to talk to our partners in the school system there and talk to other people in the community that can provide some perspective. We want to hear from employers in the area who we would be preparing a workforce for. We would want broad input.”
What happens if the bonds don’t pass
“These are certainly important across the state for community colleges,” said Green. “It helps expand our reach. In Stokes County it allows us to expand on the investment the county is already making and in Forsyth it allows us to do some much needed renovations. It has been long awaited and much needed.”
He did not offer a prediction of when the Meadows campus may expand if the bond package does not pass.
Young said the park improvements could take decades to find funding if voters do not approve the bonds.
“It would definitely be a lost opportunity,” he said. “I suspect the repairs at Vade Mecum would go onto the major maintenance list and over some period of time it would eventually get funded in a piecemeal manner, but it would be a minimum of five or 10 years.”
He noted that during that time repair costs could increase, the state of the facility could further decline, and the park would not be able to generate revenue from the facilities.
A new parking lot or visitor’s center at Pilot Mountain could take even longer.
“That would probably have to go on the capital improvement list which is much harder money to come by,” said Young. “I would dare say that, even though it is one of the most sought after projects from the state parks perspective, it may be a decade before you see that as an option.”
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.