Neighborhood leader: 'ECU pulled rug from under us'
BY Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector
Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Residents who live in the neighborhood next to East Carolina University said they are feeling betrayed after learning of its efforts to move the chancellor’s residence more than five miles away. The former mayor of Greenville said the city feels the same way about the change of direction.
The people who live in the city’s College View Historic District that borders ECU were unaware of any changes in the university’s plans to renovate or expand the chancellor’s residence until last week, when they read news reports about the ECU Foundation’s efforts to purchase a private residence miles from their neighborhood, according to Hap Maxwell, president of the neighborhood association.
On Oct. 17, 2016, several high-ranking ECU administrative representatives met with the board of the Tar River University Neighborhood Association (TRUNA) to discuss and illustrate the university’s plans to purchase properties adjacent to and expand the chancellor’s house, Maxwell said on Monday.
“They explained they would be buying some of the houses around that one to expand parking facilities and make the (chancellor’s) residence more usable for functions,” Maxwell said. “We thought ECU was planning to make a substantial financial commitment to our neighborhood with these upgrades. We were caught totally unaware when we read the Daily Reflector article that said they were planning to buy a house five miles away at Star Hill Farms.”
ECU Foundation President Chris Dyba, who also is ECU vice chancellor for advancement, confirmed last week that the foundation is engaged in efforts to purchase the house at 3100 Kariblue Lane at Star Hill Farms, owned by Greenville dentist Thomas “Rick” Webb and his wife, Karen, for $1.3 million.
Maxwell said nobody from the university has been back in contact with TRUNA members since the October 2016 meeting. He said that he knew of no one connected with the ECU Real Estate Foundation or the ECU Foundation (two separate private entities that engage in financial support efforts for the university) who has spoken with TRUNA officials about the residences.
“Until last week, I thought we knew all there was to know about the plans for these properties,” Maxwell said. “They told us they had been trying to find someone to buy and move the houses around the chancellor’s residence.”
TRUNA members are “very unhappy and disappointed” about the current plans to obtain a residence outside their neighborhood, Maxwell said.
“We weren’t thrilled about the plans to remove houses from the neighborhood to expand the chancellor’s property, but we understood the ultimate goal of preserving the tradition of having the chancellor live on Fifth Street,” he said. “We saw it as their stamp of approval and that ECU was as committed to the neighborhood as we are. Now, we feel like the rug’s been pulled out from under us. We’re wondering when anybody will say a word to us about this.”
As part of ECU’s plans to upgrade and expand the chancellor’s residence at 605 E. Fifth St. the university on May 20, 2015 submitted five Certificate of Appropriateness applications for the demolition/relocation of 601 E.Fifth Street (the Proctor-Yongue House, since removed from the demolition list), 405 S. Summit Street, 407 S. Summit Street, 409 -11 S. Summit Street, and 404 S. Jarvis Street. The applications indicated that the university would search for prospective buyers interested in relocating the houses as a demolition alternative.
By 2017, it became apparent to ECU administrators and trustees that the costs associated with renovating and expanding the residence were becoming prohibitive, Dyba said. Discussions about the project among trustees were inconclusive when the ECU Foundation made the determination to pursue Webb’s offer, he said.
At Monday’s monthly TRUNA meeting, none of the members present said they had any idea that anyone associated with ECU was searching outside the neighborhood for a new chancellor’s residence.
Neighborhood resident Greg Rubel said that the decision to move the chancellor’s residence makes it clear to the people living there that ECU officials believe that the neighborhood’s issues and stresses make it undesirable for chancellors — and all the more reason to keep it there.
“It seems to me that if the house is there, they have to face the fact that these issues have to be addressed and dealt with,” Rubel said. “I understand the need to expand the Dail House to add more space for fundraising, but to move the residence to Star Hill Farms? There was not a word told to us about this and no transparency about it. They handled it extraordinarily poorly.”
Rubel’s assessment matched observations shared by former mayor Allen Thomas, who said he learned of the university’s change of direction through online coverage by Business N.C. No one he spoke to in the current city government and staff was aware of the ECU Foundation’s efforts to purchase a house at Star Hill Farms, Thomas said. He described the university’s handling of the matter as unprofessional.
“When you chip away all the layers, a core question remains: What happens to the neighborhood that just got turned upside down?” Thomas said. “It’s left with huge chunks taken from the tax base without bothering to tell us. We agreed to take this city block out of the historic TRUNA district for one reason. I’m fairly certain the city would not have agreed to change from that to put in offices. The city was sold a bill of goods. If they don’t follow through on their commitment, let them put the properties back on the market.”
Thomas said the university damaged its credibility when it failed to understand its role as holder of the public trust.
“Chancellors, mayors, council members and provosts will come and go, but there has to be a level of good will and trust between the university and the city; otherwise, progress is damaged,” Thomas said. “This has damaged the relationship to some degree, although I’m sure that’s not permanent.
Thomas said he believes a lack of leadership at the university may have led to the process becoming disjointed, with certain people put in charge of particular components.
“When the chancellor (Cecil Staton) made it clear he was not going to live next to campus, it became even more disjointed,” he said. “It’s one thing to make decisions in a vacuum, and another when you have to bring people along.”
Contact Michael Abramowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-329-9507.